Seven 2.5-inch mobile drives compared

It’s a rare thing in this industry to be potentially on the verge of a paradigm shift, as a stream of consistent, impressive, but nonetheless incremental upgrades to a given technology runs out of road and is overtaken by an entirely new way of doing things. Such will one day be the case with electric and hybrid motors supplanting internal combustion engines in cars. Maybe. Right after they start to fly.

Some would argue that we’re on the brink of a dramatic shift in the storage world. Mechanical hard drives that store data on platters spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute have reigned here for decades, and today’s finest are technical marvels of microscopic mechanics. But can they stand up to flash-based solid-state drives riding the tidal wave that is Moore’s Law?

Solid-state drives have recently become more prominent on the mobile front, where their low power consumption and robust shock tolerance are clear advantages over the mechanical monarchy. Densities are up and prices are falling, too, allowing for budget models that won’t have you pondering auctioning off a kidney. The latest mechanical mobile drives are hardly dinosaurs, though. Perpendicular recording has done wonders, enabling the latest 2.5″ disks to spin an impressive 320GB at 7,200 RPM, with 16MB of cache riding shotgun—that was a well-equipped 3.5″ desktop drive a couple of years ago.

The obvious questions, then, are how these two competing storage technologies stack up and which is right for you. In search of answers, we’ve rounded up seven 2.5″ mobile drives, including SSDs from OCZ, Samsung, and Super Talent, and traditional mechanical drives from Seagate and Western Digital. Read on for the enlightening results of this battle between machines and memory.

Meet the new boss?

Unlike mechanical hard drives, solid-state offerings store data on flash memory chips—the same sort of silicon you’ll find inside USB thumb drives, only much faster. In SSDs, multiple chips are tied together by a controller, which drive manufacturer Super Talent says is actually the biggest determinant of overall performance.

The solid-state approach has numerous benefits, perhaps the most striking of which is a near-instantaneous seek time. Memory chips don’t have to overcome the rotational and mechanical latency associated with spinning platters and drive head movement, so they aren’t easily flummoxed by random access patterns. A lack of moving parts also makes solid-state drives nearly impervious to physical shock and vibration, in addition to allowing them to operate in complete silence. And let’s not forget that memory chips require much less juice than do spinning platters, which gives solid-state drives an edge in the power consumption department.

So far, solid-state drives sound pretty sweet, but there are some drawbacks. Capacity and price are huge constraints, conspiring to give SSDs a much higher cost per gigabyte than traditional hard drives.

The life expectancy of flash storage has been a major concern, as well. Flash memory cells can withstand an unlimited number of read operations, but there’s a ceiling on the number of write or erase ops they can tolerate. Multi-level cell (MLC) NAND flash stores two bits per cell and is good for 10,000 write-erase cycles. This memory type is often used in budget SSDs, and you’ll find it in the Super Talent MasterDrive MX we’re testing today. Single-level cell (SLC) flash stores only a single bit per cell, and its tolerance for write-erase ops grows by an order of magnitude to 100,000 cycles. SLC memory is found in the OCZ and Samsung drives in this round-up.

Of course, the number of write-erase cycles isn’t exactly a clear indicator of a drive’s lifespan. Super Talent has come up with its own endurance spec that makes better sense of the numbers. This spec estimates drive lifespan based on 50GB of write-erase ops per day, which for the 60GB MasterDrive MX results in an expected lifespan of just under 33 years. Thanks to their use of SLC memory and slightly higher storage capacities, the OCZ and Samsung SSDs should last over 350 years with 50GB of write-erase ops per day. For most applications, then, longevity shouldn’t be an issue, even for MLC drives.

In fact, solid-state drive makers claim their drives are more reliable than mechanical counterparts thanks to the absence of moving parts. All three of the SSDs we’re looking at today have a Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF) rating of at least a million hours, and the Samsung and OCZ drives are rated for up to two million hours. However, despite this apparent enthusiasm for longevity, SSD warranty coverage is a little lacking. You only get a single-year warranty with each of the drives we’re looking at today, which looks pretty stingy next to the three-year warranties that are standard with most notebook drives, not to mention the five years of coverage you get with Seagate drives and premium models from other manufacturers.

In all fairness, we should note that not every SSD is plagued by a short warranty. Super Talent has SLC-based drives that come with three-year warranties, and OCZ just announced a line of budget “Core” drives that will be covered for two years. OCZ says its 64GB Core drive will sell for only $259, but it’s not available just yet.


OCZ SATA II

Samsung FlashSSD

Super Talent MasterDrive MX

Maximum external
transfer rate
300MB/s 300MB/s 300MB/s
Maximum sequential read
rate
100MB/s 100MB/s 120MB/s
Maximum sequential write
rate
80MB/s 80MB/s 40MB/s
Average seek
time
0.1ms 0.1ms 0.1ms

Capacity
64GB 64GB 60GB

Idle power
0.32W 0.32W NA
Read/write power 0.41W 0.41W NA
Mean Time Between
Failures (MTBF)
2,000,000 hours 2,000,000 hours 1,000,000+ hours

Warranty length
One year One year One year
Street price

We don’t yet know which manufacturer will be behind the Core line, but if our pictures haven’t already made it clear, the OCZ SATA II is essentially identical to the Samsung FlashSSD. OCZ hasn’t done anything to tweak the memory chips or controller, despite its expertise in the field, which makes the SATA II’s $100 price premium over the FlashSSD a little curious. The OCZ drive does come with a $100 mail-in rebate, if you feel like rolling the dice and waiting a couple of months to make up the difference.

