Consumer’s Guide: How To Buy a Computer Hard Drive

Consumer’s Guide: How To Buy a Computer Hard Drive

Do you need gigabytes or performance? Laptop upgrades or a screaming new gaming PC? We walk you through what you need to know to pick the right storage solution for your PC.

Storage. Always needed, often overlooked.

Often lost in the buzz surrounding the latest DirectX 11 GPUs and hexacore CPUs is the ability to actually store and retrieve your stuff. Your applications, games, photographs, digital music and everything else lives on your hard drive. But that boring old rotating magnetic disk just doesn’t seem exciting or high tech – even though the technology in a hard drive is actually pretty incredible.

One technology that has made storage a little sexier is SSDs – solid state drives based on flash memory technology. But SSDs aren’t a perfect solution, as we’ll see shortly. We’ll cover the gamut of storage options for your OS and apps to help you better understand what storage solution is best for your needs. (Note that we’re not going to talk about optical storage, which really is secondary these days.)

We’ll first touch briefly on technology and jargon, then look at several different scenarios, and try to focus on what storage options might be appropriate and cost effective. But first, let’s talk tech. We’ll first briefly discuss hard drives, then take a quick look at SSDs.

Good Old Fashioned Hard Drives

Hard drives consist of small platters coated with magnetically sensitive material. These platters are designed to be stacked up to five high, and run at spin rates up to 15,000RPM. Some high end desktop hard drives max out at 10,000RPM, but most performance hard drives for desktop PCs run at 7,200RPM. The 15K RPM drives are mostly used in servers.

Consumer's Guide: How To Buy a Computer Hard Drive
10,000RPM. That’s really fast rotational speed. It’s about as fast as you can get for a desktop hard drive.

One of the key aspects of hard drives is areal density – how many bits you can cram onto a square inch. Despite the relative maturity of the technology, hard drive makers continue to improve on areal density. Seagate and Samsung have both announced hard drives that will ship in late 2011 that offer one terabyte per platter, or 625 gigabits per square inch.

Magnetic heads, mounted on arms that are moved with an electric motor called an actuator is how the data gets written to and read from the disc. Head technology is as critical as areal density, because the heads have to be extremely sensitive to read individual bits when there are 625 billion of them in a square inch of disk space.

There are several key aspects to hard drive performance: Areal density. The more bits you can cram onto a platter, the faster the drive, all other things equal. At the same spin rate, higher bit densities means that the more data is read off the drive per linear inch as it spins. Spin rate. As you spin a drive faster, more bits travel under the head, and more data read each second. Cache. Most hard drives have some DRAM cache. More cache is generally better. The highest performance hard drives have as much as 64MB of fast DRAM cache. Head technology. The robustness and responsiveness of the motors that move the head (the head actuator) determines how quickly the head can be moved to different areas of the drive. This affects random access performance.

One thing that doesn’t really affect hard drive performance these days is the interface. Even 10,000RPM drives can’t fully saturate a 3gbps SATA I port. Seagate has suggested that the data coming off the 64MB cache of their latest second generation SATA 6gbps drive can saturate the bust, but this would be with brief bursts at best, and with no practical effect on performance.

Consumer's Guide: How To Buy a Computer Hard Drive

Seagate was first to market with a 7,200RPM, 3TB hard drive, but your system BIOS needs to recognize it properly if you want to configure it as one large partition.

Western Digital and Seagate also make a line of “green” (low power consumption) drives. The WD GreenPower drives typically spin at 5,400RPM, while Seagate’s Barracuda Green drives usually run at 5,900RPM. Note that power usage while actually under heavy load isn’t that much lower, but these drives also typically offer sophisticated sleep modes which use very little power at idle. This type of technology is gradually being migrated to higher performance drives as well.

SSD Tech

Solid State Drives are still in their infancy as a technology. Products continue to evolve, and performance increases over time. This is particularly true of random write performance. First generation SSDs were hobbled by extremely slow random write times – often much slower than old fashioned rotating platters. That’s changed with newer generation of controllers, better garbage collection (which reorganizes the data to minimize the number of small, empty blocks) and trim command support with modern operating systems, in which the OS tells the SSD which blocks of data are considered deleted.

