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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
- 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
- May 11, 2003: Info from recent reviews added, including
Samsung SP1604N, Seagate Barracuda IV & 7200.7, and IBM 180GXP. Also revised
- Jan 11, 2003: IBM 180GXP added
- Dec. 10, 2002: Minor changes + addition of HDD Noise Reduction
- 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.
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
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.
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
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:
- 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.
- 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
On the Web
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.
Disk Drives: A thorough explanation of how hard drives work from The
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