Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.9 hard drives

Manufacturer Seagate
Model Barracuda 7200.9
Price (500GB)
(160GB)

Availability Now

IN THE HARD DRIVE WORLD, capacity is king. Capacity actually comes in two flavors. The first and most obvious is the storage capacity of a hard drive. The second, and potentially more important, is the capacity of individual platters within a drive. This platter capacity is known as the areal density, and it can do more than just increase the amount of data a drive can hold. Higher areal densities allow drives to offer more storage capacity with fewer platters, potentially lowering noise levels, cutting power consumption, and reducing the risk of a catastrophic head crash. As if that weren’t enough, higher areal densities can also improve performance by allowing the drive head to access the same amount of data over a shorter physical distance.

Seagate’s new Barracuda 7200.9 family of Serial ATA hard drives packs storage capacity on both fronts, with one model weighing in at a hefty half-terabyte and another packing a single 160GB platter whose areal density is 25% higher than its closest competitor. We’ve rounded up both models and run them through a brutal gauntlet of storage tests against earlier Barracudas and drives from Hitachi, Maxtor, and Western Digital. Read on to see how the 7200.9s compare.

Drive specs
Although the Serial ATA Revision 2.5 spec has yet to be ratified by the Serial ATA International Organization (SATA-IO), all of the draft spec’s standard and optional features are implemented across the Barracuda 7200.9 line. Those features include, but are not limited to, provisions for staggered spin-up, hot plugging, auto-negotiated backwards compatibility, ClickConnect connectors, and (most importantly) Native Command Queuing (NCQ) and 300MB/s host transfer rates.

  Barracuda 7200.9 Barracuda 7200.8
Maximum external transfer rate 300MB/s 150MB/s
Average seek time 11ms
Average rotational latency 4.16ms
Spindle speed 7,200-RPM
Available capacities 80, 120, 160, 200, 250, 300, 400, 500GB 200, 250, 300, 400GB
Cache size 8MB (80-250GB)
16MB (300-500GB)
8MB
Platter size 100GB (200, 300GB)
120GB (120GB)
125GB (250, 500GB)
133GB (400GB)
160GB (80, 160GB)
133GB
Idle acoustics 2.5-2.8 bels 2.8 bels
Idle power consumption 6.9W 7.2W
Seek  power consumption 8.1W 12.4W
Service life Five years
Warranty length Five years

300MB/s Serial ATA transfer rates are all the rage, but not even the fastest 15K-RPM SCSI drives can sustain transfer rates that saturate a 150MB/s Serial ATA interface, giving 7,200-RPM drives little hope of benefiting from anything faster. However, 300MB/s host transfer rates can allow for faster burst transfers from a hard drive’s cache. With drive cache sizes growing, it may be unwise to write off 300MB/s Serial ATA transfer rates as a gimmick just yet.

Speaking of cache, drives in the 7200.9 family are equipped with either 8MB or 16MB, depending on their capacities. Higher capacity drives get more cache, with the 300GB, 400GB, and 500GB models packing 16MB each.

The 7200.9 line is also segmented when it comes to platter density. There are quite a few variations, with five different platters spanning eight drive capacities. Today we’ll be focusing our attention on the 500GB and 160GB capacities, which feature 125GB and 160GB platters, respectively. 125GB platters are hardly unique in the hard drive world, but they allow Seagate to build a 500GB drive with only four platters. The only other 500GB drive on the market, Hitachi’s 7K500, uses five 100GB platters to reach the half-terabyte mark.


The Barracuda 7200.9 500GB (left) and 160GB (right)

While 125GB platters aren’t all that special, no one can match Seagate’s ultra-dense 160GB platters. Only Seagate’s own 133GB platters come close, and even then, the 160GB platters offer a 25% jump in areal density. That allows the 160GB Barracuda 7200.9 to be built using just a single platter, with all of the attendant advantages of fewer platters. The 160GB model’s denser platter should also provide a nice performance boost. You won’t find 160GB platters in drives larger than 160GB, though, and these platters aren’t available in drives with more than 8MB of cache, either.

Fortunately, all members of the Barracuda 7200.9 family are covered by Seagate’s fantastic five-year warranty. This longer warranty term is usually reserved for SCSI drives and enterprise-class products, while desktop hard drives from other manufacturers are generally only covered for three years. Seagate, however, warrants its entire internal hard drive line for five years.


Barracudas over easy
 

Test notes
We’ll be comparing the 160GB and 500GB flavors of the Barracuda 7200.9 against an array of competitors. Most of the drives we’re testing are desktop parts, but the Western Digital Caviar RE2 and Raptor WD740GD are technically enterprise-class products. We won’t tell anyone if you don’t.

