WD’s Black² notebook drive combines 120GB SSD with 1TB HDD

PC storage is split these days between solid-state and mechanical drives, although the two camps are complementary. SSDs offer blazing performance but are relatively pricey per gigabyte, while mechanical drives boast plentiful storage at much lower prices. The trick is to combine the two, which is fairly easy in desktop systems that can accommodate multiple drives.

Things are more complicated for notebooks, all-in-one systems, and small-form-factor rigs. Many of these machines are limited to a single 2.5″ storage bay, eliminating the dual-drive option—or so we thought. WD’s new Black² “dual drive” stacks a 120GB SSD on top of a 1TB notebook hard drive. The resulting combo measures just 9.5 mm thick, allowing it to slip into standard drive bays.

The Black² isn’t the first product to marry flash and mechanical storage in a single 2.5″ drive. Hybrids, these days known as SSHDs, have long augmented traditional hard drives integrated NAND caches. Those caches generally are relatively small, though, and they’re managed entirely by software or firmware. Users have no control over what gets put in the flash.

On the Black², the SSD and HDD are separate entities. They share a single Serial ATA port, but Windows sees two distinct partitions. Users can put their OS, applications, and performance sensitive-data on the SSD and dump everything else on its mechanical sidekick.

WD really does stack the Black²’s SSD on top of a traditional HDD. Removing the top layer reveals a slim 7-mm drive that looks very similar to WD’s Blue 1TB. This single-platter drive has a relatively sluggish 5,400-RPM spindle speed. It’s a good thing there’s an SSD riding shotgun.

The SSD pairs JMicron’s JMF667H controller with 20-nm MLC NAND. The controller chip is a quad-channel design, so it has half the internal parallelism of the best consumer-grade SSDs. WD claims the SSD can read at up to 350MB/s and write as fast as 140MB/s.

The Black² has only been in my lab since Friday, and its unique configuration is incompatible with some of our usual benchmarks. I did run a couple of quick CrystalDiskMark tests to get a sense of the drive’s performance, though. The SSD hits 420MB/s in the benchmark’s sequential read speed test, and it manages 127MB/s in the write speed test. Compare that to 115/113MB/s for the mechanical portion.

There’s a much bigger performance difference with random I/O. In the benchmark’s random 4KB QD32 tests, the SSD scores 225MB/s for reads and 122MB/s for writes. The HDD is orders of magnitude slower: 1.6MB/s for reads and 1.0MB/s for writes. Friends don’t let friends use 5,400-RPM hard drives without solid-state storage in tow.

Although the Black²’s SSD is listed as a 120GB drive, there’s actually 128GB of NAND onboard. Overprovisioned spare area is responsible for the discrepancy, just like on stand-alone SSDs. The cryptic markings on the flash packages provide little clue as to their origins, but my money’s on IM Flash Technologies. They’re the only provider of 20-nm NAND on the support list for the JMicron controller.

The circuit board attached to the hard drive reveals a Marvell 88SM9642-NMD2 chip. Based on Marvell’s product number conventions, it looks like the chip is a Serial ATA multiplexer, which would make sense given the fact that the Black²’s SSD and HDD elements share the same SATA port. The 6Gbps interface should provide sufficient bandwidth for both components. However, CrystalDiskMark reported lower scores when running on the SSD and HDD simultaneously. Performance evidently suffers when the Black²’s dual drives are accessed at the same time.

The sharing arrangement also comes with some other limitations. The Black² presents itself as a 120GB SSD; the 1TB mechanical portion is revealed only after WD’s software is installed. That driver is Windows-only right now (everything from XP on up is supported), and it doesn’t work with storage controllers from ASMedia or Nvidia. Also, users will need an Internet connection to download the software. WD provides a USB key that contains the required download link, but the software should really be included on a proper USB drive. At least the installer is simple to set up.

WD includes a  SATA-to-USB 3.0 cable in the box with the Black², and folks will be able to download a special edition of Acronis’ True Image software for use with it. However, WD recommends doing a clean OS install rather than cloning an existing system onto this drive. “You have to be a pretty advanced user” to successfully clone an OS drive, the firm says, and it adds that imaging manufacturer-installed recovery partitions wont work at all. I haven’t attempted any cloning myself, but installing Windows 8 on the drive was a breeze.