Of course, both the Samsung and OCZ drives cost significantly more than the Super Talent. But they have a better balance of read and write speeds, offering 100MB/s for the former and 80MB/s for the latter. The MasterDrive is heavily biased toward read performance, where it can apparently manage up to 120MB/s. Writes, however, top out at just 40MB/s. For what it’s worth, Super Talent says it has a new firmware revision for the MasterDrive that doubles write speeds. Users can’t, er, flash drives with the new firmware themselves, but if you send your MasterDrive to Super Talent, they’ll do it for you. This new firmware is apparently shipping on all new MasterDrives, as well.

While we’re talking about the MasterDrive, it’s interesting to note that it offers only 60GB of storage capacity rather than the industry standard 64GB. Super Talent says that SSD makers often overstate the capacity of their drives, failing to account for unusable portions reserved for wear leveling and bad bit management. When formatted in Windows XP, the MasterDrive 60GB yields 60,463,996,928 bytes, or 56.3GB. However, the OCZ and Samsung 64GB drives format to 64,017,317,888 bytes, or 59.6GB. So the MasterDrive’s usable capacity is a little lower, then.

Platters keep on spinning

Flash may be the next big thing in the storage world, but hard drive makers aren’t ready to give up on spinning platters just yet. Mechanical designs may not be able to match SSD seek times, but on the capacity front, the traditional model blows flash out of the water. A 64GB SSD just doesn’t look that impressive next to a drive that packs 320GB into the same form factor. And when you’re in the market for storage, capacity is rather important.

Seagate is an elder statesman in the mobile world, with fourth-generation 5,400-RPM and third-generation 7,200-RPM Momentus drives widely available on the market. Western Digital, on the other hand, is a relatively new player, having only been in the mobile space for a couple of years. Like Seagate, WD has drives at 5,400 and 7,200 RPM—the Scorpio Blue and Black, respectively. Some hard drive makers also offer 2.5″ models with spindles spinning at 4,200 RPM, but they’re painfully slow and generally only available in base configurations from notebook vendors. You’d do well to avoid them.


Seagate Momentus 5400.4

Seagate Momentus 7200.3

WD Scorpio Blue

WD Scorpio Black

Maximum external
transfer rate
300MB/s 300MB/s 300MB/s 300MB/s

Sustained data rate
58MB/s 80MB/s NA 100MB/s
Maximum buffer to
disk
data rate
100.75MB/s NA 106.25MB/s NA
Average seek
time
12ms NA 12ms NA

Spindle speed
5,400RPM 7,200RPM 5,400RPM 7,200RPM

Capacity
250GB 320GB 320GB 320GB

Cache size
8MB 16MB 16MB 16MB

Platter size
125GB 160GB 160GB 160GB

Idle acoustics
2.4 bels 2.3 bels 24 dBA 25 dBA

Seek acoustics
2.6 bels 2.5 bels 26 dBA 28 dBA

Idle power
0.2-0.6W 0.21-0.75W 0.85W 0.95-2.0W
Seek power 2.0W 2.3W 2.5W NA
Read/write power NA 2.1W NA 2.1W
Mean Time Between
Failures (MTBF)
NA 500,000 hours NA NA

Warranty length
Five years Five years Three
years
Five years
Street price

Drive manufacturers are rarely consistent when it comes to which performance specifications are published, so it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions based on claimed data rates, especially when there are such large discrepancies between sustained and maximum speeds. Curiously, neither Seagate nor Western Digital publish seek times for their 7,200-RPM drives, yet both offer up seek times for their 5,400-RPM models. Fortunately, we can measure seek times and transfer rates ourselves, and we will in a moment.

However, before diving into our benchmark results, there are a few predictions we can make based on the basic drive characteristics detailed above. Seagate’s Momentus 5400.4, for example, is likely to be overmatched here. The drive’s 125GB platters have a lower areal density than the 160GB platters found on the other drives, which gives the drive head access to less data over the same physical distance. The 5400.4 is also stuck with an 8MB cache, while the rest of the drives have 16MB of memory on board.

So the 5400.4 isn’t likely to be the quickest drive in the bunch, but it does benefit from the five-year warranty that Seagate extends to all its internal hard drive products. Western Digital’s Scorpio Blue is only covered for three years, although as the company’s premium notebook model, the Black gets five years of coverage. Longer warranties don’t necessarily guarantee better reliability, of course, but you’re at least entitled to a replacement drive for longer.

While we’re discussing reliability, it’s worth noting that only Seagate publishes a Mean Time Between Failure rating for its mobile drives, and then only for the Momentus 7200.3. The drive is rated for an MTBF of 500,000 hours, which falls well short of the SSDs we’re looking at today.

Because the moving parts inside mechanical drives are prone to damage from physical shock, both Seagate and Western Digital employ mechanisms to move the drive head off the disk during idle periods. This capability isn’t available on the Momentus 5400.4, but on the 7200.3 it’s coupled with a free-fall sensor that can retract the drive head in just 0.3 seconds. Western Digital plans to offer a version of the Scorpio Black with a free-fall sensor, also, but it’s not available just yet.

