Notebook Hard Drive Guide

by Reads (188,625)

by Dustin Sklavos, California USA

Introduction

Hard drives! Consumers generally don’t give a second thought to hard drives beyond “how much space can I get?” And by and large, that may just be okay for most users. But what about when the time comes to upgrade? Or what if you find that your system performance is feeling a bit sluggish?

More than anything, this is the area where having a notebook really suffers compared to a desktop. We’ve got desktop level performance out of virtually every other component (even the GPU, impressively enough), but the hard drives are still stuck in the stone age and lagging behind.

For example, were you aware how much of an effect the speed of the hard drive in your notebook can have on overall performance? The hard drive speed in any computer system can be a big bottleneck, but notebook hard drives can be particularly slow.

So, how can you avoid or at least mitigate this particular notebook pitfall and get the most out of having desktop power in a conveniently mobile form factor? Read on.

Nomenclature Disclaimer: A “hard drive” is a “hard disk” and a “hard disk” is a “hard drive”.  They are different names for the exact same thing — that being a component in your computer used to store program and file data in the form of 1′s and 0′s.  In this article we’ll use ”hard disk” and “hard drive” interchangeably so that you get used to hearing both terms!

Specifications

While hard drives aren’t the cornucopia of confusion that processors or RAM can be (and if you don’t think this is confusing, you’ve never worked retail), there are some crucial points to make.

Before I mention anything, though, I do want to note that by and large, notebook hard drives are upgradeable. Ultraportable notebooks tend not to have upgradeable hard drives, and I’ll explain why, but just about any unit larger will.

The first and oddest distinction I want to make is that your system’s storage space isn’t just limited to the capacity of the hard disk inside it; external hard disks don’t suffer many of the limitations an internal one can. I’m devoting an entire section to external storage; I’ve had to make a lot of use of it, particularly with digital video editing (which is a notorious bandwidth hog), and it really is an excellent option for users who aren’t satisfied even with up to 120GB of internal storage.

The next major distinction I want to make is in the physical size specification of hard drives. Desktop hard drives are 3.5″ drives (3.5″ = hard drive diameter measurement of the circular storage disk platter); these drives can also be used in external enclosures to make external hard drives (more on this later).

But notebook hard disks come in two sizes: 2.5″ and 1.8″. Most users will never have to worry about 1.8″ drives; these never appear in more consumer-oriented retail stores. They’re only used in ultraportable notebooks (usually Fujitsu, Sony or ThinkPad ultraportables) and are almost always not upgradeable (at least, not easily).

2.5″ hard disks are what just about everyone uses in their notebook. These have just recently been showing up in numbers in retail chains, likely as a result of the skyrocketing popularity of notebooks in general, and are commonly referred to on packaging just as “notebook hard drives.”

IDE And Serial ATA

This is a major distinction I need to make, because I know there’s going to be confusion about this. These are basically the types of connectors the hard drive uses to connect to the computer.

That said, I want to make a major point: notebook drives come in IDE and Serial ATA, and desktop drives do, too, but they are NOT intercompatible. Adaptors do exist to connect notebook drives to desktop systems internally, but this is advanced stuff and not worth getting into. Suffice to say, a desktop drive is not going to work in your notebook. Size alone makes sure of that.

As a notebook user, as far as you’re concerned, Serial ATA 3.5″ drives don’t exist. They’re not important in your world. If you’re assembling your own external hard disk with your own enclosure (more later), you’ll only be using regular IDE (also called Ultra ATA). If you’re just going to buy an external hard disk, then you really don’t care about this and it doesn’t apply to you.

99% of notebooks today use conventional IDE (or ATA-5/ATA-6 in notebooks) as a connector, and that’s what almost all (if not all) the notebook hard disks on the shelf at the local retail store are using. But for you unlucky folks that have a notebook using the newer Serial ATA (or SATA) connector, upgrading is going to be a bit harder. Serial ATA is still really new in the notebook sector and, in this author’s opinion, profoundly unnecessary.

Identifying which kind of connector your notebook uses (and thus, which type of hard disk to get) is fairly simple. If the connector on the back of the drive is a two row grid of pinholes about two-thirds the width of the drive itself, it’s IDE. If not, it’s Serial ATA.

If you’re even lazier, just go to your manufacturer’s site and find out. If it doesn’t say, it’s IDE. They usually only ever make specific mention of Serial ATA.

I’m going to make a digression here and this is strictly for hardcore hardware geeks only; if you think the preceding paragraphs were thick, avoid this one.

A big question is: “Why Serial ATA?” I don’t have an answer for you. In desktops Serial ATA makes cable management a lot easier, allows for simpler set up of RAID arrays (even more complex stuff), and the increased bandwidth of Serial ATA in the desktop at least can be made use of with ultra fast drives like Western Digital’s Raptor series. So it’s not totally useless.

