SSDs have stolen much of the limelight in the hard drive world. Depending on who you ask, these high-performance arrays of flash memory chips either represent the future of PC storage or a major bifurcation in the industry. For now, however, solid-state drives are largely confined to the fringes. Although they’re slowly gaining a following among performance-hungry enthusiasts who live on the bleeding edge, SSDs have yet to make major inroads among mainstream users, even in the mobile world.
Notebooks are about as close to home court as it gets for solid-state drives. For one, the overwhelming majority of consumer-grade SSDs conform to a 2.5″ form factor compatible with all but the thinnest and lightest of ultraportable systems. The mobile world is also where the superior shock tolerance and lower power consumption inherent to flash-based storage pay the biggest dividends. And let’s not forget that 2.5″ mechanical hard drives don’t pack nearly as much capacity as their 3.5″ counterparts, giving SSDs less of a storage gap to bridge.
In fact, SSDs have already matched the capacity of the roomiest notebook drives on the market. Today’s 2.5″ mechanical drives top out at 500GB, which is just a smidgen less storage than 512GB SSDs currently for sale. But there’s a catch. You’re going to pay north of $1,500 for a 512GB SSD, which works out to nearly three dollars per gigabyte. That lofty cost per gigabyte isn’t confined to premium capacity points, either. Lower-capacity SSDs typically run two to three dollars per gigabyte, with more expensive models pushing a whopping four bucks a gig.
So what about those 500GB mechanical notebook drives? Today, they’re available for between 26 and 17 cents per gigabyte. Most will set you back less than a c-note, which, in the SSD world, buys just 32GB.
The fact that traditional hard drives offer better value, on a cost-per-gigabyte basis, than SSDs is certainly not surprising. Solid-state drive prices may be falling, but they still have a long way to go. What is surprising is the fact that the highest capacity 2.5″ mechanical hard drives on the market are so inexpensive.
Unlike 3.5″ desktop drives, where manufacturers’ flagship models are strung out between one and two terabytes, 500GB is the highest 2.5″ capacity offered by Hitachi, Samsung, Seagate, and Western Digital. No wonder prices are so competitive. But that raises the question: with all the major players lining up at the same capacity, which drives stand out? To find out, we’ve gathered 500GB flavors of Hitachi’s Travelstar 5K500.B, Samsung’s Spinpoint M7, Seagate’s Momentus 5400.6 and 7200.4, and Western Digital’s Scorpio Blue for a good old-fashioned throw-down.
As you’ve surely noticed, we have two drives from Seagate. That’s because the Momentus manufacturer is the only drive maker currently selling 500GB notebook drives at both 5,400 and 7,200 RPM. Spindle speed counts for a lot with mechanical storage, giving the Momentus 7200.4 a significant advantage right out of the gate. The fact that the 7200.4 also features 16MB of onboard cache memorytwice what’s available from the rest of the fieldcertainly raises our performance expectations for the drive. It also raises the question of why other manufacturers haven’t bumped their drives up to 16MB. They may be sticking to 8MB at 5,400 RPM to further differentiate future 7,200-RPM models.
All five of the drives we’re looking at today measure a scant 9.5 mm thick, which doesn’t leave a lot of room to stack rotating platters. There are only two discs per drive, and as you might expect, each weighs in at 250GB. It’s amazing how areal densities escalate these days. Just a year ago, the highest-capacity notebook drives packed a mere 160GB per platter.
Hitachi Travelstar 5K500.B
Seagate Momentus 5400.6
Seagate Momentus 7200.4
Western Digital Scorpio Blue
Capacity per platter
|Spindle speed||5,400 RPM||5,400 RPM||5,400 RPM||7,200 RPM||5,400 RPM|
|Average seek time||12 ms||12 ms||NA||NA||12 ms|
|Max media data rate||109MB/s||138MB/s||147MB/s||NA||NA|
|Idle acoustics||2.4 bels||2.4 bels||2.4 bels||2.3 bels||2.4 bels|
|Seek acoustics||2.6 bels||2.6 bels||2.6 bels||2.6 bels||2.6 bels|
|Warranty length||3 years||3 years||3 years||3 years||3 years|
While manufacturers tend to disclose platter counts, spindle speeds, and cache sizes, not all are keen to publish the intimate details of their drives’ performance characteristics. Seagate, for example, makes no mention of Momentus random access times on the drives’ data sheets. While the company posts a maximum media transfer rate for the 5400.6, it doesn’t do so for the 7200.4. Of course, Western Digital doesn’t publish media transfer rates at all. But that matters little, because we can test such things ourselves. The benchmark results on the following pages should illuminate each drive’s performance characteristics with much greater clarity than best-case theoretical peak specifications on a datasheet.
