Hard Drive Guide and Hitachi TravelStar 7K100 Hard Drive Review

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INTRODUCTION

When most people look at the hard disk of any notebook (or even desktop, really), they’re looking at size. How many gigabytes does this drive hold? How much random digital stuff can I store on this drive? And that’s definitely important.

But a lot of users don’t necessarily realize the effect the hard disk itself has on the overall performance of a system. Frequently your system is only going to be as fast as the slowest component. In my case, I had a screaming processor, a respectable graphics processor, and a healthy amount of RAM. I also had a very big and very slow hard drive.

At this point, purely for the neophytes, I’ll note that the terms “hard disk” and “hard drive” are used interchangeably, but mean the same thing.

To give you a full understanding of just how slow a hard drive actually is, I submit the two following facts:

  1. Cache and memory in your system can process data in the tens of gigabytes per second. That’s multiples of 1,024 megabytes.
  2. The fastest consumer notebook hard drive on the market – the one I’m reviewing here – processes data at an average of 40 megabytes per second.

So you see how a hard drive can seriously affect your performance. If everything in your system is stored on the hard drive – and it is – that means that the initial load of software will only ever go that fast.

Of course, where your savagely powerful processor comes in is after the program has been loaded into fast memory (RAM) and can be easily and rapidly accessed by the processor itself.

ELEMENTS OF A HARD DISK

There are several different factors that go into dictating the quality and performance of a hard disk. I’ve covered some of this information in my previous hard drive article, but some of this will also be new to you and will be a bit more specific.

CAPACITY

The first is something everyone is familiar with. While desktop hard disks are pushing 500GB right now, the largest notebook drive is 160GB. This seems small, but can be quickly and easily accounted for.

Hard disks store data on what are called platters. Platters inside the drive each have a specified capacity and each drive can have multiple platters. Without getting into too much esoterica, the platters themselves have what is called “areal density”; this refers to how much data can be stored on the platter within a certain amount of space on that platter.

Remember this information on platters, because it will be important later on as well.

What’s important to keep in mind is the difference in physical size of desktop and notebook hard drives. Desktop drives are 3.5″ wide; notebook drives are usually 2.5″ wide, though 1.8″ drives appear in ultraportables. We won’t discuss those here. Desktop drives are also taller than notebook drives.

When all of this is taken into account, it’s impressive notebook drives hit 160GB at all, since they’re generally limited to two platters while desktop drives can have as many as five.

This also explains why larger drives can oftentimes be faster than smaller ones; the motorized head in the drive has a shorter distance to travel when accessing data on a drive with higher areal density.

SPINDLE SPEED

The platters spin on a spindle inside a drive, and at the moment there are three different rotational speeds typically seen in notebook drives: 4200rpm, 5400rpm, and 7200rpm. Desktop drives are almost exclusively 7200rpm at this point, and Western Digital’s Raptor drive spins at a very impressive 10,000rpm.

The faster the spindle speed, the quicker data can be accessed from the platter. However, faster spindle speed usually means a hotter drive, and can mean lower battery life.

Usually, but as you’ll see in this review, not always.

BUFFER SIZE

Hard drives also have their own memory similar to system memory, and it holds a similar function to system memory. Hard drive buffers allow them to cache and “pre-fetch” data to allow quicker access. And like system or video memory, more usually means better, but there’s also a point where the amount stops being relevant because the hardware just can’t make effective use of that much. The sweet spot for hard drive buffers seems to be 8MB these days. Beware 2MB.

THE HITACHI TRAVELSTAR 7K100

Now that I’ve hit you with the crash course in “what all that stuff means on a hard drive,” I’ll hit you with the meat of this review.

Since writing my hard drive guide some time ago, I was contacted by a marketing manager at Hitachi. She claimed that Hitachi’s top of the line was, to make it simple, in nearly every way superior to Seagate’s. She said that their 100GB, 7200rpm drive – the TravelStar 7K100 – was quieter, faster, and ran cooler than Seagate’s 100GB, 7200rpm drive. Keep in mind that at this time, these are the largest drives available for notebooks at this spindle speed. Both manufacturers have released 120GB drives – Seagate has a 160GB drive as well – at slower speeds.

But at this blistering speed, this 100GB capacity is where it’s at.

Not content to simply say “our drive is better,” Hitachi decided to put their money where their mouth is. They sent me a TravelStar 7K100 along with technical documentation testing it favorably against competitors’ drives. While I remain skeptical about white papers from any vendor (see the recent ones from Apple regarding the performance of the Intel Core Duo against the PowerPC G5, they’re a little exagerated), having actually used this drive, I could definitely make a case for the figures claimed by Hitachi, as you’ll see here.