But in notebooks? I don’t see the point. What cables? It’s a notebook! The bandwidth improvement doesn’t matter, notebook hard disks by and large barely even use up a third of the bandwidth available to them in conventional IDE. RAID arrays are only ever seen in boutique notebooks. Notebook hard disks are still way too slow to justify the move to Serial ATA in notebooks.

Bottom line: don’t seek out Serial ATA in your notebook. It’s pointless and you won’t see any improvements out of it. I never even saw the difference in my old desktop, and actually went back to regular IDE just because it was easier to set things up on.

Internal Drives

Unless you’re using an ultraportable notebook, you’re going to want a 2.5″ hard disk, and it’s probably going to be IDE (see my previous spiel).

Notebook drives come in three different speeds: 4200rpm, 5400rpm, and 7200rpm. These speeds refer to the speed at which the spindle inside the drive rotates. Without going into too much detail, they basically refer mostly to how fast data can be accessed from the drive.

Now, it stands to reason that the faster a drive spins, the more power it’s going to eat. By and large that’s true, but it’s not the great difference anyone thinks it is. In fact, some 5400rpm drives report lower power usage than 4200s. If anything, the power consumption of a 5400rpm drive is about on par with a 4200. The rare 7200rpm drives do eat a little more power, usually cutting your battery life by a few minutes.

Another major consideration associated with drive speed is heat. 4200rpm and 5400rpm drives will run much cooler than a 7200rpm drive will, and if your notebook already has heat problems (like mine), the move to a 7200rpm drive won’t be a good choice.

The faster a drive is, the more expensive it’s going to be. There’s a decent price hike from 4200rpm to 5400rpm and then a massive one from 5400rpm to 7200rpm.

The general rule seems to be that the sweet spot for drive speed, heat, battery life, price, and performance is a 5400rpm drive.

Most notebooks come with a 4200rpm drive standard, and that’s cripplingly slow. 1.8″ drives are always 4200rpm, but they’re also smaller and the drive heads have less distance to cover, so it’s not so much of an issue. For what it’s worth, my old Sony TR2A had faster access times on its 40GB 1.8″ drive than my current Gateway 7510GX has on its 100GB 2.5″ drive, and both have the same spindle speed.

The difference in performance between a 4200rpm and 5400rpm drive is usually about 33% in favor of the 5400. A lot of users have reported substantially smoother computing experiences after making this upgrade, so if you can go with a 5400rpm if you’re custom ordering your machine, do so.

I’d go over things like shock ratings, access times, etc. for notebook drives, but by and large this is esoterica that the average consumer doesn’t really need to know.

As of the time of this writing, the largest notebook drive capacity is 120GB.

So, you’re going to upgrade the drive in your notebook: which brand do you buy?

Here are the major hard drive brands:

  • TOSHIBA – Toshibas tend to be on the slower side and are one of the two brands that frequently get packaged in less expensive notebooks. Toshiba, however, was first on the market with a 120GB notebook hard disk, currently the largest capacity available.
  • FUJITSU – Fujitsus are the other brand, and these also tend to be slower than other drives at the same speed.
  • SEAGATE – I like the brand personally. They’re about middle of the road in terms of performance, but virtually unmatched in reliability. Their drives tend to run cool and last a while, and they sport a very impressive five year warranty. They’re also easy to find in retail, and they’re the only other manufacturer offering 120GB drives. The trade-off is that as far as notebook hard drives go, these are the most expensive by far. And remember, these aren’t the fastest in their class.
  • HITACHI – These are. Hitachi is generally considered the overall best brand of notebook hard disk. Their 5400rpm drives offer performance that approaches 7200rpm levels, and they’re reasonably priced. Where they fall short, however, is in heat output, as they do tend to run a bit hotter than the Seagates.
  • WESTERN DIGITAL – Western Digital tends to be sort of an unknown as far as notebook drives go. If their desktop drives are any indication, I’d steer clear. Their desktop drives tend to run very middle of the road, excepting their stellar Raptor series drives. Western Digital hasn’t really penetrated the notebook sector very effectively and for now, I’d just as soon avoid them.

External Drives

If you’re going to go external, you have two options: build your own drive, which can be cheaper (and oftentimes smaller), or buy a ready made external drive.

External drives have two ways of connecting to your notebook: USB 2.0 or FireWire (IEEE1394). Some drives offer just USB 2.0, some offer FireWire, and some offer both, and what you want is dependent on how you’re going to use the drive.