Power consumption is a key metric for notebook drives, since watts saved can extend battery life. The drives look to be on relatively equal footing, with the 7200.4 quoted for lower power draw than one might expect from a 7,200-RPM unit. We’ll see if that holds true in our own power consumption tests.
Three years of warranty coverage is the de facto standard for consumer-grade hard drives, and none of the bunch deviates from that mark. Western Digital does offer a five-year warranty on its 7,200-RPM Scorpio Black drives, but those have yet to spin a half-terabyte.
All four of the 5,400-RPM models we’re looking at today are available for less than $90 online, which makes them quite evenly matched. The Momentus 7200.4 commands a hefty price premium of nearly 40%a tall order for its faster spindle speed and larger cache to make up.
Before moving on, I should mention a couple of optional features available on some of these drives. Versions of the Hitachi and Seagate units are available with free-fall sensors that provide an extra measure of protection against accidental droppage. The Spinpoint M7 has a free-fall sensor, too, but Western Digital only offers this feature on its Scorpio Black drivesnot on the Blue. Hitachi’s Travelstar can be ordered with a Bulk Data Encryption option for those prone to losing laptops loaded with classified state secrets, social security numbers, and credit card information in public places. Full-disk encryption is available from Seagate, as well, but not on these particular Momentus models. Neither Western Digital nor Samsung offer encryption options for their notebook drives, although Samsung has launched self-encrypting SSDs.
Skimming the surface
Hard drives make poor photograph subjects. But just in case you were wondering, all five drives look pretty much the same:
The older nature of our hard drive test system has ruffled feathers recently, but it should more than suffice for our purposes today. While this rig is built around a Pentium 4 processor and 955X chipset running Windows XP, that’s been more than enough horsepower to wring impressive performances from Intel’s wicked-fast X25-E enterprise-class SSD, Western Digital’s latest 10k-RPM VelociRaptor, and the fastest mechanical desktop drives from Hitachi, Samsung, Seagate, and Western Digital. Surely, this system can keep up with a handful of 500GB notebook drives.
It’s also worth noting that the Serial ATA specification hasn’t changed since this test system was put together. Intel’s ICH7R south bridge may be a few generations old, but its storage controller is virtually identical to what you’ll find inside the latest ICH10R. In fact, notebook-specific chipsets typically use mobile versions of older south bridge chips. For example, Intel’s most recent performance-oriented mobile chipset, the GS45 Express, draws its south bridge component from the ICH9 family.
We’ve observed that some solid-state drives handle Windows XP better than others. XP was designed with mechanical storage in mind, and its default partition offset apparently creates problems with some SSD architectures. That won’t be an issue for our mechanical drives, nor is it troublesome for the Intel X25-M SSD we’ve included in the results as a point of reference. According to Intel, the X25-M is alignment-agnostic, so it doesn’t require special tuning under Windows XP. The test results we’ve included from the X25-M are from the drive in a used rather than factory-fresh state, to best illustrate how it will perform with prolonged use.
That said, we do have a new storage test platform cranking away. Stay tuned.
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|
|North bridge||Intel 955X MCH|
|South bridge||Intel ICH7R|
|Chipset drivers||Chipset 220.127.116.113
|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|
|Graphics||Radeon X700 Pro 256MB with CATALYST 5.7 drivers|
Intel X25-M 80GB with 8820 firmware
Hitachi Travelstar 7K500.B
Samsung Spinpoint M7
Seagate Momentus 5400.6
Seagate Momentus 7200.4
Western Digital Scorpio Blue
|OS||Windows XP Professional|
|OS updates||Service Pack 2|
Our test system was powered by an OCZ PowerStream power supply unit.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- WorldBench 5.0
- Intel IOMeter v2004.07.30
- Xbit Labs File Copy Test v1.0 beta 13
- HD Tach v3.01
- Far Cry v1.3
- DOOM 3
- Intel iPEAK Storage Performance Toolkit 3.0
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 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.
Despite its spindle speed and cache size advantage, the Momentus 7200.4 scores one point lower than the Scorpio Blue in WorldBench. Only five points separate the fastest mechanical drive from the slowest here, with the Spinpoint and 5400.6 bringing up the rear.
Multimedia editing and encoding
Windows Media Encoder
VideoWave Movie Creator
Among WorldBench’s multimedia editing and encoding tests, Premiere is the most sensitive to storage performance. In that test, the Samsung drive ekes out a victory over the Scorpio Blue and Momentus 7400.2, with the latter’s faster spindle speed again failing to offer a performance advantage over the 5,400-RPM drives.