The drives we’ll be looking at differ when it comes to external transfer rates, spindle speeds, cache sizes, platter densities, NCQ support, and capacity, all of which can have an impact on performance. Keep in mind the following differences as we move through our benchmarks:

  Barracuda 7200.7 NCQ Barracuda 7200.8 Barracuda 7200.9 (160GB) Barracuda 7200.9 (500GB) Caviar SE16 Caviar RE2 Deskstar 7K500 DiamondMax 10 Raptor WD740GD
Max external transfer rate 150MB/s 150MB/s 300MB/s 300MB/s 300MB/s 150MB/s 300MB/s 150MB/s 150MB/s
Spindle speed 7,200RPM 7,200RPM 7,200RPM 7,200RPM 7,200RPM 7,200RPM 7,200RPM 7,200RPM 10,000RPM
Cache size 8MB 8MB 8MB 16MB 16MB 16MB 16MB 16MB 8MB
Platter density 80GB 133GB 160GB 125GB 83GB 100GB 100GB 100GB 37GB
Capacity 160GB 400GB 160GB 500GB 250GB 400GB 500GB 300GB 74GB
Native Command Queuing? Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes No*

Note that the Western Digital Caviar SE16 and Raptor WD740GD lack support for Native Command Queuing. The Raptor does support a form of command queuing known as Tagged Command Queuing (TCQ), but host controller and chipset support for TCQ is pretty thin. Our Intel 955X-based test platform doesn’t support TCQ.

Since Seagate makes versions of the 7200.7 with and without NCQ support, the 7200.7 in our tests appears as the “Barracuda 7200.7 NCQ” to clarify that it’s the NCQ version of the drive. The Deskstar T7K250, DiamondMax 10, 7200.8, and 7200.9 aren’t explicitly labeled as NCQ drives because they’re not available without NCQ support.

Our testing methods
All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged, using the following test systems.

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 Seagate Barracuda 7200.8 400GB SATA
Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 NCQ 160GB SATA
Maxtor DiamondMax 10 300GB SATA
Western Digital Caviar SE16 250GB SATA
Western Digital Raptor WD740GD 74GB SATA
Hitachi 7K500 500GB SATA
Western Digital Caviar RE2 400GB SATA
Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 160GB SATA
Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 500GB SATA
OS Windows XP Professional
OS updates Service Pack 2

Our test system was powered by OCZ PowerStream power supply units. The PowerStream was one of our Editor’s Choice winners in our last PSU round-up.

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 alongside the results from some of our own application tests.

WorldBench’s overall results are pretty close, with most of our drives tied for second place behind the Raptor. The 7200.9s do score marginally higher than older Barracudas, though. Let’s bust WorldBench’s overall score into individual application tests for a closer look.

Multimedia editing and encoding

MusicMatch Jukebox

Windows Media Encoder

Adobe Premiere

VideoWave Movie Creator

There’s little variance in scores across WorldBench’s multimedia editing and encoding tests, although the 160GB 7200.9 pulls up a little short in Premiere.

 

Image processing

Adobe Photoshop

ACDSee PowerPack

Photoshop doesn’t seem to prefer one drive over the others, but ACDSee spreads the field a little. There, the 7200.9s are generally slower than their competition, but not by much.

Multitasking and office applications

Microsoft Office

Mozilla

Mozilla and Windows Media Encoder

The 7200.9s tie the rest of the field across WorldBench’s multitasking office tests.

Other applications

Winzip

Nero

The new Barracudas shine in WinZip and Nero. They’re faster than everything short of the Raptor in WinZip, and take both top spots in Nero. Interestingly, the 500GB 7200.9 comes out just ahead of the 160GB drive in both instances, suggesting that cache size may be more important than platter density in these tests.

 

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

The new Barracudas don’t fare so well here, finishing at or near the bottom of the pack in two of three tests.

 

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.

Although the 160GB Barracuda 7200.9 fares rather well in FC-Test’s file creation tests, its 500GB sibling looks a little slow compared to Hitachi’s 500GB 7K500. Note the consistent gap in performance between the 160GB and 500GB flavors of the 7200.9.

The performance gap between the 160GB and 500GB Barracudas shrinks in FC-Test’s read tests, but the drives still hang around the middle of the pack.

Results in the copy tests are more mixed, as the 500GB 7200.9 edges out the 160GB model with a number of test patterns. Overall, the new Barracudas look better here than they have with FC-Test’s file creation and read tests.

The Barracuda 7200.9s also perform comparably well in FC-Test’s partition-to-partition copy tests, with the 160GB and 500GB models trading blows across all five test patterns.

 

iPEAK multitasking
We recently developed a series of disk-intensive multitasking tests to highlight the impact of command queuing on hard 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.