Since my time with the Black² has been short, I’m hesitant to say too much about its performance. However, my initial impressions are positive. Windows feels very responsive running off the SSD. Applications install quickly, and load times are short. It’s a lot like using a full-blown SSD. The Black² is nearly silent, too. And it has five-year warranty coverage.

There’s just one catch: WD is charging $299 for the thing. For that much, one can buy a terabyte notebook drive and a larger 256GB SSD. The Black²’s 120GB flash capacity could be matched for about $100 less. Those configurations would require a second 2.5″ bay or an expansion slot like mSATA or M.2, of course, but the resulting tag teams should be a fair bit faster than the Black².

For systems restricted to a single 2.5″ bay, the Black² has some appeal. That said, traditional hybrids are a much cheaper single-drive alternative. Seagate’s Laptop SSHD 1TB sells for only $120, for example. The Laptop SSHD has only 8GB of flash and is really a different class of product, but its caching implementation still does a good job of accelerating load times. Paying two and half times more for WD’s dual-drive solution is a substantial step up.

WD says it created the Black² in response to SSHD critics who wanted more flash and more control over what goes in it. The Black² certainly addresses those concerns. I just wonder what those critics will think of the associated premium. I also wonder how many systems are actually restricted to a single 2.5″ drive bay. mSATA slots have been around for a while, and the M.2 standard seems to be gaining traction. System makers should be including one of those slots alongside a traditional drive bay.

Just because they should doesn’t mean they do or they will, though. Single-bay configurations exist, and they’re especially common among older notebooks that are ripe for storage upgrades. The Black² allows those machines to enjoy the benefits of a dual-drive setup. Kudos to WD for developing an innovative alternative to SSHDs.

Comments closed
    • christos_thski
    • 6 years ago

    300 dollars for a “value segment” 1TB hdd coupled with a low end ssd? Hard drive makers are really losing their marbles.

    Combine this kind of “innovation” rendered useless by pricing with the overall HDD market stagnation, ever since the floods, and I’m starting to wonder where HDD manufacturers will be, 5 years from now.

    • Stickmansam
    • 6 years ago

    Would be quite interested if it could work right out from the box, had an option to use as cache or separately and did not carry as much of a premium

    • Dezeer
    • 6 years ago

    [s<][quote=""<]This single-platter drive has a relatively sluggish 5,400-RPM spindle speed.[/quote<] Say again. Single 2,5" platter that is 1TB? And the reason that we don't have higher than 1TB in 3,5" size is...?[/s<] Hey Geoff, the drive is in reality two platter disk.

      • Dashak
      • 6 years ago

      Samsung’s 2.5″ [url=https://techreport.com/news/25623/samsung-spinpoint-m9t-is-world-thinnest-2tb-notebook-drive<]2TB Spinpoint M9T[/url<] was announced earlier this month.

        • Dezeer
        • 6 years ago

        Yeah apparently it is still two platter disk, the article is just wrong, so 500GB per platter. And that Spinpoint has platters of 667GB

    • willmore
    • 6 years ago

    If they had used a normal SATA port multiplexer, then this wouldn’t need any special software and Linux support would be free. I wonder what’s unusual about the chip they chose.

    • tbone8ty
    • 6 years ago

    this is a perfect drive for my single drive bay gaming laptop.

    price = bummer

    • Chrispy_
    • 6 years ago

    This is too little, too late.

    Honestly, we were [b<]desperate[/b<] for these when laptops didn't have mSATA slots. If they'd been available two years ago they'd have sold really well. Now, even the entry-level laptops come with mSATA support, making this a pointless drive - and the high price makes it even less desirable.

    • odizzido
    • 6 years ago

    The price aside for the moment, this drive looked really nice…..until I got to the part where it says you need to install drivers for it to work. For windows only. ouch.

