Review: Quiet HDDs by Samsung, Hitachi & Seagate

Storage
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May 8, 2003 -- by Mike Chin

This article began originally as a review on the Samsung 160G SP1604N hard drive. It turned instead, into a roundup of 4 hard drives, the others being the 120G & 60G Hitachi 180GXP and the now venerable 40G Seagate Barracuda IV. The idea of a single drive review in the absence of any comparatives in our database made no sense at all. Our focus is on noise and vibration, but effort was made to get a reasonable assessment of performance as well.

Dru's Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 HDD article in March this year was the first hard drive review at SPCR. Regular readers and anyone who studies just a few of the articles, sections and forums on hard drives quickly learn that the Seagate Barracuda IV remains the quiet hard drive reference, at least to date. Introduced by Seagate nearly 2 years ago, it was the first 7200 rpm drive to be essentially free of the high pitch whine that plagues 7200 rpm drives, and quieter than even the quietest 5400 rpm drives.

Initially, the challenge of expanding acoustics-focused reviews into the storage area seemed too much of a challenge to tackle. So many other interesting products remain to be examined! However, the absence of detailed acoustic analysis of hard drives by hardware reviewers became ever more glaring by their absence. This article grew out of that realization.

Unfortunately, there was no time to get the drive samples to the UBC anechoic chamber for serious acoustic testing. Given time constraints, the best that could have been obtained were only idle readings, which are not that useful by themselves. Like Dru's effort, this review is also a first shot done with just benchmarks and careful listening.

A major caveat: Please note that ALL hard drives are subject to great changes in noise output depending on the way they are installed in a case, and in the mechanical / acoustical characteristics of the case.

Samsung SP1604N 160G, 7.2K rpm
Sample supplied by Samsung Canada
Price To Be Announced

Samsung Electronics of Korea have developed a reputation in the computer marketplace for high quality monitors and quiet hard drives. Both of their 5400 rpm and 7200 rpm HDD have been noted by many observers and users as exhibiting very low noise.

The model submitted by Samsung Canada is a brand new Ultra/133 compliant 7200rpm high capacity drive. At 80GB/platter, it is on par with the higest density models available today.

The sample came equipped with 2 MB of buffer memory, but 8 MB buffer versions are available as well. The 8 MB buffer versions are denoted by different model numbering:

SP0421N for 40 GB capacity
SP0812N for 80 GB capacity
SP1213N for 120 GB capacity
SP1614N for 160 GB capacity

Selected Specifications

  • 4 Heads, 2 Disks, 7200rpm,160.0GB, 2MB Buffer
  • Data Transfer Rate: 741Mbits/sec
  • Ultra DMA/133 Compatible
  • 8.9 / 10 ms Average Seek (Rd/Wt) Time;
  • Average latency 4.17 ms
  • Max operational power: 9W
  • Support ATA Host Protected Area Feature
  • S.M.A.R.T Compliant

Acoustics

  • Idle: 2.7 Bels typical
  • Seek: 2.9 Bels typical

Noise Focus

Two noise specific features deserve some special attention here.

NoiseGuard™ is described as a set of mechanical noise reduction features implemented after thorough acoustical analysis. Material choices, mechanical design and damping geared to reduce noise and vibration are all part of the mix. It is not clear whether SilentSeek™ includes a Fluid Dynamic Motor, which is mentioned as one of the technologies Samsung is current working on.

SilentSeek™ is designed to minimize the acoustic noise generated by the actuator movement, rather than suppressing the emitted acoustic noise. Samsung claims an average 4 dBA of noise reduction through all operational states, during idle as well as write/seek. The very small 0.2 Bel difference claimed between idle and seek is notable.

Hitachi 180GXP 120G, 8 MB buffer; 60G, 2 MB buffer

Supplied by Hitachi Global Storage Technologies

PriceWatch: ~US$125

IBM sold its hard drive division to Hitachi last year. Once a hard drive technology leader, and the performance leader in the industry for many years running, its reliability issues with the 75GXP series drives seemed to bring on too many problems for IBM to handle in recent years. Never mind that the 75GXP was 3 generations ago; many PC component buyers still paint the IBM HDD line with that brush of old, so perhaps it is just as well that the line is rebranded with Hitachi's name.

The 180GXP flagship Deskstar series is available in 5 capacities: 30, 60, 90, 120 and 180G. As their OEM specifications sheet indicates, the drive is available with 2 MB or 8 MB cache data buffers.

The samples provided were:

1) IC35L120AVV207-1, a 2-platter 4-head drive with an 8-MB buffer. Geared for very high performance.

2) IC35L060AVV207-0, a 1-platter 2-head drive with a 2-MB buffer.

Selected Specifications

  • Rotational speed 7200 rpm
  • Latency average 4.17 ms
  • Average 8.5 / 8.8 ms seek
  • Data Transfer Rate: 699 Mbits/sec
  • Sustained data rate 56 to 29 MB/sec
  • Typical power 9.4W total max.

Acoustics

  • Idle: 2.8 Bels typical / 3.2 Bels max
  • Performance seek: 3.4 Bels typical / 3.7 Bels max
  • Quiet seek: 2.9 Bels typical / 3.3 Bels max
  • The above acoustics data is for the 2-platter models. The data for the 1-platter model is 0.2 Bel lower for idle and 0.1 Bel lower for quiet seek.

A key feature of the 180GXP is the use of a Fluid Dynamic Bearing motor to reduce motor noise. Interestingly, Hitachi differentiates between the 8 MB and 2 MB buffer Deskstar drives by providing a 3 year warranty with the former and only 1 year with the latter.

Seagate Barracuda IV 40G, single-platter
Sample purchased; 3 months old
PriceWatch ~US$68

The Barracuda IV became an instant hit with noise-conscious PC users when it was first introduced in 2001. With a claimed noise level of <2.5 Bels idle and 2.5 quiet seek, the original Barracuda IV single-platter 20G and 40G models were dramatically quieter than other mainstream drives, even the 5400 rpm models. They retain the reputation of being the quietest even today.

Their performance was competitive when they first appeared, but there's little question that others have spun smartly past them since. They appear to be in the process of being phased completely out of production, displaced by the newer Barracuda V and faster Barracuda 7200.7, both with Serial ATA options.

Regardless, the single-platter Barracuda IV may be at least marginally quieter than its newer relatives, and remain widely used in the SPCR test labs.They have been reliable, quiet workhorses on a wide variety of platforms. They are our reference low-noise hard drives.

The Barracuda IV's defenses against noise include:

  • Highly proven Fluid Dynamic Bearing motor
  • SeaShield™ protects circuit board against accidental handling damage -- it even has a layer of blue-colored foam damping that is visible beneath this metal shield.
  • Acoustically damped seek adjustable via software (default setting is quiet seek)

Selected specifications

  • Ultra ATA/100, 7200 rpm
  • Maximum Internal Transfer Rate (Mbits/sec) 555
  • Average Seek 8.9 ms
  • Average Latency 4.16 ms

Acoustics

  • Idle: <2.5 Bels typical
  • Performance seek: 3.0 Bels typical
  • Quiet seek: 2.5 Bels typical



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