Western Digital's single-platter 320GB Caviar SE16 WD3200AAKS

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TESTING

Our sample, which came directly from WD, was tested according to our standard hard drive testing methodology. The sample was compared against many other drives. Our methodology focuses specifically on noise, and great effort is taken to ensure it is comprehensively measured and described. Performance is not tested, for reasons discussed in detail in the methodology article.

For HDD performance testing, we recommend Storage Review, who have established a long reputation as the specialist in this field. At time of writing, they had not yet reviewed either of the 320GB/platter WD models.

The Tech Report ran a performance analysis on the 640GB model recently, and judged it to be a very good price-competitive alternative to the 334GB/platter Samsung F1 drives. An earlier preview of the 320GB model by Anandtech reported,

The average transfer rate of 87MB/s~91MB/s is exceptional in this drive class and exceeds the 73MB/s~75MB/s capabilities of the Raptor 150GB drive. However, for reasons we are still investigating, the random access time of 16.3ms is poor compared to current desktop drives such as the Samsung HD501J that feature a class high 14.0ms random access time. Although the performance of the drive in actual applications is not hindered greatly, it is perplexing to us why this drive has such high random access times.

Our own quick test with HDTach gave the same random access time as Anandtech's sample. According to a later Anandtech review of the 640GB model which measured an exceptional 12.4ms random access,

Western Digital explained the single platter 320GB drive is aimed at the entry-level market where thermals and acoustics are critical for mass acceptance of the drive by the OEM and retail customers. WD sacrificed a small amount of performance on the 320GB drive to meet these goals. This was by design and is not an indication of the performance potential of their new technology.

These notes further raise our expectations for acoustics in this drive.

Two forms of hard drive noise are measured in our tests:

  1. Airborne acoustics
  2. Vibration-induced noise.

These types of noise impact the subjective perception of hard drive noise differently depending on how and where the drive is mounted.

Both forms of noise are evaluated objectively and subjectively. Both the subjective and objective analyses are essential to understanding the acoustics of the drives. Airborne acoustics are measured using a professional caliber SLM. Measurements are taken at a distance of one meter above the top of the drive using an A-weighted filter. Vibration noise is rated on a scale of 1-10 by comparing against our standard reference drives.

A final caveat: As with most reviews, our comments are relevant to the sample we tested. Your sample may not be identical. There are always some sample variances, and manufacturers also make changes without telling everyone.

Ambient conditions at the time of testing were 18 dBA and 21°C.

TEST RESULTS

DRIVE NOISE EVALUATION
Drive
Mfg date
firmware version
Vibration
1-10
(10 = no vibration)
Activity State
Airborne Acoustics
(dBA@1m)
Measured Power
Western Digital Caviar SE16 WD3200AAKS
January 17, 2008
firmware 01.03A01
6
Idle
24 / 22*
4.9 W
Seek (AAM)
24 / 22*
5.9 W
Seek (Normal)
25 / 23*
6.0 W
* SPL varied depending on which side of the drive faced the microphone. See text.

POWER

The unit's power consumption is very low compared to other 7200 RPM desktop models. Just 5W at idle and 6W in seek puts it in the same class as the 5400 RPM 3-platter WD Green Power 750GB drive. The low power profile is a direct benefit of the drive's single-platter design, whose lower mass and fewer heads takes less power to move.

ACOUSTICS

This sample has the surprising distinction of being the noisiest from WD in a couple of years. The SPL of 24 dBA@1m does not denote a noisy drive, but it is higher than others from WD in a while. The noise was apparent as soon as the drive was powered up. It was loud enough to be immediately noticed in our very quiet lab, and it also had a somewhat complex signature with some tonality. The amount of turbulence noise was higher than in other drives reviewed in recent memory, and a wider range of higher frequencies seemed to be present.

A simple point of fact: When we tested the Western Digital Caviar SE16 WD5000KS 4-platter drive nearly two years ago, it was found to be on par acoustically with the Samsung leader of the day. Today, after being bounced about in the lab for nearly two years, this sample measures about a decible louder than when we first measured it. But it still sounds a bit quieter than the new single-platter 320GB drive.

Turning Automatic Acoustic Management on had a minor effect on seek noise, but the measured SPL did not really change, as the constant turbulence noise dominated. The seek noise was fairly muted and not particularly staccato even without AAM.

Flipping the drive over so that the underside was presented to the microphone (and the listener) did have a surprising effect, however: The noise was audibly reduced, and the SPL actually dropped by 2 dBA@1m. This effect led to a closer physical examination of the drive.

It turns out that there are significant physical difference between this drive and most of the others from WD or other brands in recent years:

  • It is considerably lighter.
  • Its main casting is inset deeply so that there's much less aluminum material in the housing than in other drives.


Note the deep insets over the platter area.

Click for LARGE image
Compare the deep insets in the WD3200AAKS to the other drives.

The photo above shows a Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 80GB (2006) on the far left, followed by the WD3200AAKS, then a WD Caviar SE16 WD5000KS (March 2006), and a WD800 80GB (June 2004). Each drive was weighed on a postal scale accurate to within a couple of grams.

Seagate Barracuda 7200.7
80GB - 2006
1 platter - 545g
WD SE16 WD3200AAKS
320GB - Jan 2008
1 platter - 430g
WD SE16 WD5000KS
500GB - Mar 2006
4 platters - 702g
WD WD800JB
80GB - June 2004
1 platter - 450g

Only the WD800JB comes close to the low 430g weight of our WD3200AAKS. Its cast aluminum housing has less material than the other two drives, but it still seems more substantial than the WD SE16 320GB. Unfortunately it's too old for any useful comparisons, as it comes from an age when WD drives came only with ball bearings and were very noisy. The Barracuda 7200.7, which is a pretty quiet single-platter drive, is substantially heavier, and its cast housing is close in overall volume to our 4-platter WD5000KS, by far the heaviest of the lot. (As an aside, none of the drives matched the weight stated in the official specifications. In most cases, only one weight is given for a whole line, which can go from a single platter to as many as four or five. We know high platter count equals higher mass.)

It's hard not to see a relationship between the low mass and the surprising noise of the WD3200AAKS. The entire structure seems more transparent acoustically than other HDD casings, which allows the noise of the spinning platter and moving heads to pass through relatively unimpeded. Yet the level of vibration is quite low, probably because of the low moving mass of the single platter.

One wonders if the cover of the drive is also thinner than normal. If the reduction in casing mass was done for the sake of material savings simply because it could be done, it seems like false economy for anyone interested in low noise. On other other hand, since HDDs are shipped in large quantities on pallets, with the dramatic increase in fuel prices over the past year or two, a 15~20% reduction in the weight of each drive could mean significant savings.

The bottom line is that this WD 320GB single-platter drive is not the quiet champ we hoped it might be, even though it's decently quiet. But is our sample a typical representative or is it somehow different or damaged? It worked fine as a second drive in Windows on our test platform, but...



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