by Philip Bloem
Are you looking for a way to increase the performance of your notebook? Then upgrading the storage is often an easy and worthwhile way to boost the speed of your laptop without buying a new computer. We took an in-depth look at some of the top choices for notebook storage. Should you get an SSD or normal hard drive? Read on to find out.
In this review we?re going to look at three hard disk drives and three solid state drives.
Western Digital spent quite some time working on the technology before they released their 7200rpm 500GB drive, the Scorpio Black. We?re going to see if it was worth the wait. Next is the the Momentus XT from Seagate. This "hybrid" drive combines a 500GB traditional hard drive with a 4GB SSD. The SSD acts like read cache. The intelligence on the drive copies the most read files to the cache. When a file is read from the cache, performance should equal SSD performance. We?re going to find out if that?s true. For comparison?s sake I have included a common 5400rpm 320GB hard drive, a Fujitsu MHZ2320BH-G2.
The high-performance SSD market was long dominated by Intel until a company called Sandforce started releasing its controllers. The Sandforce controllers are used in SSDs from several companies like OCZ, Corsair, OWC and others. For this head-to-head review we?re going to have a look at the Agility 2 and Vertex Limited Edition from OCZ. On that note, Crucial?s C300 line of SSDs was recently released at competitive prices. The C300 is the first consumer SSD to have a SATA III (6.0 Gb/s) interface. It is backwards compatible to SATA II (3.0 Gb/s), which is common to modern notebooks. We?re also going to have a look at the 64GB Crucial C300 SSD.
Storage reviews often focus on synthetic benchmarks that have little to do with the actual performance the notebook user experiences. In this review we?re only going to look at real world performance inside a common notebook. To do that each drive was installed into a HP Pavilion dm3 13-inch notebook and a series of measurements were performed.
One of the slowest tasks that every PC user has to deal with is installing software. How much faster are SSDs than hard drives when it comes to installing operating systems and applications? First we gave these drives a fresh install of Windows 7 Home Premium. After that we installed a number of commonly used applications like antivirus, an office suite and imaging software. The chart shows the time it took to install Windows, Microsoft Office 2007 and Adobe Photoshop CS4 together.
The SSDs are clearly leading the pack here. The 7200rpm hard drives took about 3 minutes more than the SSDs. As could be expected the 5400rpm Fujitsu came in slowest.
Windows Startup Performance
Next we measured how fast these drives boot Windows 7 with the utility Boot Timer.
The SSDs are showing off their muscles here, booting in about 22 seconds. Seagate XT does well, coming in at 27 seconds on average. On some instances the Seagate managed to boot within 24 seconds, coming very close to the promised SSD performance. We didn?t want to give the XT an unfair advantage so we did not boot consecutive times. We always did other benchmarks and usage in between.
File Copy Performance
To get an accurate indication of the file copy performance we copied and pasted two folders on to the same partition. The first folder had a large number of random files and images. The second folder had a couple of large high definition video files. In total 11GB of files were copied.
The OCZ Agility benefits from having more channels here. It copied the 11GB files in 77 seconds which equals about 143MB per second. Again Seagate manages to beat the Scorpio Black here, even though the files could not have been cached. The Fujitsu 5400rpm hard drive shows to be very slow with copying files.
Next we opened up a large TIFF image without having started Photoshop yet. So the time measured includes both opening the image and launching Photoshop.
The Sandforce based SSDs are taking the lead here. The rest of the picture looks very similar to the other results we have seen: Seagate XT beating the WD black and the 5400rpm coming in lastly.
For our final test we placed four applications in the startup folder and lastly a shortcut to a 720p video file that was opened in MPC-HC. This way the notebook launches the five applications and then starts playing the video file. The reboot time was measured from pressing "restart" until the video started playing. Let's see how our contestants do here.
It's almost the same picture as we've seen in every other test: SSDs leading, Seagate coming close, followed by the WD Black and the 5400rpm coming in lastly.
Performing multiple tasks at once is becoming more and more common these days. When a virus scanner is running in the background, one wants to be able to use their notebook without sacrificing performance. As you will see the type of hard drive can have a big influence on this.
Our first multi task test consisted of scanning a large folder of files with Avast Virus scanner, while at the same time copying a folder and decompressing a zip file with 7zip. For the second multi task test I opened a large image and Photoshop while a background virus scan was already running. The time it took to open the image and Photoshop was measured. The times of both multi task tests were added and are shown in the table.
The Sandforce controller shows it's strength here. Crucial C300 falls behind the OCZ drives in this test, making the Crucial a less ideal choice for multitasking. Seagate is beating Western Digital once again, even when these tasks were not cached.
The type of storage you select for your notebook can have a noticeable impact on battery life, especially when it's a smaller power efficient notebook like the HP Pavilion dm3 used for this review. To get an accurate indication of battery life I used Batterybar 3.4.1 and browsed the web for more than one hour with wireless on and brightness at 50 percent. Windows was set to Power Saver profile.
SSDs can give a nice improvement in battery life. The Vertex and C300 scored about half an hour more than the Momentus XT. The OCZ Agility didn't do very well in this test. I double and triple check this but the sample used for our testing didn?t seem very power efficient. The Fujitsu drive is not known for being a very power efficient drive and the battery life measurement confirms that.
Noise and Vibration
A nice benefit of SSD is the total lack of noise and vibration coming from them. The Seagate XT wasn't totally silent, although its noise levels are nothing special for a 7200rpm hard drive. It does give a slight vibration to the aluminum case of the notebook, but this wasn't disturbing. The Western Digital Black was audible, but it seemed slightly more silent than the Seagate. The amount of vibration was also slightly less. The differences were small though and won't be much (if any) of a concern to average consumers.
With the 64GB Crucial C300 selling for $149 and the Agility 2 60GB for $169, performance SSDs are becoming more and more affordable. Sandforce based SSDs like the OCZ Agility 2 and OCZ Vertex LE showed to be fast SSDs that perform well in all areas. They?re especially fast in multi tasking situations. Crucial?s C300 does equally well in single tasks. During multi tasking it is still fast, just not as fast as the Sandforce based SSDs.
Before doing this review I did not expect much from Seagate?s XT drive. I expected the 4GB cache would be too small to have a meaningful impact on performance. While using the XT I became increasingly enthusiastic about it. It really does feel like a SSD in many situations. For those who don?t want to pay the high price per gigabyte for SSDs the Seagate XT "hybrid" drive is a very interesting option. The 500GB version retails for about $130, which makes it a cost efficient alternative to SSDs.
The performance of the Western Digital Scorpio Black hard drive was a little disappointing at times compared to these flash-based drives. The Scorpio Black's performance fell behind the Seagate XT in most situations, even when the XT couldn't use its cache. Its mayor advantage over the XT is its price. With a price of only $80 it can still be a worthwhile upgrade for notebook owners currently owning a 5400rpm hard drive.