What about the best of both worlds?

There are clearly benefits to both the solid-state and mechanical approaches to notebook storage. If only a disk existed that combined the best of both worlds: high-capacity platters paired with a fast-seeking flash cache. A hybrid, if you will.

Hybrid drives were hyped a couple of years ago when it was revealed that Windows Vista would support such configurations. However, now nearly a year and a half after Vista’s launch, hybrid drives are few and far between. Seagate does have a hybrid Momentus 5400 PSD listed on its website, but the drive has only 256MB of cache, a maximum capacity of 160GB, a relatively slow 1.5Gbps SATA interface, and a pokey 44MB/s internal data rate—hardly impressive specs. A next-gen Momentus hybrid is expected later this year, but there’s no word yet on what we can expect from it.

Our testing methods

All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged, using the following test system.

Processor Pentium 4 Extreme Edition 3.4GHz
System bus 800MHz (200MHz quad-pumped)
Motherboard Asus P5WD2 Premium
Bios revision 0422
North bridge Intel 955X MCH
South bridge Intel ICH7R
Chipset drivers Chipset 7.2.1.1003
AHCI/RAID 5.1.0.1022
Memory size 1GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Micron DDR2 SDRAM at 533MHz
CAS latency (CL) 3
RAS to CAS delay (tRCD) 3
RAS precharge (tRP) 3
Cycle time (tRAS) 8
Audio codec ALC882D
Graphics Radeon X700 Pro 256MB with CATALYST 5.7 drivers
Hard drives

OCZ SATA II 64GB
SATA

Samsung FlashSSD 64GB
SATA

Super Talent MasterDrive MX 60GB
SATA

Seagate Momentus 5400.4 250GB
SATA

Seagate Momentus 7200.3 320GB
SATA

Western Digital Scorpio Blue 320GB
SATA

Western Digital Caviar Scorpio Black 320GB
SATA
OS Windows XP Professional
OS updates Service Pack 2

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

WorldBench overall performance
WorldBench uses scripting to step through a series of tasks in common Windows applications. It then produces an overall score. WorldBench also spits out individual results for its component application tests, allowing us to compare performance in each. We’ll look at the overall score, and then we’ll show individual application results.

Score one for solid-state storage—sort of. While the Samsung and OCZ drives race out to the lead in WorldBench, Super Talent’s MasterDrive languishes well off the pace in last place. And it’s not just that the MX is the slowest drive of the lot, but that it’s a full 15 points shy of its closest rival.

The mechanical drives are closely matched here, with only four points separating the fastest from the slowest. Interestingly, WD’s Scorpios are faster than the Momentus drives, regardless of spindle speed.

Multimedia editing and encoding

MusicMatch Jukebox

Windows Media Encoder

Adobe Premiere

VideoWave Movie Creator

The OCZ and Samsung SSDs maintain the lead through WorldBench’s multimedia editing and encoding tests, although they’re really not that far ahead of the fastest mechanical drives. The Scorpio Black proves to be the quickest mechanical drive through these tests, with the rest lining up behind it according to spindle speed.

Once again, the MasterDrive MX is at the back of the pack. In some tests, it’s only a few seconds behind the slowest mechanical drive. However, the MX trails by a greater margin in the Movie Creator test, and it’s significantly slower than the rest of the field in Adobe Premiere.

Image processing

Adobe Photoshop

ACDSee PowerPack

Scores from WorldBench’s image processing tests are pretty close, although the solid-state OCZ and Samsung drives don’t maintain their dominance here. The MasterDrive is competitive in the Photoshop test, but with ACDSee, it’s more than three times slower than the rest.

Multitasking and office applications

Microsoft Office

Mozilla

Mozilla and Windows Media Encoder

WorldBench’s office and multitasking tests don’t give the drives much opportunity to show off. The MX doesn’t trail the pack by a huge margin here, but it’s still the slowest drive of the lot.

Other applications

WinZip

Nero

These are WorldBench’s most disk-intensive tests, and it shows. The OCZ and Samsung SSDs come out ahead, and they have a huge lead in the Nero test. But as fast as flash is with those drives, it doesn’t do much for the MasterDrive MX, which is significantly slower than even our 5,400-RPM mechanical drives.

Among our traditional hard drives, Western Digital’s Scorpios have a definite edge. The Black has a healthy lead in the WinZip test, and the 5,400-RPM Blue manages to beat Seagate’s 7,200-RPM Momentus in both WinZip and Nero.

Boot and load times
To test system boot and game level load times, we busted out our trusty stopwatch.

Solid-state storage again proves its worth in our boot and load time tests. As one might expect, OCZ and Samsung have a comfortable lead. This time around, however, the MasterDrive manages to beat the mechanical drives. It’s not quite as quick as the SATA II and FlashSSD, but these tests rely heavily on read performance, so the MX does reasonably well.

Among our mechanical drives, the Scorpio Black is emerging as the one to beat. It’s just a hair slower booting Windows than Seagate’s 7,200-RPM Momentus, but faster loading both of our games. Between 5,400-RPM contenders, the Scorpio Blue easily outpaces the Momentus 5400.4.