The cost per bit of SSDs is much higher than hard drives, and given the limitations of the manufacturing processes, the cost per bit will remain high, albeit declining gradually. Currently, 25nm flash memory parts are pretty much the order of the day, with 20nm on the near horizon. As Anand Shimpi noted in a recent article, the costs of flash chips prevent prices from getting lower. And the cutthroat competition means products get shipped that aren’t fully baked.

Still, we’ve been using an SSD RAID array in our primary system for both everyday use and gaming, and it would be tough to go back. The incredibly short boot times and fast application loading are seductive, and the thought of waiting for stuff to load is painful. Most users can’t afford large capacity SSDs or SSD RAID arrays, so modest size drives are pretty much the rule of the day. That’s one reason you see so many 120GB drives – it’s right in the sweet spot for pricing.

As with hard drives, there are a number of factors that drive performance:

The type of flash. Drives using SLC (single-level cell) flash are faster than those built with MLC (multi-level cell), but lower density, so drives built with SLC flash memory are pricier. However, SLC based drives are not only higher performing, but last longer and consume less power. That’s why SLC drives are often used in server applications.

The interface. Unlike rotating platter drives, newer SSDs can saturate a 3gbps interface. That’s why many are moving to the newer 6gbps SATA spec.

The controller. The controller built into the drive itself is the real secret sauce. Note that legacy hard drives also have controllers, but controllers in SSDs have a far larger impact on performance. The current darling in the SSD controller space is Sandforce, with its SF-2281. But Intel controllers are pretty good. It’s also worth noting that OCZ bought Indilinx, a relatively new controller company. So the controller wars will likely go on.

The firmware. The real issue with SSDs is that they’re pretty new technology. What does that mean in practical term? Bugs. If you cruise various online forums, you’ll find that SSDs often have oddball issues, like blue-screens, sudden loss of capacity and more.

Before you get too mired in all the details of controllers and flash memory types, remember that any good, current generation SSD will offer performance that’s nothing short of amazing, if you’re coming from a rotating platter drive. After using your PC with your shiny new SSD installed, you’ll find yourself expecting PCs to be that responsive – and wondering why that shiny new laptop your spouse just bought seems so damned slow. Hint: it’s not the CPU or memory.

Consumer's Guide: How To Buy a Solid State Drive SSD

A 120GB SSD like this Patriot Wildfire is an great performance boost for a laptop up to a couple of years old and running Windows 7.

The other important consideration to weigh when thinking about SSDs is capacity. As noted, the sweet spot right now is 120GB drives, which range in price from $170 to $300 for drives built in standard, 2.5-inch form factors. Newer 240GB drives cost well north of $300 to over $500. Want a 500GB SSD? Be prepared to shell out nearly $800 or more. So consider your budget and applications before taking the expensive step to SSDs. We’ll discuss some scenarios shortly.

Now that we have some basic understanding of hard drives and SSDs, let’s look at a few typical user scenarios.

The Basic Office PC

This might also be called the shared living room PC. It’s usually light on performance, often with integrated graphics. The applications aren’t demanding, either – office apps and internet browsing are the mainstays, with some occasional digital photo or media transcoding. The entire price of the system might be under $500.

Consumer's Guide: How To Buy a Hard Drive
“Green” hard drives use less power mostly by slower rotation speeds, but also offer added sleep modes to help reduce power consumption.

This is the perfect PC for one of those low power green hard drives. If you’re upgrading an existing, older system, cloning the boot drive to a 1TB Western Digital GreenPower or Seagate Barracuda Green will improve responsiveness and substantially increase capacity.

The Laptop Upgrade

Your laptop is several years old, but you can’t really justify refreshing the entire unit just yet. If the HDD in the laptop is 250GB or less, definitely consider replacing it with a 120GB SSD. Sure, you’ll give up some capacity, but you’ll gain some immediate benefits:

• Boot times will be much faster. Waiting for laptops to boot off slow, 5,400RPM 2.5-inch drives is like watching grass grow.

• You can use hibernate rather than sleep mode. Sleep consumes more power than hibernate, but a system with an SSD will come back from hibernate nearly as fast as a system waking up from sleep.

• SSDs are rugged, since there are no moving parts. So the shocks and jolts experienced by most mobile PCs will have little effect on an SSD.

Consumer's Guide: How To Buy a Hard Drive

If you need capacity in a laptop, this 7,200RPM, 750GB drive from Western Digital fits the bill.