I’ll tell you right now that in my experience – and this has been done using a couple of different drives – FireWire is roughly three times faster than USB 2.0, and uses roughly a third of the CPU power the USB 2.0 drive requires.

If you don’t have a FireWire port on your notebook, you’ll be using USB 2.0. If you want to be sure the drive can connect to other computers, you’ll want a drive that’s USB 2.0 capable.

I want to note that an external drive connected through FireWire has more consistent and often faster throughput than an internal hard disk. A good FireWire drive can be as fast as or faster than an internal 5400rpm disk. So for the multimedia buffs out there, FireWire makes digital video on a notebook possible.

So, what if you want to assemble your own? Well, you can purchase an enclosure for 3.5″ drives, but you can also get one for 2.5″ drives. So if you’ve replaced the drive in your notebook, you can always buy an enclosure for that old one and use it as an external for added storage space.

3.5″ externals always require an external power supply, but the 2.5″ ones can often be powered off of two USB ports, so that’s food for thought if you even want your external drive mobile. But again, that’s a 2.5″ drive, so you’re sacrificing speed and capacity.

Assembling an external drive is usually fairly simple and most enclosures come with good instructions. There are legions of enclosures out there from all different kinds of manufacturers, and I found the best way to shop for them is to get them online where they’re much cheaper, and get them from a reputable site like NewEgg.com which features user reviews. Professional reviews for enclosures can be hard to find, but user reviews make it a lot easier to buy an off brand and give you a good idea of what you’re getting into.

If you can afford it, buy one with a fan. If you can’t, at least make sure the drive reviews well in terms of heat dissipation, as that can be a killer.

Enclosures use IDE (Ultra ATA) drives. You’ll want a 7200rpm 3.5″ desktop drive, which is easy enough to get, and then capacity is entirely up to you. Assemble, plug it in, and if you’re running Windows XP you’ll be good to go, and Windows will recognize it as a regular hard disk.

As of the time of this article, the largest desktop hard drive capacity is 500GB.

Now, what brand of hard drive do you get for your external? There are four major brands of desktop hard drives:

  • SEAGATE – As of the time of this writing, Seagates are the most reliable drives you can buy for a desktop machine, and again feature an impressive five year warranty period. They also tend to be fairly affordable. I’ve had nothing but good experiences with Seagates, and strongly recommend them.
  • MAXTOR – In stark contrast, Maxtors are by and large the worst brand of desktop hard drive. These are unreliable, and I’ve seen a LOT of them fail. Unsurprisingly, they also tend to be the least expensive ones on the shelf, and have the shortest warranty period at one year.
  • WESTERN DIGITAL – Western Digitals are great in the high end (again, their Raptor line), but otherwise their quality is right between Maxtor and Seagate and unfortunately, also only offer a one year warranty.
  • HITACHI – These are the fastest 7200rpm drives you can buy, and I’ve heard they’re a great value. Unfortunately, their reliability is also questionable, and old ones had a very high failure rate. They do, however, feature a three year warranty, and are becoming more and more popular these days.

One final bit I want to touch on here are the existence of high capacity external flash hard drives; these usually max out at 4GB and can power off of the USB 2.0 port. I guess they seem to be popular, but I can’t figure out why you’d use one, though maybe you can. They also tend to be very expensive for the capacity.

A Bit About Recovery Partitions

These days, most notebook manufacturers ship their recovery media on the hard drive itself. Capacity is enough of a commodity on these drives on its own, but this gets really frustrating. My best advice would be to run the software that lets you make your own recovery media. Many manufacturers do include a utility that lets you “reclaim” the space used by that recovery partition for your own usable space. If nothing else, running the recovery media may allow you to reformat the drive while not restoring the original partition.

Conclusion

It’s surprising how complex and convoluted this can get, so I want to stress a couple of simpler points.

For your notebook’s internal hard disk, you want a 5400rpm drive, and if you’re buying it as a new upgrade for your notebook, you want either a Hitachi or a Seagate. Hitachis do seem to be favored in these forums, though.

For an external hard drive, if you’re going to buy a ready-made external, Seagate and Western Digital are excellent choices. If you’re going to build your own external using an enclosure and desktop drive, you want a Seagate hard drive and an enclosure well-reviewed on a popular site by the consumers that actually bought it.

If you want a more portable external hard disk, you’ll want either a Seagate or a Hitachi 2.5″ notebook drive, and a suitably small and, again, well-reviewed enclosure.

I know this is a lot of information to take in, but I do hope it proves useful to you. The difference between two drives can mean a world of difference for the pure performance of your computer. If you need the extra storage space, it’s nice to know, too, that a drive connected to your computer through FireWire can offer performance that’s very close to a desktop. When you see that, it’s not hard to understand why notebooks are supplanting desktops in retail.



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