File Copy Test
File Copy Test is a pseudo-real-world benchmark that times how long it takes to create, read, and copy files in various test patterns. File copying is tested twice: once with the source and target on the same partition, and once with the target on a separate partition. Scores are presented in MB/s.

To make things easier to read, we’ve busted out our FC-Test results into individual graphs for each test pattern. We’ll tackle file creation performance first.

The OCZ SATA II and Samsung FlashSSD are supposed to be the same drive, but their performance isn’t always identical, as evidenced by the results of our file creation test with the Install workload. In fact, solid-state storage isn’t even a clear winner here. The Scorpio Black is the fastest drive overall, and the Blue fares pretty well, too. Seagate’s Momentus drives are a big disappointment, with the 7200.3 often slower than the Scorpio Blue. Both, however, are much faster than the MasterDrive MX, whose relatively slow write speeds severely hamper its file creation performance.

The MasterDrive’s read bias pays dividends when we switch to FC-Test’s read, er, tests. Here, the MX has the highest transfer rates with three test patterns, and it places second and third with the remaining two.

Solid-state storage has a big advantage with the Programs and Windows test patterns, which are made up of large numbers of small files. However, the 7,200-RPM mechanical drives fare reasonably well with the ISO test pattern, which consists of a small number of very large files.

Between mechanical offerings, the Scorpios again come out looking superior to their Momentus counterparts. The 7200.3 does come out on top with the ISO test pattern, but whatever allows it to perform so well with large files appears to constrain its performance with smaller ones.

FC-Test – continued
Next, File Copy Test combines read and write tasks with some, er, copy tests.

Copy tests combine read and write operations, and that sends the MasterDrive to the back of the pack again. The battle between machine and memory is closer here, with the Scorpio Black mixing it up at the front of the pack with the SATA II and FlashSSD. Again, the Momentus 7200.3 proves to be the best equipped to handle extremely large files, but it can’t catch the Black otherwise. The Momentus 5400.4 does, however, prove to be more competitive with the Scorpio Blue in these file copy tests.

FC-Test’s second wave of copy tests involves copying files from one partition to another on the same drive.

When data is split between different partitions, the mechanical drives fall behind their solid-state counterparts across each test pattern. Not even the 7200.3 can make up the difference with the ISO test pattern, although it’s not far off the lead.

iPEAK multitasking
We’ve developed a series of disk-intensive multitasking tests to highlight the impact of access times and command queuing on drive performance. You can get the low-down on these iPEAK-based tests here. The mean service time of each drive is reported in milliseconds, with lower values representing better performance.

Multitasking stresses random access performance, so it’s no wonder the OCZ and Samsung solid-state drives come out on top through this first wave of iPEAK workloads. The MasterDrive doesn’t fare that poorly, either, just as long as the workload doesn’t include file copy operations, which expose the drive’s weak write performance.

Among our mechanical marvels, the 7200.3 makes up some ground on the Black, registering quicker service times with each workload. Even the 5400.4 manages snappier performance than the Blue with a couple of test patterns, but once you throw a VirtualDub import into the mix, the Momentus falls way behind.

The results from our second batch of iPEAK workloads shake out much like those from the first. Nothing can touch the SATA II and FlashSSD here, and while the MasterDrive is occasionally close, it chokes when asked to copy files.

Turning our attention to spinning platters, the Momentus 7200.3 again proves quicker than the Scorpio Black. And the 5400.4 is again faster than the Blue, at least with workloads that avoid a VirtualDub import.

IOMeter – Transaction rate
IOMeter’s multi-user workloads aren’t particularly applicable to notebook environments, but with many rackmount servers switching to 2.5″ drives, these tests are more appropriate than you might think.

That’s what we call complete and utter dominance. The OCZ and Samsung SSDs crush the mechanical competition here, and with the web server workload, which is made up entirely of read operations, even the MasterDrive lays down a beating. The MX doesn’t look so hot with IOMeter’s other workloads, though.

If we just consider our mechanical results, the Scorpios are quicker than their Momentus competition with each workload. More striking, however, is the 7200.3’s failure to scale performance until we hit more than 32 outstanding I/O requests. That makes the drive even slower than its 5,400-RPM cousin.

IOMeter – Response time

The SSD smack-down continues when we look at IOMeter response times, which are much lower for our solid-state flash drives. Even the MasterDrive gets in on the action, but then only with the read-dominated web server workload.

Western Digital’s Scorpios prove to be the most responsive mechanical drives here, as the Momentus 7200.3 continues to struggle with IOMeter’s demanding multi-user loads.

IOMeter – CPU utilization

With much higher transaction rates than their mechanical competition, it’s no surprise to see the SSDs consuming more CPU cycles here. However, even with the web server test pattern, where SSDs scored their most lopsided victory, CPU utilization doesn’t drift beyond 7%.

HD Tach
We tested HD Tach with the benchmark’s full variable zone size setting.

The MasterDrive’s read performance in HD Tach’s sequential transfer rate test trumps that of the OCZ and Samsung SSDs, but again, write performance proves to be the MX’s Achilles heel. The SATA II and FlashSSD offer much more balanced performance, and they top our mechanical drives in both the sustained read and write speed tests.