If you really need capacity in your laptop – you travel a lot with your camera, for example, and are frequently copying and editing photos – get a high capacity, 7,200RPM drive, like Western Digital’s Scorpio Black 750GB drive. An interesting alternative would be Seagate’s 500GB Momentus XT Hybrid, which combines a 4GB flash memory cache with a 7,200 RPM hard drive. Performance is somewhat better than a standard hard drive, though the gains aren’t nearly what they would be with a true SSD.

A Digital Media Studio

You edit a lot of photos – particularly raw DSLR photos. Or you shoot video and need a fast system with lots of capacity to edit your digital movies. You need both capacity and performance, because waiting around for large media files to load is painful. But what you get depends on your budget. There’s also the issue of data security – backups are critical, but we won’t discuss those here.

Let’s look at some possible storage configurations.

• If your budget is tight, consider a 7,200RPM, 2TB drive with 64MB of cache. These typically cost $150 or less.

• If you’ve got a few bucks more, build the system with a fast 1TB drive for the applications and a secondary, 2TB drive for data and scratch files.

• If your budget can spare several hundred dollars for storage, add a third, 2TB drive and combine it in a RAID 1 (that’s right, RAID 1) array for data redundancy. Write performance will be a tad slower, but read performance with RAID 1 is actually a little better than a single drive.

• If you have a boatload of money, get a 240-256GB SSD as the boot drive. Use that for the apps and for the scratch files. Put all the data on a second, 2TB RAID 0 array. (You can use 3TB drives, too, but you may encounter technical issues with some motherboard BIOSes, as well as the need to configure them as GPT partitions if you’re using Windows.)

Unless you’re filthy rich, you won’t build an all SSD digital media editing system – capacity is often king here. If you are filthy rich, it may be worth exploring dedicated hardware RAID cards and RAID 10 arrays or something similar.

Killer Gaming Rig

Games really benefit from the speed of SSDs – but games take up a vast amount of space. If all you can afford is a modest gaming system – under $1,000 – SSDs are probably out of the picture.

Or are they?

For under a hundred bucks, you can pick up a 60GB SSD. But don’t use it as a boot drive. Instead, build your gaming system using a motherboard with an Intel Z68 chipset and use the small SSD as a cache for a larger (1TB or so) hard drive. (Intel brands this as “Smart Response Technology.”) You’ll see substantially improved storage throughput. All you need to do is first install Windows on the rotating media drive (making sure that RAID mode is enabled in the system BIOS), then add the SSD and configure it as a cache in the RAID BIOS or through Intel’s software utilities.

Intel’s Z68 chipset plus Smart Response adds a whole new wrinkle to modestly priced systems, and may be a bigger speed improvement with minimal cost than buying a faster CPU – though for a gaming rig, we’d choose a faster graphics card and sacrifice the SSD if we were on a really tight budget. Right now, Smart Response is only on the Z68, so AMD users or gamers running Intel X58 triple channel rigs don’t have that option.

How to Buy a Hard Drive: An Essential Guide

This 250GB Intel 510 SSD is an excellent solution for a high end gaming rig, if you can afford it.

If you have a generous budget for a gaming system, a 250GB drive will handle your main apps plus a number of games; you can still add a second drive for other types of data, if you need it. And if you happen to have a lot of spare cash on hand, a second 250GB SSD in RAID 0 mode is actually more affordable than a single 500GB SSD in today’s market.

Everyone’s storage needs differ, but it used to be simpler: find a hard drive with the right combination of price, capacity and speed for your needs. Today, though, SSDs have upended the equation, and the right mix for your own need may be the right mix of SSD and HDD. What that combination is depends on your needs, budget and technical inclination. by MaximumPc is a merchant member is a merchant member and currently DOES actively participate at ResellerRatings to monitor feedback and resolve any issues.

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Alienware X51 Review

The Alienware X51 ($999.99 direct) fits everything a serious gamer needs into a compact chassis. The desktop has a full-size hard drive, desktop-class quad-core processor, and, best of all, a 150-watt  discrete graphics card with multimonitor support. PC gaming is arguably “better” than console gaming because systems like the X51 can easily drive more than one monitor, and PC games can be modified by the gaming public to enhance or even radically change game play elements. Want to mash up the Star Trek and Star Wars universes on a console? You’re out of luck. On a PC, it’s almost a sure bet that there’s a universe-bending mod for your space opera game of choice. The Alienware X51 is an excellent portal to any fictional universe, and our latest Editors’ Choice for entry-level gaming desktop PCs.

