Recommended Hard Drives

Reference|Recommended | Storage
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by Mike Chin

  • April 28, 2010: Complete overhaul of article, with only HDDs tested (or retested) in the anechoic chamber.
  • June 13, 2008: WD single-platter 320GB, Velociraptor and Samsung F1 drives added
  • Dec 15, 2007: Western Digital Green Power WD7500AACS added
  • April 3, 2007: Samsung Spinpoint T HD400LJ and WD Scorpio 120 added; other minor changes.
  • June 30, 2006: A number of minor changes and added the WD5000KS as the quietest currently available drive.
  • October 4, 2005: A complete revision of text and rankings based on reviews with our latest HDD testing methodology.
  • January 15, 2005: Another reevaluation of the whole article and rankings.
  • April 11, 2004: A long overdue overhaul of the entire article and ranking table, including information from reviews over the past year, expanded HDD discussion, a new notebook drive table, and a section on some excluded drives.
  • May 11, 2003: Info from recent reviews added, including Samsung SP1604N, Seagate Barracuda IV & 7200.7, and IBM 180GXP. Also revised rankings slightly.
  • Jan 11, 2003: IBM 180GXP added
  • Dec. 10, 2002: Minor changes + addition of HDD Noise Reduction Products
  • Updated Sept. 18, 2002
  • First published July 17, 2002

SPCR began publishing hard drive reviews in March 2002. From the beginning, the focus was on noise. An improved methodology for testing hard drives was introduced in May 2005. Since then, we have made one major change: All acoustic testing has been conducted in our own anechoic chamber since the fall of 2008. This allows us to obtain accurate SPL measurements down to about 10~11 dBA@1m. Previously, we were limited by ambient noise and limitations in our audio measurement equipment to about 18 dBA@1m during the day. The upgrade in our acoustic testing coincides happily with a wider range of new 5400 / 5900 RPM HDDs that scrape against the noise floor, even in our anechoic chamber.

SSDs?

Solid State Drives have certainly arrived in a big way since the last update to this article. We tend to mark Intel's entry into the market in Q3 2008 as the starting point of SSDs becoming viable storage options for PC enthusiasts. They're not really mainstream yet, except in high end laptops, but the prices continue plummeting, so it's just a matter of time. It is true that SPCR has not posted any SSD reviews. Mostly it is because what we can say is so obvious — SSDs are silent, make no vibrations, and run extremely cool, all of which makes them ideal for silent computers. Their performance aspects are well covered by the mainstream tech media, particularly Anandtech; we recommend using them if you can afford them, but keep to the models that have the best reliability. Not surprisingly, given the company's resources, Intel SSDs seem tops in this regard.

Meanwhile, HDDs are also racing to ever higher capacity, and ever lower prices as well. From the $/GB perspective, SSDs aren't even in the same ballpark. A 1TB HDD typically sells for under $100, or less than 10 cents per GB. In an SSD, the best you'll find might be about $2.50~3 per GB. HDDs are now quieter than ever before, especially notebook drives and the new 5400 and 5900 RPM drives. It does not appear to us that the HDD is going away any time soon with the massive digital media collections people are increasingly hoarding in their computers.

HDD RANKINGS

Drives on the recommended list are there for one reason: They are quiet and exhibit low vibration. Due to complexity and time requirements, we do not test drive performance. Generally, performance is similar for models of similar basic specifications: Spindle speed, capacity, and areal density. Small differences in HDD performance are almost impossible to appreciate in actual use because there are umpteen bottlenecks and overheads in the PC that obscure such differences. (For an entertaining, informative exposition of this theme, check out Dan's Data's How fast is a hard drive? How long is a piece of string?)

Two assessment factors are worthy of note:

  • Sample variance is a hurdle we cannot overcome without examining random samples from many production batches over a period of time. This is not feasible. The reviews and our rankings are based on a careful assessment of our samples only.
  • Manufacturers sometimes revise products line without notice or any change in model number. Even an updated firmware can affect drive noise, as seek strategies can be changed. Keep this in mind when perusing the recommended list; the date of manufacture and the firmware version of our sample is usually listed.

TYPES OF DRIVE NOISE

The noise of a disc drive mounted in a case comes in two forms:

  1. Airborne acoustics is what all drive manufacturers currently specify as the HDD noise. It is the sound that comes from the drive through the air to the observer. This value is measured with the drive suspended in space by wires.
  2. Structure-borne acoustics induced by the drive's vibration during idle and seek is not quantified by HDD makers. This vibrational energy is transmitted to the PC chassis and causes the chassis to act much like a sounding board.

Structure-borne acoustics is the dominant source of HDD-induced PC noise. Seagate's testing has shown that changes in stand-alone drive acoustics had little effect on the overall system acoustics when drives were hard mounted in the chassis. Hence the dramatic noise reduction evident with decoupled mountings such as the NoVibes, SPCR's own elastic suspension, or simply placing the drive on soft foam. The noise emitted by even drives with very quiet stand-alone performance is greatly effected by how it is mounted to a chassis. There is also a useful forum thread on the effectiveness of various HDD decoupled mounting techniques.

There are also two main types of noise:

  • Idle noise - typically a smooth hum or whoosh, caused by the spinning motor and its bearings. Non-FDB drives often exhibit a high pitched whine.
  • Seek noise - a rough, intermittent noise caused by head actuator movement during seek, read and write.

Idle and seek noise have both airborne and vibration-induced components. The relative balance between airborne and vibration-induced noise is influenced by the case and the method of installation (i.e, soft vs. hard mounting). In other words, setup affects how a hard drive will sound. This is why we do not produce a unified rating for drive noise, but measure and report both airborne noise and vibration.

FACTORS AFFECTING DRIVE NOISE

Until about 2005, the majority of hard drives on the market used ball-bearing motors, which had a characteristic high pitched whine and other objectionable airborne noise. Since then, the industry has shifted to much quieter FDB (Fluid Dynamic Bearing) motors, with the result that most recent drives are significantly quieter than older drives, sometimes by as much as 10 dBA@1m. All major drive manufacturers now use FDB motors in their current lineups. If you have a typical non-FDB drive, the simplest way to achieve lower noise (and improved performance) is to swap it for a new drive, almost any new drive.

There are three other factors that affect drive noise:

The number of platters in the drive. The acoustic difference between a single platter drive and a four platter drive is much smaller than between a ball-bearing drive and a FDB drive. In other words, the noise penalty for using a higher capacity drive is not great, especially with FDB bearings. Still, the quietest drives tend to be single platter FDB models.

The difference between idle and seek noise. While a drive idling quietly may not be intrusive, if seek noise is considerably louder than idle noise, it will certainly be noticeable. The smaller the difference between seek and idle noise, the less audible the drive will be.

Automatic Acoustic Management (AAM). This technology sacrifices some seek latency in favor of softer, quieter seeks. The performance hit is often small enough that AAM is well worth using. With the notable exception of Seagate, all manufacturers these days allow AAM to be enabled, although its effectiveness varies from drive to drive. Not all manufacturers provide a utility to enable and adjust AAM, but many drives work with Hitachi's feature tool.

USEFUL LINKS

In SPCR

On the Web

  • Disc Drive Acoustics: A comprehensive, informative and readable white paper from Seagate (PDF).
  • Storage Review: An excellent resource for drive performance information. Like SPCR, they specialize, and they are good at what they do.
  • Hard Disk Drives: A thorough explanation of how hard drives work from The PC Guide.


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