Given its strong performance with FC-Test’s ISO test pattern, we’re not surprised to see the Momentus 7200.3 turn in such impressive sustained read and write speeds in this HD Tach drag race. The Momentus has a healthy lead over the Black, but the 5400.4 and Blue are pretty close.

Flash memory may be quick, but it’s not as fast as the DRAM caches on our mechanical drives. That’s why you see the SSDs lumped at the bottom of our HD Tach burst speed results, while the Momentus 7200.3 streaks into the lead. Curiously, the Scorpio Blue’s burst speed is much slower than that of the Black and the Momentus 5400.4.

Of course, this mechanical victory is short-lived. HD Tach’s random access time test is up next, and there’s no touching the solid-state drives. Interestingly, the MasterDrive is just a bit slower than the SATA II and FlashSSD, although it’s still more than an order of magnitude faster than the mechanical drives.

Among our plattered contestants, the Scorpio Black has the quickest access time, followed closely by the Momentus 7200.3 and 5400.4. The Scorpio Blue sits in last place, more than millisecond behind.

CPU utilization results are within HD Tach’s +/- 2% margin of error for this test.

Noise levels
Noise levels were measured with an Extech 407727 Digital Sound Level meter 1″ from the side of the drives at idle and under an HD Tach seek load. Drives were run with the PCB facing up.

Our SSDs register 42.6 decibels here because that’s the ambient noise level of the rest of the system from only 1″ away. The drives themselves are completely silent. Mechanical drives are not, however, and spindle speed proves to be the determining factor at idle. Under a seek load, the Scorpios prove quieter than both Momentus drives, likely thanks to their use of Western Digital’s IntelliSeek just-in-time actuator delivery mechanism, which allows the drive head to move less violently and yet still arrive in time for the next data point. Only a fraction of a decibel separates the mechanical drives’ seek noise levels, though, so they’re all pretty close.

Power consumption
For our power consumption tests, we measured the voltage drop across a 0.1-ohm resistor placed in line with the 5V line (mobile drives don’t draw power from the 12V line) connected to each drive. Through the magic of Ohm’s Law, we were able to calculate the power draw from each voltage rail and add them together for the total power draw of the drive.

Power consumption is an important consideration for notebooks, and SSDs prove their worth yet again. Well, the OCZ and Samsung drives do, anyway. Both register significantly lower power draw than our mechanical drives at idle and while seeking. The MasterDrive’s seek power consumption is also lower than that of the mechanical drives, but it draws about the same amount of power at idle.

On the mechanical front, Seagate looks to have an edge at both 5,400 and 7,200RPM. What’s interesting, though, is that the 7,200-RPM drives from both camps draw less power under load than their 5,400-RPM cousins.

To put things into perspective, the average laptop draws somewhere around 15W at idle. The small differences in power draw between mechanical drives aren’t likely to translate to significant longer run times, but dropping in a SATA II or FlashSSD will probably buy you a noticeable boost in battery life

Conclusions

Are solid-state flash drives really ready to take the reigns from traditional mechanical storage? There are two components to this question, the first of which is whether solid-state storage is fast enough to take on the speediest mechanical drives on the market. For the Samsung FlashSSD and OCZ SATA II, the answer is an emphatic yes. These identical drives delivered great application and multitasking performance, quick transfer rates, instantaneous access times, and a jaw-dropping multi-user IOMeter performance. And they did so while consuming very little power and not making a sound.

There’s more to the equation than just performance, though, which brings us to the all-important value component. Samsung offers better value here, with the FlashSSD selling for $100 less than the otherwise identical OCZ. But at $800 online, the FlashSSD 64GB is far from affordable; it’s more than four times the cost of the cheapest mechanical drive in this round-up for just one-fifth of the capacity. That works out to an atrocious $12.50/gigabyte.

If you want to get into solid-state storage on the cheap, the MasterDrive MX offers a much more attractive $6.58/gigabyte. The drive still only packs 60GB, though, and while it’s quick to read, slow write speeds have a detrimental impact on its overall performance. The MX’s power consumption isn’t as low as we’d hoped, either.

I can see using the MasterDrive in read-only environments where shock tolerance and silence are important, but we’ll have to see what Super Talent’s updated firmware can do before passing final judgment on this drive. The Samsung FlashSSD has more appeal, or at least the same sort of appeal as an exotic sports car. It’s very fast, no doubt, but not by enough of a margin in day-to-day use to justify the huge price premium. Still, one can’t deny the FlashSSD’s performance, and if price is no object, we’d recommend the drive over the OCZ SATA II if only because it costs $100 less. OCZ really needs to rectify that price discrepancy, and with more than just a mail-in rebate.

Despite all the hype surrounding solid-state storage, we’ve seen today that traditional mechanical hard drives are still the way to go for most folks. Of the four we tested, the Momentus 5400.4 is our least favorite. With relatively low-density platters, the drive didn’t have much of a chance, even with its five-year warranty. If you’re looking for an affordable notebook drive, the Scorpio Blue is a much better bet. The Blue is a good all-around performer and it’s occasionally faster than the Momentus 7200.3, which is quite a feat. And with a street price of just $110, you get 320GB for just $0.34/gigabyte.