Results are mixed in our first round of iPEAK multitasking tests, but a couple of patterns do emerge. The Barracuda 7200.9s seem to fare better with multitasking loads that include file copy operations, while they struggle with the VirtualDub import. Cache size also appears to be more important than platter density in these tests, with the 500GB 7200.9 beating the 160GB model across the board.

 

iPEAK multitasking – con’t

The same patterns persist throughout the remainder of our iPEAK tests, with the 7200.9 faring comparably better with multitasking loads that include file copy operations. Again, we see the 500GB drive coming out ahead of the 160GB model, likely because of the former’s larger cache.

 

IOMeter – Transaction rate
IOMeter presents a best-case scenario for command queuing, so the NCQ-less Western Digital drives should have a slight disadvantage here under higher loads.

The 7200.9s don’t fare nearly as well in our multi-user IOMeter tests as enterprise-class Serial ATA drives like the Raptor and Caviar RE2. Still, it’s worth noting that the 160GB 7200.9 performs better than most of the other desktop drives, including its 500GB sibling. Also note that the 500GB 7200.9 is much faster than the 500GB Deskstar with three of four test patterns.

 

IOMeter – Response time

The 500GB Seagate drive continues to provide better IOMeter performance than its direct competition, but overall, the 7200.9s seem poorly suited to multi-user loads.

 

IOMeter – CPU utilization

CPU utilization is low pretty much across the board.

 

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

The 160GB Barracuda 7200.9’s HD Tach transfer rates make a compelling case for higher platter densities. Despite its huge spindle speed disadvantage, the Seagate drive almost matches the performance of the 10K-RPM Raptor. However, higher areal density doesn’t help the 500GB Barracuda distance itself from the Deskstar 7K500.

The 7200.9s both come out on top in HD Tach’s read bust speed test, although their performance is still well shy of the 300MB/s theoretical peak bandwidth of our system’s Serial ATA interface.

HD Tach’s random access time test proves a little problematic for the 500GB 7200.9, but the 160GB drive’s performance is much better.

CPU utilization results are well within HD Tach’s +/- 2% margin of error in 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.

At idle, the 7200.9s are nearly silent. Results are split under a seek load, though. The 160GB drive proves quieter than any other we tested, but the 500GB model is among the loudest. Extra capacity alone isn’t the culprit, since the Deskstar 7K500’s seek noise levels are a full two decibels lower than the 500GB 7200.9.

Power consumption
Power consumption was measured for the entire system, sans monitor, at the outlet. We used the same idle and load environments as the noise level tests.

The 160GB 7200.9 proves the most frugal with power, perhaps in part because its mechanical motor only needs to spin the weight of one platter.

 

Conclusions
First, we should applaud Seagate for integrating all of the Serial ATA 2.5 draft spec’s standard and optional features across the entire Barracuda 7200.9 line. This move ensures that users will enjoy a common set of features regardless of which drive capacity they choose, and these days, every new SATA drive should support Native Command Queuing, 300MB/s transfer rates, hot plugging, and the like. Unfortunately, the Barracuda 7200.9 family doesn’t standardize on a common cache or platter sizes, resulting in a lineup littered with seven combinations of the two. Each unique combination will offer slightly different performance characteristics, so we’ll have to limit our analysis to the 160GB and 500GB models we’ve tested.

Fortunately, we tested the hell out of them. The results of our tests are rather enlightening, too. For example, the 160GB 7200.9’s high density platter clearly offers lower random access times and better performance with sustained transfers and multi-user loads. The drive is also much quieter than the 500GB model, and its power consumption is a little lower. However, the 500GB drive’s extra cache gives it an edge in desktop applications, some file transfers, and in our disk-intensive multitasking tests. The 500GB drive does cost close to four times more than the 160GB model, but you get more than three times the storage capacity in the same 3.5″ form factor.

Then there’s the not-so-small matter of the half-dozen or so competing drives from other manufacturers, some of which narrow the 7200.9’s appeal. Seagate’s new Barracudas are clearly outmatched by Western Digital’s enterprise-class Serial ATA drives in multi-user environments, making it hard to recommend the ‘cudas for servers or even workstations with heavy I/O demands. The 7200.9s are a considerably more attractive option for single-user desktops, but they aren’t consistently faster than the competition, so performance alone won’t make them a favorite. Seagate’s five-year warranty just might, though. For many users, an extra two years of warranty coverage may be worth overlooking the 7200.9 drives’ poorer performances in some of our tests. The 500GB 7200.9 is currently the most affordable half-terabyte drive on the market, too.

Looking back on the Barracuda 7200.9 line, I can’t help but feel a little teased. Those 160GB platters are oh-so tempting, but it seems cruel to pair them with only 8MB of cache. I’m not crazy about being limited to 160GB of capacity per drive, either. Let’s hope Seagate is able to squeeze a couple of those 160GB platters into a drive with 16MB of cache. I’d take two. 

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