The retail package I received included the drive along with a 2.5″ hard disk enclosure for the previous drive – a very thoughtful and respectable inclusion. More than that, by including the enclosure, Hitachi offers a cost-effective means of obtaining a 100GB, 2.5″ external hard drive. Note that these can be powered off of USB and are extremely mobile.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find a vendor online selling the TravelStar 7K100 in its full retail package, only OEM. In fairness, however, I tried to find the Seagate Momentus 7200.1 – a comparable drive – in a retail package online to see if it came with an enclosure as well, but it’s also only available in OEM. OEM basically means just the drive itself without any special packaging, by the way.

THE CONTENDERS

I tested the Hitachi TravelStar 7K100 against the 100GB, 4200rpm Fujitsu drive that came with my Gateway 7510GX, and tested them both within that notebook. Relevant system specifications are as follows:

  • Mobile Athlon 64 3700+ (2.4GHz, 1MB L2 Cache)
  • 1GB PC2700 DDR RAM
  • 128MB Mobility Radeon X600

The drives:

 Hitachi TravelStar 7K100  Fujitsu MHU2100AT
 7200rpm  4200rpm
 100GB  100GB
 8MB Buffer  8MB Buffer
 Parallel ATA  Parallel ATA

For the difference between Parallel and Serial ATA, please see my other hard drive article.

Further specifications between the drives, as seen in HDTune:

 
Hitachi HD (view large image)

Fujitsu HD (view large image

Hitachi on the left, Fujitsu on the right.

What you should be keeping in mind is that most notebooks come with 4200rpm drives standard, though 5400rpm drives aren’t as uncommon these days. When you read this review, note that it’s a good indicator of the performance changes you might experience if you upgrade your own notebook hard drive.

TESTING PROCEDURES

I don’t know about you, but personally, I don’t care a whole lot for having a bunch of numbers just thrown at me from benchmarks in most hardware reviews. While they’re interesting sometimes, I know most people care more about pure, perceptable performance. While I will, of course, include some benchmarks to help quantify the true difference between these drives, I’ll also speak largely subjectively about my experiences with the two drives. The tests I’m running are also designed to approximate the average user’s needs as best they can.

To closer approximate the average user, each drive was formatted identically with the following installed:

  • Windows XP Professional SP2
  • Omega Catalyst 6.2 Video Drivers
  • Catalyst 6.3 Southbridge Drivers
  • Doom 3 v1.3
  • Stock Gateway Drivers for all other hardware
  • ATI Tray Tools on startup
  • Norton Antivirus Corporate Edition on startup

Additionally, each install was configured to connect to the wireless network in my apartment on startup.

HDTUNE TESTS

I’ll get our primary benchmark out of the way immediately. Have a look at these numbers.


Hitachi 100GB 7200RPM HD (view large image)


Fujitsu 100GB 4200RPM (view large image)


Desktop Seagate HD 160GB 7200RPM (view large image)

In the above images, the Hitachi is on the top, my old Fujitsu in the middle, and the desktop 160GB 7200rpm Seagate in my father’s desktop on the bottom.

You’ll notice the desktop Seagate is numerically faster, but not by much and certainly not perceptably. Also keep in mind that the desktop drive isn’t operating under thermal and power constraints and has no power management features.

So where does this leave us?

Comparing the Hitachi against the Fujitsu, you’ll notice that the minimum transfer rate of the Hitachi is only 5MB/sec slower than the maximum transfer rate of the Fujitsu! Numerically, there’s no contest here as the Hitachi provides a very substantial, very measurable performance boost over the Fujitsu.

ACCESS TIMES

I measured boot times between the two drives, doing a cold boot to the Windows XP desktop with everything in the system tray loaded.

While the Hitachi definitely loaded to the Windows XP desktop faster than the Fujitsu did, because of the wireless and Norton, final boot times were virtually identical between drives, measuring about a minute apiece.

If you don’t have as much booting in your system tray, you’ll see an improvement with the Hitachi over your stock drive.

The next time I measured was the loading time of the first level in Doom 3. Doom 3 is one of the more demanding games on the market today and its loading times are fairly long.

On my old Fujitsu, the first level took one minute and four seconds (1:04) to load. On the Hitachi, the same level took just twenty-six seconds (0:26), more than twice as fast as the old drive!

While I did not officially test times on World of Warcraft, I can tell you that on the Hitachi I noticed substantially faster loading times. World of Warcraft also streams a lot of data from the hard drive during gameplay, which can cause stuttering as textures and models are loaded. On the Fujitsu I saw definite and real stuttering, while the Hitachi provided a remarkably, noticeably smoother experience.