The Scorpio Blue should be fast enough for most users, but if you want to give your laptop’s storage subsystem a little extra oomph, the Momentus 7200.3 and Scorpio Black are both good options. Unfortunately, the Momentus has a bit of a split personality. The drive’s performance with large files and sequential transfers is excellent, and if all we used to test hard drives was HD Tach, it’d easily be the winner. However, despite scoring well in our multitasking tests, the 7200.3 really drags its feet when moving around smaller files—something we do often. Given the drive’s IOMeter results, we suspect Seagate is fiddling with command queuing in order to improve performance with sequential transfers—a strategy that appears to be costing them in more than just multi-user server benchmarks.

Western Digital Scorpio Black 320GB
July 2008

While the Scorpio Black can’t quite match the Momentus’ prowess with sequential transfers, it doesn’t slow down with smaller files. The Black is quicker in WorldBench, too, and it was faster in our game level load time tests while remaining competitive under multitasking workloads. Where Seagate has specialized, Western Digital has created a better all-around performer—and one that costs $5 less that the same 320GB capacity point. We’d rather have a drive that offers good overall performance than one that oscillates between fast and slow depending on the workload, which is why we’re giving the Scorpio Black our coveted Editor’s Choice award.

Comments closed
    • Fastbreak
    • 11 years ago

    Thanks a bunch for the review! It came *just* in time to support a choice I was making and a few of the arguments to do so.
    1 – 5400RPM or 7200RPM; according to the stories, in real day-to-day usage the difference is really significant! So the premium for higher RPM is worth it.
    2 – power usage; 2,0W or 2,5W is not going to seriously impact how long the battery lasts.
    3 – heat; well… I live in a temperate climate, so that’s not much of a consideration.
    4 – sound; I’m using a Tecra S3 which is (somewhat??) noisy, so the HDD will not produce more than the fan.
    5 – testresults such as they are: it *seems* that the Scorpio Black (320GB) has a (slight) edge over the Seagate, but I’ve read tests with the opposite results as well.
    I’ve owned both Seagates, Western Digitals and Deskstars (3,5 inch all) and each seems reliable, but *all* have failed on me one time or another (catastrophic, needing replacement).

    *IF* the Seagate was available, I would have to think longer, now I can go with what’s for sale and tops the scores here. Either way, it’s going to outperform my present Toshiba 100GB/5400RPM/SATA1 …. I hope 🙂

    • Saber Cherry
    • 11 years ago

    I like the graph color-coding. Big, bold, distinct bars. Good job!

    • bowman
    • 11 years ago

    What on earth?

    P4, ICH7?

    Should at least test with an ICH9 board, if not ICH10. Would be nice if you could do that and post an update if there’s a difference..

      • Dissonance
      • 11 years ago

      I disconnected the optical drive completely for the boot time tests. Normally, the optical drive is connected, but empty.

        • impar
        • 11 years ago

        And makes so much difference?

          • Dissonance
          • 11 years ago

          Those were the boot times we measured, so yes.

          • eitje
          • 11 years ago

          once we’re talking about boot times, we’re including more than just HDD access. there’s bios initialization, as well as boot order. if the system initializes a optical drive, then tries to boot from it on startup, that could certainly add several seconds to boot times.

            • impar
            • 11 years ago

            Ok, then.
            Its just that I have all my system to boot directly from HD.

            Anyway, what is the point of having the same platform for HD reviews if the results arent comparable between different reviews?

            Might as well do the reviews in a up-to-date system and forget the old 955/P4/1GB/X700 system.

            • eitje
            • 11 years ago

            i can’t disagree there. Seems strange to change the methodology but – eh – I’m not running the tests or the site! so. 😉

          • UberGerbil
          • 11 years ago

          Hang up during device initialization take a huge part of total boot time. That’s why coming out of hibernation isn’t as fast as you would expect. In fact if you include things like networking in “device initialization” it probably represents the majority of the total boot time. Part of the problem is that the devices get initialized sequentially, so delays in one don’t get covered by progress in another.

      • indeego
      • 11 years ago

      They should use whatever the drive manufacturers use, for clarity and consistency. I agree the industry needs to move forward, because the discrepancy is only getting widerg{<.<}g

    • Krogoth
    • 11 years ago

    Those server-related testing suites prove why SSDs are going to render high RPM HDDs obsolete once GB/$$$ ratio becomes more reasonable and reliability proven for business to adopt them.

    BTW, excellent, thorough review Geoff. Do not let the sumo crush you again. 😉

      • eitje
      • 11 years ago

      it didn’t crush him, it crushed his hand model.

      as for him crushing it… he covered that in the review. 😉

    • FroBozz_Inc
    • 11 years ago

    Great review. As usual.

    Part of me wants to see what RAID0 or RAID5 arrays with SSD’s would be like. Then I think about how much it would cost and it gets a lot less exciting. Certainly the writing is on the wall for traditional HD’s. It’s a matter of when, not if they will eventually replace regular HD’s.

    Considering how much more complicated HD’s are compared to SSD’s you’d think that sooner or later economies of scale should kick in and the price should fall dramatically?

    It’s fun to think about what “hard drives” will be like when it’s ALL SSDs. Will the 1.8 or 2.5″ format prevail? Will it be something much different?

    Will holographic memory ever get more real ala minority report and 2001?