WorldBench’s ACDSee test puts some strain on the storage subsystem, and this time it’s the Spinpoint and 7200.4 locked in a race for fastest mechanical drive. The Scorpio and Travelstar aren’t far off the pace, but the Momentus 5400.6 does lag behind the others by a notable margin.
Multitasking and office applications
Mozilla and Windows Media Encoder
The scores in WorldBench’s office and multitasking tests are pretty close. Traditionally, these tests haven’t seen much benefit from faster storage solutions.
WorldBench’s WinZip and Nero tests are a different story altogether. In the WinZip test, the 7200.4 finally enjoys a lead over its 5,400-RPM rivals. The Scorpio and Travelstar tie for second place among mechanical drives, with the Spinpoint and Momentus bringing up the rear.
Spindle speed fails to dictate performance in the Nero test, where the 5,400-RPM Scorpio Blue easily outpaces the 7,200-RPM Momentus. The Spinpoint M7 is the big loser here, trailing the next-slowest drive by nearly two minutes.
Boot and load times
To test system boot and game level load times, we busted out our trusty stopwatch.
Only three seconds separate the fastest 500GB notebook drive from the slowest when it comes time to boot our test system. The Momentus 7200.4 is the quickest of the mechanical pack, with a one-second lead over the Scorpio Blue.
We’ve seen reports that pre-ICH10R south bridge chips boot solid-state drives more slowly than they should, so the X25-M may have a more pronounced boot time advantage on a newer system. Keep in mind, however, that Intel doesn’t currently offer the ICH10R as a part of any of its notebook chipsets.
The 7,200-RPM Momentus continues to lead the 500GB field in our Doom 3 level load test, but it’s no quicker than the 5,400-RPM Momentus when firing up Far Cry. The Scorpio and Travelstar are evenly matched in both games, and both are quicker than the 5400.6 and Spinpoint.
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 separated our FC-Test results into individual graphs for each test pattern. We’ll tackle file creation performance first.
The Scorpio Blue opens up a big lead over the competition in our first three file creation workloads and finishes a close second to the Spinpoint with the remaining two. Those two drives are easily the class of the field, with the Travelstar slotting consistently into third place. Seagate’s Momentus offerings simply aren’t competitive here. In fact, the 7200.4 is only barely faster than the 5400.6.
The Momentus 7200.4 finds some redemption when we switch to read workloads, bouncing between first, second, and third place depending on the test pattern. Its strongest showing is with the ISO test pattern, which contains a small number of large files. Seagate has a history of biasing drive performance toward longer sequential transfers, so the Momentus’ showing here isn’t terribly surprising.
Among the rest of the 500GB field, the 5400.6 is clearly the slowest. The Scorpio offers the strongest performance across all five test patterns.
FC-Test – continued
Copy tests mix reading and writing, and that combination suits the Scorpio just fine. The Blue is consistently the fastest mechanical drive, although in some cases it’s just barely ahead of the Travelstar and Spinpoint.
Seagate’s Momentus models continue to struggle in our real-world file tests. The 7200.4 is competitive with the MP3 test pattern, but little else. As for the 5400.6, it’s the slowest drive across the board.
FC-Test’s partition copy tests play out much like the first round of copy tests. No surprises here.
We’ve developed a series of disk-intensive multitasking tests to highlight the impact of seek times and 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.
iPEAK turns the tables quite abruptly in Seagate’s favor. The Momentus drives both do very well here, combining for the lowest mean service times across all nine workloads. The 7200.4 is obviously the quicker of the two, with an average mean service time of 1.67 milliseconds to the 5400.6’s 2.19 milliseconds.
The Scorpio and Travelstar drives are a little ways back, with average mean service times of 2.74 and 2.63 milliseconds, respectively. That’s much quicker than the Spinpoint, which lags well behind in each and every one of our disk-intensive multitasking workloads. The Samsung drive is particularly slow when a read-intensive VirtualDub import is used as a secondary task.
IOMeter presents a good test case for both seek times and command queuing. We’ve omitted the X25-M from this first batch of results because it’s considerably faster than any mechanical hard drive, skewing the graphs considerably.
IOMeter’s file server, database, and workstation access patterns are made up of a random mix of read and write requests, while the web server pattern is an all-read affair. The Momentus 7200.4 and Spinpoint M7 fare comparatively much better with the web server pattern, suggesting a weakness in their ability to balance a mix of reads and writes. Both drives appear to hit a performance wall after 16 outstanding I/O requests when writes are involved. The difference in performance between Momentus models is particularly curious given their spindle speed and cache size difference.
Overall, the Scorpio Blue offers the highest transaction rates under IOMeter’s demanding multi-user loads. The 5400.6 surprisingly slots into second place, with the Travelstar unable to keep up. At least the Hitachi drive’s performance doesn’t trail off as the number of random write requests ramps up, though.