While you can certainly survive as a gamer on a 4200rpm drive, the TravelStar 7K100 definitely makes for a much more comfortable, enjoyable gaming experience substantially less marred by load times and stuttering from streaming data.

For my final test, I moved 28GB of data between two partitions. On the Fujitsu, it took one hour and three minutes (1:03) to move the data. On the Hitachi, it took just thirty-nine minutes (0:39).

HEAT, NOISE, AND BATTERY LIFE

Unfortunately, while my notebook is amazing for my personal purposes, it’s a miserable test for battery life. The Mobile Athlon 64 3700+ and the Mobility Radeon X600 eat so much juice on their own that power consumption of the hard drive barely factors in.

In terms of heat production, on the other hand, my notebook is downright punishing, and is an excellent test for the TravelStar.

The Fujitsu typically idled at 48C, which is very hot for a notebook hard drive. Under heavy, sustained load it would go up to 52C. And on my chill pad at home, it never really went below 46C after fairly continual use of the computer.

The Hitachi, on the other hand, usually idles at 46C. More impressively, under the same heavy, sustained load, it too topped out at 52C. And on the chill pad, it idled at 44C or lower after continual usage of the computer.

Using conventional wisdom that heat dissipated by electronics basically equates to wasted power (there’s definitely a lot more to it than that, but under the circumstances the generality is fairly valid), I feel I could confidently argue that this hard drive can improve, however marginally, the battery life of more portable notebooks. Note that the power consumption of the hard drive never ranked that high as a drain on the battery, but anywhere you can get more efficiency is good.

Also keep in mind that with a hard drive that generates less heat, that’s less heat that the notebook overall has to dissipate, and thus the fans have to kick on less frequently. And if you’re using it on your lap, that means it’s less apt to burn your unmentionables.

When you recognize that a 7200rpm drive should for all intents and purposes generate substantially more heat than a 4200rpm, and that this one generates LESS…well, it’s hard not to be impressed.

An important thing to note is that even though a 7200rpm drive should theoretically consume more power than a 4200rpm drive, the 7200rpm drive doesn’t have to work nearly as long as the 4200rpm drive does, so one pretty much cancels the other out.

As for noise, admittedly, the Hitachi is louder. In a completely quiet room, it’s definitely more audible than the Fujitsu was. For me, this isn’t really an issue; I like being able to hear the hard drive. I’ve been on computers since I was four, and I’m just used to that being the sound of “working.” Honestly, though, when the fan kicks in on my laptop, the fan does for the most part drown out the sound. And if you’re listening to music, that’ll do it, too. More than all of this, it’s only really audible when under a decent load, but it’s never obtrusive.

IN PRACTICE

In regular, day-to-day use, I’ve found the Hitachi to be in every way an improvement. My system feels snappier and more responsive, and gaming has been substantially improved.

For multimedia junkies, you’ll find that there’s no substitute for a 7200rpm drive. The other film students like me, or even the more casual armchair video editors are going to see an improvement switching to this drive as your video editing software of choice has a much easier time streaming video.

Gamers are going to see better loading times and smoother gameplay. In order to provide an uninterrupted gaming experience, games tend to stream data off of the hard drive whenever possible, and if you’re on a slow hard drive, you can see stuttering similar to what I experienced in the simultaneously undemanding and exceedingly demanding World of Warcraft. A much faster drive will definitely improve experiences there as well.

CONCLUSION

While at the time of this article we don’t have a readily available 100GB Seagate Momentus 7200.1 to test against (although we will soon), I can tell you they have their work cut out for them trying to eclipse this monster.

So one of the big questions is: how much is it? Price is a major factor with notebook drives, which tend to be substantially more expensive than their desktop cousins. When this drive was released it asked a price tag close to $300; it can now be found for around $200 online, and I suspect its price will continue to go down.

Can I recommend it? Absolutely. If you’re looking to upgrade your hard drive, I think this is probably your best bet unless you’re absolutely aching for the marginally slower, higher capacity 120GB or 160GB drives. In fact, the only situation where I’d really question upgrading would be if you already had a 100GB drive. While your performance will definitely improve with the TravelStar 7K100, you may feel a bit underwhelmed when you realize “oh, yeah, same capacity.” But if you need a faster drive, this is definitely it.

I would, of course, like to thank Patty Kim at Hitachi for the opportunity to review this drive.

PRICING AND AVAILABILITY

The Hitachi TravelStar 7K100 100GB 7200RPM hard drive can be found at various retailers on the web for around $200.



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