Entry-level EIDE hard drives group test review

20GB EIDE hard drive
Photo of Entry-level EIDE hard drives group test
£125 + VAT

Although Seagate does offer a 20.4GB version of this drive, the one we received was the next step up, at 30.6GB. Not that it makes a great deal of difference, since most of the characteristics of the drives are the same.

Rotational platter speed is 7,200rpm, which is higher than the other drives in this group test, and goes some way towards explaining why this drive was faster than the rest in our performance tests. The performance is also helped by the average seek time of the drive, which Seagate quotes as being 8.2ms.

In common with most desktop drives aimed at the entry- to mid-level market, this Barracuda is equipped with an Ultra ATA/66 EIDE interface (compatible with Ultra ATA/33), rather than the newer and faster Ultra ATA/100 version. This is not likely to affect performance dramatically, though, as it’s only really the very fast drives on the market that can properly benefit from the higher interface speeds.

Helping the performance in this respect is the 2MB data buffer, which is four times higher than that used by most competitors. Seagate’s other claim to fame for this drive is that it has the highest non-operating shock tolerance in its class; 300Gs. This is not exceptionally relevant, though, as operating shock is usually more likely to damage a drive and the data it contains.

The drive comes with a three year warranty, and is also physically protected by a plastic panel over the drive’s IC board. This should help to eliminate static damage and other problems associated with improper handling and installation routines.

Fujitsu’s range of drives finds its way into many different computers, not just those of the company’s other, PC manufacturing, division. The drive we looked at was the 20.4GB model, using a platter spin speed of 5,400rpm, which is the norm for this sector of the desktop drive market.

Fujitsu quotes individual average seek times for read and write, which give an approximate mean of 11ms for overall seek operations. Again, Fujitsu doesn’t differ from the norm in the size of the data buffer fitted to the drive; it’s 512KB, as is usually the case.

Somewhat unusually, though, this range of drives supports the Ultra ATA/100 EIDE interface standard, while being backward compatible with both the 33MB/sec and 66MB/sec variants. The acoustic noise generated by the drive in operation is around 33dB; more than some drives tested here, but still impressively quiet compared to some of the other components in the PC; namely the power supply and CPU cooling fans.

Another unusual factor is the optional fitting of fluid dynamic bearings in place of conventional ball bearings. These help reduce operating noise considerably, as well as reducing wear and improving operating shock susceptibility.

The warranty-backed drives are claimed to have a mean time between failures (MTBF) of 500,000 power-on hours, and Fujitsu claims that the power requirements of the MPG3204AT are the lowest in its class.

Looking at our performance test results, you’d think there could only be one winner from this group test; the Seagate drive. Its performance lead is mainly due to the faster platter speed, which is at least one-third higher than the rest.

But performance is just one of the factors determining the suitability of a hard drive to the particular task in hand. The other major considerations are price and reliability. Like processors and memory, hard drives are subject to highly volatile price fluctuations. For this reason, it’s very important to check up-to-date pricing before making a commitment. It’s safe to assume, though, that higher performance – particularly performance that’s perceived to be higher by the market in general – will command a higher price.

One thing is for sure, and that is that these hard drives are all of exceptionally high build quality. Attention to detail such as sound-deadening shrouds, impact-absorbing plastic surrounds and IC board covers are becoming commonplace. This is likely to improve reliability, which has to be a good thing for the majority of users who, despite all the warnings, never make backups…

One of the newer drives in this group test, the SpinPoint Voyager range was launched by Samsung in September 2000, with an interesting range of features designed to separate it from the crowd. Samsung is not the biggest name in hard drives in the UK, but it has been gaining ground recently, and some of this drive’s features go some way towards explaining that increase in popularity.

As with some of the other drives in this group test, operating noise and capacity are two key points of the Samsung drive’s marketing message. With 20GB per platter throughout the range – which includes 10.2GB, 30.6GB and 40.8GB models – our 20.4GB drive featured just the one platter, with two recording surfaces.

This high areal density, coupled with a spin speed of 5,400rpm, means that the drive’s performance should be good. Samsung quotes an average seek time of 9ms, which is certainly impressive, and the drive has a 512KB buffer to help the data along.

Near-silent operation is another feature touted by Samsung for this drive, with a claimed operating noise of 30dB, partly through sound deadening materials and quiet motors, and partly through noise-cancelling algorithms.