Alienware X51

Design and Features
The X51 marks the start of a new design philosophy for Alienware gaming rigs: small form factor (SFF). While there have been plenty of SFF media PCs in the past, SFF gaming PCs are relatively rare. That’s because the half-height graphics cards that fit in budget SFF PCs are unimpressive performers, highlighted by the fact that integrated graphics have caught up to the cheap $25-50 graphics cards on the game benchmark tests. The X51 turns the design paradigm (literally) on its ear by shifting the PCIe x16 connector so that a dual-slot wide graphics card can fit in the SFF chassis. The last system to try this method that we looked at was the AVADirect GT3 Core i7($1,367.26 direct, 3.5 stars). The result is virtually everything you need in a gaming PC is in the system. But doing so means that there really is no internal expansion room whatsoever, so if you want better components, you’ll have to swap something out rather than just add on. Though the interior is full, getting to components is easy. Undoing three screws is all it takes to pop out the graphics card, and the hard drive is mounted right beneath the graphics card. The power supply is an external one, which helps keep the chassis interior uncluttered, but make sure you have some room on your floor for the 330-watt brick.

Inside the chassis, you’ll find a quad-core Intel Core i5-2320 processor, 8GB of DDR3 memory, a 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi card, and a slot-loading DVD burner. You really don’t need too much else, since the system supports multiple monitors out of the box. Like the Alienware Aurora ($2,598.99 direct, 3.5 stars), the X51 comes with user-customizable lighting effects. There are three lighting zones on the X51, so you can make them all the same color, all different colors, or any combination of the three. Alienware’s Command Center software controls the lighting effects and power usage, and you can even tailor each to correspond to what game you’re playing. For example, you can turn the fans down and put red lights on for viewing DVDs, or turn the fans up and set the lights to Jedi green when playing Star Wars: The Old Republic.

The front of the system has the usual backlit alien head Alienware logo, flanked by the lit color panels. Next to the slot-loading DVD drive on the front are two USB 2.0 ports and two audio jacks for a headset. On the back, you’ll find a Kensington lock port, TOSlink and RCA jack for digital audio out, an HDMI port for the internal Intel HD Graphics 2000, six USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, analog audio ports, and two DVI-I ports and mini HDMI on the graphics card. Using a combination of the DVI ports, the motherboard HDMI port, and the mini HMDI port, you can use up to three monitors with the X51. Two connected to the graphics card and one to the HDMI port on the motherboard. Obviously, you’d want your game play on the monitor(s) connected to the graphics card, but the extra HDMI port is useful for keeping a browser window, IM window, or even watching a movie on the second (or third) monitor. Having multiple monitors running off the same PC will save you the hassle of balancing a tablet or notebook on your lap while storming the Hutt stronghold on your main screen.

As you’d expect, the X51 was a great performer on our standard benchmark tests. The butter-smooth 88 frames per second (fps) score on Crysis and 86fps score on Lost Planet 2 on Medium/Middle quality setting are the hallmarks of a good entry-level gaming system. Both are near the top of the list for systems in this price range, though the more media-oriented Dell XPS 8300 (X8300-7008NBK) ($999.99 direct, 3.5 stars) was a smidge faster on Crysis (111fps) and the previous entry-level gaming EC, the Velocity Micro Edge Z40 ($1,199 direct, 4 stars), was faster on Lost Planet 2 (130fps). You’d be hard pressed to tell the difference at these frame rates, though. At the higher quality settings on both games, all three were below playable frame rates, with the Velocity Z40 (33fps Crysis and 49fps Lost Planet 2) eking a win over the X51 (22fps Crysis and 35fps Lost Planet 2), with the XPS 8300 (20fps Crysis and 19fps Lost Planet 2) bringing up the rear. You should be able to find a happy medium with the Velocity Z40 and Alienware X51 systems, however. The X51 was the top dog on the 3DMark 11 tests (5,184 Entry and 1,059 Extreme), handily beating previously tested systems at both quality settings.

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Review: Dell Alienware Aurora R4

Dell’s Alienware PCs have historically divided opinions, and perhaps they always will. For many a PC gamer, Alienware rigs are eye-catching, powerful machines that cost a pretty penny, but for those who’re well versed in self-building, they can be seen as overpriced and underpowered….read more

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