    • Sigma0004
    • 6 years ago

    In one word: FAIL.

    explanation: using JMicron anything on a premium product is blasphemy. They’re the slow POSs that everyone knows and loathes.
    –For 300 dollars a combo drive–both sections should be pretty damn zippy [And by that I mean 10K hdd and sdd performance on par with a recent model Ocz Vertex, not something that barely saturates a sata 2.0 (3G) connection. (nominal 350/140MB’s Read/Writes)]

      • stdRaichu
      • 6 years ago

      Well although JMicron have a pretty bad reputation as far as SSD controllers go (such as with the infamous first-gen OCZ drives), the JMF667H in these fairs reasonably well on the spec sheet – it’s meant to be able to near enough saturate the SATA bus if there’s enough flash channels, plus full TRIM and all the rest of it. I doubt it’s in the same league as samsung or marvell controllers for instance, but I doubt it’ll be the slouch the JMF602B used to be.

      The Transcend SSD740 uses this controller but not seen any reviews yet.

      StorageReview have numbers for this drive posted already, the SSD portion will comfortably do 13k 4k random r/w IOPS and latency averages out at about 0.06ms. Not great by modern SSD standards, but not the 5 IOPS and 500ms latencies you’d see from the old JMicrons 🙂

      But yes, the unit as a whole is overpriced.

        • gamoniac
        • 6 years ago

        Yeah, while I didn’t have a great experience with JMicron controller and I think Black2 is way overpriced, this is a good step in the right direction. Besides, it should put some fire under Seagate’s SSHD, which only comes with a paltry 8GB of NAND. Hopefully we will see 32GB or even 64GB NAND upgrade from Seagate. Seagate claims that 8GB is the optimal choice based on their research findings, which I doubt.

      • Flatland_Spider
      • 6 years ago

      Yeah, this really needed to be a 7200rpm drive and a Sandforce controller, since flash caches is what Sandforce controllers were originally designed for.

    • Cosmin.NET
    • 6 years ago

    one word: COMPLICATED!
    i read Anand’s comment today. the western digital guys say they asked the customers and they said that they want control over what happens. i say this is false and taken out of context.

    cons:
    – you see the ssd part and after a windows driver install you see the rest of 1TB… i don’t care much about linux and consoles (i’m a windows/android guy) but this extra step makes it complicated and limited.
    – you have two drives that you have to be conscious of. for regular folks using one normal drive is complicated as it is.
    – both drives are accesed through same port so simultaneos usage will impact performance.
    – the ssd controller is at most mediocre
    – the price is rather high to consider using this

    pros:
    – a single physical enclosure and a single port needed
    – it’s manageable for someone that has a little know-how

    what i think makes sense:
    – single enclosure
    – transparent caching that gets good performance. seagate kinda got it but the amount of cache is too low and the price is too high. i am a geek and still i do not want to mess with two drives to look like one. it’s more convenient to have the caching side transparent and not have to have special drivers, configuration, mantainance etc. the extra driver needed does not seem as a big deal but it is. i want the drive to be seen as a single drive and not have to mess with it besides connecting it, partitioning it, using it.
    – they drive has to work out of the box. it’s ok if i have some control over the caching. don’t mind if config is limited or absent. but i has to work out of the box!
    – either seagate solution with reasonable amount of cache, at least 32gb, maybe 64 or 128. probably 64gb is the sweetspoot now.
    – eiter use a ssd as a cache like intel does. maybe microsoft will implement this so we could use one/several ssd(s) as cache for one/many mechanical drives. using one ssd as cache for one/many disks would be good enough.
    – we have to have write caching also! reading is done usually once and windows does a good job caching reads. caching the writes is done too conservative in some scenarios.
    – great price per gb of space usable. seagate made some good steps but not enough.
    – wd solution simply is niche and needlesly complicated and limited, making it ok in few scenarios but a bad overall solution.

      • Flatland_Spider
      • 6 years ago

      This is spot on. It should be a 1TB 7200HD with a 120GB SSD in front.

      The drive needs to have some API so the OS can flag certain items to be cached, which is really what the people they asked meant, and otherwise it needs to act like an SSHD with it’s own internal caching logic.

    • UnfriendlyFire
    • 6 years ago

    I think I can live without a DVD drive, or at least stick it in an external enclosure. It’s been quite a while since I used one, since all of my driver installations are on a USB drive, most of the university’s software are available online (except for one that I have to install using a CD in the future) and then there’s Steam.