    • swaaye
    • 11 years ago

    These things are just so stunningly faster than what is in the EeePCs. Yeah those mininotes contain “SSDs” but the write speed is so abysmal (drops to ~400KB/s on the smallest files) and read speed is, at max, 30MB/s with a UDMA66 link. The machine literally pauses for a few seconds when working on small files.

    It’s a strange thing, because for other operations they can be very snappy with their decent read rates and near-instant access times. Loading game levels is very quick, but saving a game can take 5 seconds, something that doesn’t even have a delay when you are running on a HDD. Been playing Unreal on it and seeing that.

    They are more like cheap flash sticks than the SSDs that got reviewed here. Of course, I suppose that the cost of the hardware is the obvious difference.

      • d2brothe
      • 11 years ago

      Heh…well considering some of the SSDs cost twice, almost three times what the first Eee cost, its not surprising.

    • barich
    • 11 years ago

    I’m disappointed to not see Hitachi’s 7200 RPM drive in this review. Hitachi has always outperformed Seagate in 2.5″ 7200 RPM drives, and I would have liked to see how WD managed to do against the leader.

    • 5150
    • 11 years ago

    Oh man, where was this a week ago! I couldn’t find any reviews on the Scorpio Black but I took a chance. Glad I made the right decision!

    • StashTheVampede
    • 11 years ago

    Benchmarks are great for comparison, but what about the subjective tests of using the laptop under real use? Did you notice apps opening faster, overall snappy response times, etc?

      • indeego
      • 11 years ago

      benchmarks are a far better way to go with this. even if SSD’s shave a few seconds per application, you have to look at the big picture: how many seconds in a year does it shave?

      I have three HP 2510p laptops with SSD’s and the difference isn’t noticeable from other systems I use, other than noise. I didn’t have a benchmark tool, and even if I did I don’t have regular HDD’s to test and compare. One difference: When I wiped the systems using DBAN (quick option,) the estimated time for completion was over 24 hours, where normal HDD’s are 1-2 hoursg{<.<}g Great article. This affirms that we will stick with SSD's for our laptops from now on, even given the cost.

      • UberGerbil
      • 11 years ago

      Unless they’re done truly blind (the testing user doesn’t know what drive is in the machine) I don’t trust subjective tests. It’s way to easy to fool yourself into thinking you see what you expect to see, or to magnify differences that you otherwise wouldn’t notice (or might not even exist).

    • leor
    • 11 years ago

    I’m glad to see the 320gbs getting cheaper and faster. Solid state looks interesting, but it has a ways to go before the loss of size makes up for the increase in speed and decrease of power draw.

    • Corrado
    • 11 years ago

    I’m planning on picking up an MSI Wind and a 32gig Samsung SSD drive to slap in it. Did you happen to weigh the drives and see if the SSD drives are lighter than the mechanical ones or not?

      • UberGerbil
      • 11 years ago

      Your typical 2.5″ mobile HD weighs ~100g, or about 10% of the weight of a 1kg “nettop.” So even a significant reduction in weight in the drive would represent no more than a single-digit percentage in the total weight of computer — ie, you probably won’t notice the difference.

      FWIW, Samsung’s 2.5″ SSDs are listed at 73g, their 1.8″ at 44g.

        • Corrado
        • 11 years ago

        Thanks. I am going from a 5.6lb Dell D620 to a MSI Wind @ 2.2lb. I walk 3-4 miles twice a week when I go into the office, and a 5.6lb laptop is actually REALLY heavy when its hanging off your back for that long. Can’t wait to see the difference. All I do is RDP, VPN, Web, E-Mail, IM and Office apps, so the Wind should be more than enough for me.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 11 years ago

    I wonder how two of the Supertalent MX drives would do in RAID0. That should help the write performance and given the prices it would be twice the GB/$.

    • adisor19
    • 11 years ago

    I have to say that for me, once SSD drives hit 128MB, i will take the plunge. I am not convinced that MLC based flash drives are FAIL. I am really curious what that new firmware will accomplish in terms of performance.

    Diss, do you plan a follow up on that ?

    Thanks,

    Adi

      • wesley96
      • 11 years ago

      The limitation is an inherent trait of MLC chips. A firmware update is not likely to bring significant improvements.

        • UberGerbil
        • 11 years ago

        But MLC tech is improving. Which won’t help the drives already sold, but it’s still a little early to write off MLC as an automatic fail going forward.

      • eitje
      • 11 years ago

      GB, I hope you mean. 🙂

      • Dissonance
      • 11 years ago

      We’ll be following up with updated firmware, and potentially some other budget MLCs.

        • adisor19
        • 11 years ago

        Good stuff.

        Thank you,

        Adi

    • Dposcorp
    • 11 years ago

    Excellent review as usual.

    I guess it all depends on the application the device housing the drive is used for.

    I would guess for most people with a single all purpose laptop, having the largest, fast drive, would be the way to go, as a oppsed to the smaller, fastest drive available. That is not even taking into account the cost factor.

    300+ gigs in a single drive for notebook would be fine by me.
    I would hate to lose 200+ gigs of space for a bit more speed at a much higher price.

    • wesley96
    • 11 years ago

    Solid review and comparison, as expected from TR. Clearly, SLC based SSDs are way to go. I have personally tested several SSD solutions using both SLC and MLC chips for my UMPC and MLC ones were outright unusable. The allure of cheapness was never worth it. If you’re strapped for cash, traditional HDDs are still your pick. If you can indulge in some burning of disposable income, look no less than SLC-based SSD.