As our drive was one of the ‘H’ models in the range, it can support Ultra-ATA/100 interface controllers, while the more basic units are limited to Ultra-ATA/66, with backward compatibility to the 33MB/sec standard.

Other nice touches include a protective outer layer around the drive to help reduce impact damage during transit or installation, SMART compliance and a three year warranty that includes technical support access 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Using a 550MHz Pentium III system with 128MB of RAM, we ran a series of tests on each of the drives, under Windows 98 and (to avoid software caching issues) also under DOS. We selected a range of files to read, write and delete, setting up batch files to automate the various tasks. Each of these operations was then timed.

We used two separate sets of test files. The first set consisted of small text and binary files (less than 100KB), while the second contained much larger files, ranging from 200KB to several megabytes apiece. The aim was to determine the performance of the drives when reading/writing large contiguous blocks of data, as well as large numbers of small files. One function requires a high-performance interface and data transfer rate, while the other depends on fast seek times and spindle speed.

In both tests, the Seagate drive ran away from the competition, helped by its faster spindle speed and larger data buffer. In this sector of the market, drives usually use 5,400rpm spindle speeds, so the 7,200rpm of the Seagate drive gives it an advantage here.

Small file performance

Large file performance

Too much hard drive space is never enough. Operating systems and applications seem to double their hard drive footprints on a yearly basis, while even some reference CD-ROMs and games can dump several hundred megabytes of data onto your hard drive.

And then there’s the Internet effect. Unless you actively delete them, every e-mail you’ve ever sent or received is likely to be stored somewhere on your PC, along with ‘humorous’ attachments, downloads from Web pages, shareware files, utilities that seemed like a good idea at the time and doubtless more than a few image files. These all eat up hard drive space, and because of the way Windows is designed, half the time you’ll never know where many of these files are stored, and what they do. Add to this a collection of MP3 files and digital camera pictures or scanned images, and you have a recipe for hard drive overload.

So we’ve reviewed a few ‘entry-level’ 3.5-inch desktop EIDE hard drives, to find out what’s available. We reckon 20-30GB is a good starting point for any new machine, or for upgraders looking to increase their storage space for the minimum of expenditure. Click the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.

The price per megabyte for hard drive storage has dropped regularly as demand for capacity has increased. The table below shows how prices have tumbled over the last few years, with an approximate, average price per megabyte for the end-user. Figures are based on EIDE hard drives.
Year                                           Price per MB (pence)

1992 185
1993         155
1994                                         82
1995                                        34
1996                                         20
1997                                         10
1998                                         5
1999                                         2
2000                                         0.8

Of course, there are other things to consider when looking at these numbers. In 1992, it was possible to fit an operating system, word-processor, spreadsheet and database application onto a 20MB hard drive and still have room for several of the latest games. Since then, software bloat has led to applications expanding to fill the space available. Today’s Windows applications are more user-friendly and intuitive (aren’t they?), but they are certainly not as compact and tightly-coded as those of the early 1990s.

In terms of the number of complete applications that can be stored on the average hard drive, not a great deal has actually changed, although in the last couple of years the relationship between capacity and software bloat has increased in favour of capacity.

Quantum’s big two selling points for this drive are its areal density (how much data you can squeeze into a unit of platter space) and its operating noise, with the company claiming both that the drive is whisper quiet in operation, and, at the time of launch in June 2000, that it was the first 15GB per platter hard drive range. The LCT in the name stands for ‘low-cost technology’, and this drive certainly falls into the entry-level price bracket, while, from our impressions, still delivering good performance.

The drive has been made quieter by a combination of sound deadening materials and by using a spin speed of 4,400rpm in place of the more conventional 5,400rpm for drives in this class. This spin speed is lower than many of the drive’s competitors, but the high areal density should compensate where seek times are concerned, and the lower speed does significantly reduce the operating noise; a claimed 31dB in operating mode, or 28 when idle, which Quantum claims to be among the quietest in the world.

Available in a range that includes 7.5B, 15GB, 20.5GB and 30GB capacities, the LCT 15 drive uses the Ultra-ATA/66 interface – backward compatible with Ultra-ATA/33 – and is fitted with a 512KB data buffer to improve performance. The particular drive we reviewed, the 20.4GB model, uses three active recording surfaces, and has an average seek time of 12ms. A one year warranty is provided with all the drives in the range, while there’s also the option of a retail boxed drive rather than the standard bare model.

Company: Seagate

Contact: 0800 783 5177