    • NeelyCam
    • 6 years ago

    I’ve been waiting for something like this for years. The price is a bummer, though

      • DPete27
      • 6 years ago

      Agreed, at least the idea is in the retail channel. Now manufacturers can polish it.

      $300 price tag – 120GB SSD – 1TB hdd => $300 – $90 – $90 = $120 premium for pioneer technology….don’t think so WD.

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 6 years ago

    9.5mm thick? What’s the maximum thickness allowed for a PS4? Is it 9mm or 9.5mm ?

      • leor
      • 6 years ago

      Given this is really a 2 drive solution and not 120 gig of cache, would the PS4 even understand how to use this drive? The article says the 1TB partition isn’t recognizable until a driver is installed, and right now the driver is windows only.

        • ssidbroadcast
        • 6 years ago

        Oh duh. I should read the article more carefully I guess. Yeah I don’t think this will work then.

    • tipoo
    • 6 years ago

    Since it shows up as two volumes, I wonder if you could get it set up as a Fusion Drive?

    • HisDivineOrder
    • 6 years ago

    I wish Seagate would enhance their solution with larger amounts of flash. I think they have the right idea, but they’re hobbling it with too small a cache.

    Meanwhile, I think WD gets the amount right for a cache, but winds up totally overpricing it and ignoring required functionality OPTIONS.

    One day, they’ll get it. Or we’ll have moved on to SSD’s by then. I guess, either/or.

    • internetsandman
    • 6 years ago

    The price is unfortunate, given that this is the kind of thing where it’s really your only option for single bay versatility in a laptop. I like it, definitely, I just wonder how well it will sell given the price and the rather niche market

      • My Johnson
      • 6 years ago

      The thickness is unfortunate too. My pseudo ultrabook laptop only fits 7mm thick drives which is why the old school SSD is shoehorned into it sans case (I wrapped the electronics with a folded paper sleeve.)

      • swaaye
      • 6 years ago

      There are other possibilities. Lots of notebooks have mSATA. You can also use one of those optical bay caddies to make a new HDD/SSD bay.

        • Mr. Eco
        • 6 years ago

        Use a 3$ caddy in place of ODD is the best option.

    • dragosmp
    • 6 years ago

    From an Engineering standpoint I think it’s a great solution. If I hadn’t put SSDs in all rigs already I might have considered it for laptops.

    From a consumer perspective I think this may have come too late. For corporate, it may still be a market

      • srg86
      • 6 years ago

      And from a Linux user’s perspective it sucks. I really don’t like WDs method of making SSHDs with “Special software”, Seagate has the right wake to do it, may the drive do the heavy lifting, not the OS.

        • dragosmp
        • 6 years ago

        I think it’s a great achievement from a hardware standpoint: design, integration, execution. As for the software, one must only activate the HDD on a Windows box, then it can be used in *nix.
        In the next revision they could take different directions:
        *seamless SSD caching
        *provide driver for *nix
        …which can be done in pure software or by replacing the sata multiplexer chip with something that does the caching in hardware/firmware.

        Noob question – wasn’t ZFS an option on certain *nix ?

        • Ryu Connor
        • 6 years ago

        Also means the drive is worthless as a console upgrade. WD hinted about this drive a few months ago and my opinion remains the same: storage drives should not require drivers. Last thing I want is a disk drive that can cause a kernel panic.

    • willmore
    • 6 years ago

    I agree with the conclusion, unless you only have *one* slot and *really want* an SSD as well as a spinning HD, this isn’t a very good option. Especially, given the price.

      • My Johnson
      • 6 years ago

      If one only has a laptop as their computing solution I don’t see what the problem is with a 256GB SSD and an external drive — especially with USB 3.0. My laptop is not my sole computing solution, so I get by with a dinky SSD in it, and WiFi anything I need to the external storage on my desktop. This is only acceptable because the laptop only sees very light use (mostly media consumption which comes off the relatively slow Internet anyway.)

        • Flatland_Spider
        • 6 years ago

        The problem with the external drive hanging off of the laptop is the external drive hanging off of the laptop. External drives are nice for long term storage of items that don’t get access frequently, but I don’t want one permanently attached to my laptop in order to get work done. The whole point of a laptop is to be self contained.

        I’d much rather go with a mSATA boot drive and a regular 2.5″ SSD as the storage drive.

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