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7,200-RPM terabytes from Hitachi, Samsung, Seagate, and WD face off

Introducing the Barracuda 7200.12, Caviar Black, Deskstar 7K1000.C, and SpinPoint F3

Solid-state disks are easily one of the most exciting new technologies to grace the PC in recent years. The first examples didn't have the capacity or performance to measure up to their exorbitant price tags, but great strides have been made with subsequent generations. These days, you can pick up a 128GB SSD that will easily trounce a mechanical hard drive for round about $350. That's still a princely sum, although the value proposition isn't as questionable as one might suspect.

If you're planning on dropping more than a grand on a new rig, you'd be foolish not to at least consider pairing a low-capacity solid-state disk with secondary mass storage. But what if you're spending less? There are cheaper SSDs that serve up 32 and 40GB capacities for around $100. That doesn't leave a whole lot of room for games or other data on top of a typical operating system and applications payload, though. Besides, for a lot less than $100, you can have your pick of mechanical hard drives that spin a full terabyte of capacity at 7,200 RPM.

We've had terabyte hard drives for years now, and thanks to advances in areal density, the latest examples need only two platters. Those who have been following our storage coverage will know that we have a certain affinity for two-platter mechanical drives. While 3.5" drive makers have stacked as many as five platters over the years, the additional media takes more power to rotate and typically turns up the volume on noise levels. As a result, two-platter drives usually offer the most attractive mix of performance, power consumption, acoustic profile, and overall capacity. Couple that with the lower cost per gigabyte that comes with being a few rungs down on the capacity ladder, and you've found the sweet spot for mechanical desktop storage.

For years, this sweet spot was dominated by Western Digital's 640GB Caviars. Ignited by the original SE16 and capped by an eventual Black variant, WD's last batch of two-platter Caviars boasted an unrivaled combination of exceptional all-around performance and low noise levels. We went on to recommend the drives in scores of system guides and eventually replaced them with the two-platter, 1TB Caviar Black 6Gbps when it debuted earlier this year.

As much as we like the new Black, I have to admit that I'm not as enamored with it as I was with the old 640GB models. The drive's performance is excellent. However, the chattering staccato it plays while seeking is noticeably louder than the muted grinding of the 640GB Caviars. The terabyte Black doesn't make enough noise to be an annoyance unless the rest of your system is already silent, but that's enough of a chink in the armor to make one wonder if a better option exists. The market certainly isn't short on alternatives from which to choose.

Hitachi, Samsung, and Seagate have two-platter terabyte offerings, too. Naturally, we had to find out which one is best, so we've rounded up the 1TB flavors of the Barracuda 7200.12, Caviar Black, Deskstar 7K1000.C, and Spinpoint F3 in an old-school mechanical throwdown. Keep reading to see which of these drives is worthy of the sweet spot crown.

Introducing the contenders
Unlike the solid-state disk market, the world of mechanical hard drives is dominated by two players: Seagate and Western Digital. In the first quarter of this year, those companies split just over 62% of the hard drive market nearly evenly. Hitachi carved itself 17.6% of the pie, while Samsung was stuck behind Toshiba/Fujitsu with less than 10% of the market.

Despite Samsung's meager market share, the Spinpoint F3 has been one of the most hotly anticipated desktop drives of the last year thanks to favorable reviews of the last-gen Spinpoint F1. The F3 spent much of its early life painfully out of stock at the few online retailers that even listed it, but the new Spinpoint seems to finally be available with some consistency. Hitachi's Deskstar 7K1000.C isn't quite as fresh, but it's been widely available for a while now. As you might have guessed, the 7K1000.C represents the company's third-generation terabyte drive to hit 7,200-RPM.

The elder statesman of the bunch is the Barracuda 7200.12, which Seagate released before anyone else was spinning dual 500GB platters at full speed. A premium XT model has since been added to the Barracuda line, but it's only being offered at 2TB with no plans to reach down to lower capacity points, so the 7200.12 has endured for more than 16 months now. That brings us back nicely to the 6Gbps Caviar Black, which is the youngest entry of the bunch, having popped onto the market just a few months ago.

Limiting our focus to two-platter, 1TB, 7,200-RPM mechanical hard drives makes this about as much of an apples-to-apples comparison as you're going to get in the storage world. As you've no doubt deduced, each drive has an even terabyte of storage capacity spread across two platters rotating at 7,200-RPM. The Barracuda, Deskstar, and Spinpoint also have 32MB caches and 3Gbps Serial ATA interfaces. Western Digital offers a step up in both categories, equipping its latest Caviar Black with 64MB of cache and next-gen 6Gbps SATA connectivity.

  Spindle speed Interface speed Cache size Areal density Total capacity Warranty length Price
Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.C 7,200 RPM 3Gbps 32MB 352 GB/in² 1TB Three years $70
Samsung Spinpoint F3 7,200 RPM 3Gbps 32MB NA 1TB Three years $70
Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 7,200 RPM 3Gbps 32MB 329 GB/in² 1TB Three years $75
WD Caviar Black 7,200 RPM 6Gbps 64MB 400 GB/in² 1TB Five years $95

The value of those upgrades is probably dubious at best. For years, Western Digital downplayed the benefit of larger caches, and it only put 32MB into the latest VelociRaptor. The extra cache shouldn't be a hindrance. Besides, it's the only part of the drive with a shot at exploiting the 6Gbps interface. The Black's platters can only sustain transfer rates up to 126MB/s, according to WD's data sheets, so they can't saturate a first-gen 1.5Gbps SATA link, let alone the 3Gbps interface used by the others. Unsurprisingly, when we reviewed the Caviar earlier this year, its 6Gbps interface wasn't much help. The fact that all of today's test data was collected using a 3Gbps SATA controller shouldn't unfairly penalize the Caviar.

Although all four drives stack two 500GB platters, the media itself differs slightly from one manufacturer to the next. The key measure here is areal density, which is usually expressed as the number of bits squeezed into each square inch of surface area. A higher areal density allows the drive head to access a given amount of data over a shorter physical distance, enabling faster sequential transfers. There's a catch: the more tightly the bits are packed, the more difficult it becomes to seek out individual data points. That's likely why so many drives offer great sequential throughput but mediocre random access times.

Maintaining its streak of one-upmanship, the Caviar Black has a higher areal density than the rest at 400 Gb/in². That's a substantial advantage over the Deskstar 7K1000.C, which packs only 352 gigabits into every square inch of platter real estate. The Barracuda 7200.12 slots in below the Deskstar with an areal density of 329 Gb/in².

Samsung hasn't published the areal density of the platters in the Spinpoint F3. We've asked the company's representatives for additional details several times now, but thus far all we've been told is that the platters pack 500GB each. For a two-platter terabyte drive? Ya think?

When you line them up, the Caviar Black has the edge on every front except one: price. The extra scratch buys spec sheet bragging rights for your next forum flame war, and more importantly, an additional two years of warranty coverage. You'll pay $20 less for the 'cuda and save a cool $25 with Deskstar and Spinpoint—sizable discounts given the fact the cheapest options will set you back just seventy dollars.

With the best specs of the lot, the Caviar is the obvious favorite. Besides, it has a hefty price premium to justify. The pressure is off the other contenders, which are nicely poised for an upset thanks to much lower prices. Without further ado, let's make our way to the proving grounds to see how these drives stack up.