None of the drives has a meaningful advantage in IOMeter CPU utilization.
IOMeter – continued
When it comes to random access patterns, SSDs are in an entirely different world than even the fastest mechanical notebook drives. Heck, desktop models, too.
And the X25-M has the higher CPU utilization to show for it. It takes horsepower to sustain transaction rates that high.
We tested HD Tach with the benchmark’s full variable zone size setting.
HD Tach’s sustained transfer rates give us a sense of what these drives can do in a straight-line drag race. Frankly, there isn’t much to see here. Unlike in our real-world file creation, read, and copy tests, the 5,400-RPM drives are evenly matched. Only 1MB/s separates them. As one might expect, the 7200.4 is faster than the 5,400-RPM drives, but only by 17-20%. The faster Momentus actually has a 25% spindle speed advantage.
Burst transfers come straight from cache memory, so spindle speeds don’t factor into the equation at all. Here, the 7200.4 actually turns in the worst performance of the pack, failing to reach even 170MB/s. The rest of the mechanical field is spread between 230 and 249MB/s, with the Travelstar leading the way.
The 7200.4’s higher spindle speed gives it a clear mechanical latency advantage over 5,400-RPM drives, but the Momentus’ random access time is just a millisecond faster than the Scorpio Blue. Quick access times don’t appear to be a priority for Seagate, whose 5,400 Momentus clocks in a whopping 3.6 milliseconds slower than the Scorpio and more than two milliseconds shy of its closest rival. No wonder Seagate doesn’t publish seek times for its Momentus drives.
HD Tach’s CPU utilization results are within the +/- 2% margin of error for this test.
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.
42.6 decibels is the ambient noise level of our test system, and the mechanical drives don’t add a lot to that at idle. Honestly, even at a couple of feet away from a bare drive, my ears couldn’t hear the difference between the Momentus 7200.4 and the Spinpoint M7.
Under a seek load, the drives start to make audible noise. Some of them do, anyway. The Scorpio is the quietest of the lot, with the Spinpoint and Travelstar a couple of decibels louder according to our sound level meter. My ears have no problem detecting more audible clicking with the Momentus drives, which are the loudest of the bunch.
For our power consumption tests, we measured the voltage drop across a 0.1-ohm resistor placed in line with the 5V and 12V lines connected to each drive. We were able to calculate the power draw from each voltage rail and add them together for the total power draw of the drive.
We don’t see huge differences in power consumption between the five mechanical drives. The 7200.4 requires more juice, of course, but the difference isn’t of nearly the same magnitude as the step up in spindle speed. Hitachi proves to have the best power efficiency of the mechanical bunch.
On the surface, little separates these 500GB notebook driveswell, the 5,400-RPM models, anyway. But after seeing how each handled our diverse suite of performance tests, a clear winner has emerged.
That winner does not come from the Seagate camp, despite the fact that the Momentus 7200.4 boasts a higher spindle speed than the rest of the pack. I was hoping the faster-spinning platters, combined with a larger cache, would translate into better real-world performance. But they don’t. The Momentus was often slower than the best 5,400-RPM drives, and while it enjoyed a few moments in the spotlight, those victories were far too rare to justify the drive’s significantly higher price.
The Momentus 5400.6’s sub-$90 asking price is considerably more competitive. For the most part, though, the drive’s performance is not. The 5,400-RPM Momentus actually held its own with demanding multi-tasking and multi-user loads. However, it didn’t fare as well in WorldBench and was easily the slowest in FC-Testbenchmarks, which are far more indicative of typical notebook workloads than either iPEAK or IOMeter.
Samsung’s Spinpoint M7 is the Jekyll and Hyde of the bunch. In some tests, the drive performs quite well. However, when the Spinpoint struggles, it really struggles. The M7 fell well short of the competition when faced with our disk-intensive multitasking workloads, and it hit the same random write performance drop-off in IOMeter as the Momentus 7200.4. I do like the Spinpoint’s low noise levels, but there are more well-rounded drives for the money.
Rather than oscillating between impressive and depressing performances, Hitachi’s Travelstar 5K500.B was decidedly average throughout our testing. This drive lived in the middle of the pack, and while its ability to handle a mix of workloads without floundering is admirable, the Travelstar is actually slightly more expensive than our clear favorite of the bunch.
That favorite? Western Digital’s Scorpio Blue. We subject drives to a varied mix of performance tests because we’re looking for weaknesses, and the Scorpio Blue exhibited none. It may not have come out ahead of the pack in each and every test, but over our entire suite, the Scorpio was clearly the performance leader. At just $90 online, the Blue won’t cost you more than other drives we’ve looked at today, either. Picking an Editor’s Choice doesn’t get any easier than that.