    • MrJP
    • 11 years ago

    Nice review as usual, Geoff. If prices and capacities continue to progress at current rates, I can see SSDs taking over the laptop market in the next few years except for the real budget end perhaps.

    One suggestion – it would be useful to have a desktop drive added to the benchmarks to give a sense of perspective. Something like the WD Caviar 640GB that you’ve already reviewed for example, and perhaps the Velociraptor as well. I can easily imagine upgrading to a SSD as a Windows/applications drive in a year or two when the prices have plummeted further, so it would be nice to see how they compare to the best desktop drives.

      • data8504
      • 11 years ago

      I concur. But really, really great review.

      • jwb
      • 11 years ago

      I agree. I tried to eyeball the difference between the Velociraptor and the Samsung FlashSSD on iometer database response times, but it’s too hard to tell the difference.

      I request a logarithmic vertical axis on future response time charts.

    • Prototyped
    • 11 years ago

    g[

      • Dissonance
      • 11 years ago

      Actually, these may very well be the SSDs you see in a rack one day. I’ve had at least one engineer from a major server vendor query me on SSDs based on our coverage of 2.5″ drives.

      Obviously, you’re not going to find a 5,400-RPM notebook drive replacing Savvios, and the like. But 12.5mm bays should hold a 9.5mm drive just fine.

        • brsett
        • 11 years ago

        Emphatically no. We have hoped and hoped that ssd would improve data storage performance in our hpc apps, but modern mechanical disks have large caches and good fetch characteristics. We consistently find better performance by increasing the number of spindles rather than adding SSD tech (our software works around random access performance). The next generation of SSD technology will hopefully provide the performance to motivate us to adopt it. Fast random access would simplify our software considerably, so I hope to see it in the next gen — but others believe it will take pcm to see good performance.

          • UberGerbil
          • 11 years ago

          The one area where SSDs can provide good server performance today is in web servers (particularly if they’re purely serving static pages, and any database access is being done by other machines) because disk I/O tends to be read-only and accesses are short, meaning seeks dominate. Someday file-servers, provided the usage is primarily read-only, will be another but the capacity of today’s SSDs makes that prohibitive

          I have heard of notebook HDs going into blades, though, for power and thermal density reasons, though not for anything that requires disk performance, obviously.

          • jwb
          • 11 years ago

          Using the Fusion-io device we’re seeing database performance from a $2000 PCI card that we normally associate with a $50000 SAS RAID. If you don’t need much space, flash is already kicking disk’s ass, and hard. The days of throwing spindles at your IO bottleneck are gone.

    • tfp
    • 11 years ago

    I might be one of the few that would like to see it but I would have been interested in benchmarks involving of a good size compile/build. From what I have seen the bottleneck is generally disk IO, and it would have been interesting to see what impact these faster SSD drives might have on something like that.

    However good review.

      • UberGerbil
      • 11 years ago

      Yeah, the problem there is that if you have a big linking step with a lot of intermediate files, you end up with a lot of writes which hurts the SSDs more than HDs. It is something I’ve been planning to test for myself, though.

        • tfp
        • 11 years ago

        Right however it should help with accessing smaller files which are being included as includes and for pulling a bunch of object files into a lib or exe. That and with the write speeds near or better then normal drives now at least on some SSD I expect to see some performance improvement in the near future if a machine is switching from HD to SSD.

        I was interested in what the status is now, if you do some testing please post what you find.

          • UberGerbil
          • 11 years ago

          Yeah, I agree with your points, which is why it’s been on my “to do” list for a while. But I’ve been planning on doing a new build this summer so I’ve been putting it off until I get that done (when I’ll have a fresh, up-to-date system to test on).

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 11 years ago

    Man, those SuperTalent performance numbers are downright laughable in some parts. What happened? Is that the cost of multi-bit gates, or is there some other significant hardware departure I didn’t catch?

    Also, I think the true drama was the slugfest between the Momentus 5400 and the Scorpio Blue. These are the only “affordable” hard drives in this roundup (using the term loosely, since I’m unemployed), and so I was paying attention to their performance respective strictly to each other. I was rooting for the Momentus since it was cheaper, and I like Seagate, but when it came down to it the WD Blue won more rounds than the Momentus. I WILL note however, that the Momentus does fair a bit better in the very-important arena of power consumption.

    That said, I would agree with Geoff that the Scorpio Blue is overall a better value than the Momentus 5400 and worth the extra 30 or so dollars…

    …now if only I could find a-hundred-and-ten bucks…

      • continuum
      • 11 years ago

      Supertalent’s MLC cells are not known for good write performance with small cluster sizes– just look at their Pico flash drives, they write at 11MB/sec or so on large clusters but are laughably slow at smaller sizes.

      The Supertalent Masterdrive MX line is clearly not a performance line either, the slow write speeds clearly indiciate what (historically) is very slow random read and random write performance.

      OTOH I’ll take a few of the Mtron 7000’s or the OCZ S-series/Samsung SSDs… only problem is I need at least 128GB for my use, which even a pair of 64GB SSD’s in RAID0 (eeep! well not too eeep! but not my ideal either) is still $1400… OUCH.

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