NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, December 2009
Hard Drives, Connectors, Performance and You
Performance Drives May Be Worth the Price

Written by Ira Brickman, President, ICON PC User Group, Inc., New York
The ICON Graphic, Newsletter of the ICON PCUG, July 2009
president(at)iconpcug.org (click to email author)

This article has been obtained from APCUG with the author’s permission for publication by APCUG member groups; all other uses require the permission of the author (see e-mail address above).

You buy a new computer and you‘re pleased that it is faster than your old one. You spend time keeping it fast. You keep crapware and malware away. You add memory. After a time, as your hard drive fills up, you decide to replace it or add another hard drive. After all, the price of hard drives is relatively low. They are less expensive than ever. So you make sure you get an inexpensive, reliable brand.

But did you know that with the right new hard drive, your computer can be noticeably faster? Most manufacturers decide on hard drives the same way you do, if you do what is described in the paragraph above. In average-priced desktops and notebooks alike, OEM‘s find reliable, inexpensive drives; drives that are smaller than the largest drives available. Most people aren‘t aware of this because that new processor, memory and larger drive are so much faster than their old computer.

So with a little understanding of specs and some real-world benchmarks, you can do more for your computer than add more storage space when you buy a new hard drive.

First some information about the specifications and standards for various kinds of interfaces used to connect hard drives. Newer computers use internal SATA-connected hard drives. The old internal connection for hard drives was IDE and was called ATA. It is now called PATA. The P stands for “parallel.” The”S” in SATA stands for “serial.”

When drives are connected externally, directly to your computer, your choices are USB, Firewire, and the newer eSATA (external SATA.) USB is virtually on every computer. The currently faster Firewire is more common on Apple computers. Newest desktop PC‘s often can include an eSATA connection. Slowest to fastest, here are the theoretical maximum speeds for the fastest versions of these interfaces:

  • USB 2.0 – 480 Mbps
  • FireWire 800 – 800 Mpbs
  • PATA – 1.6 Gbps
  • SATA 3.0 (and eSATA) – 3.0 Gbps

    Based on these theoretical numbers, SATA is nearly twice the speed of PATA and nearly eight times faster than USB. In the real world, however, drives don‘t transfer data at nearly those speeds. Performance of things like your CPU, support chips, memory and what your computer is doing while data is being transferred, act to throttle maximum speed.

    You can add any or all of these connections to both desktops and notebooks. If they aren‘t there already in your computer, you can install a controller card. In a desktop that has SATA, adding eSATA is simply buying a cable – one end connects to the SATA controller on the mainboard, the other end has a female eSATA port. Connecting an SATA drive externally, then, requires no special electronics or interface in an external case, unlike the electronics required for USB. Internally-connected SATA drives function as fast when externally connected by eSATA.

    OK… the above is necessary to understand my recent real world experiences replacing a hard drive on my one-year old Vista notebook. It focuses on SATA drives since those are now the standard included in all desktop computers and notebooks. My notebook came with a 2.5” 250 Gb Seagate SATA internal drive. At the beginning of the year, Seagate began shipping 500 Gb notebook drives. Like most modern notebook drives, they both rotate at 5,400 rpm and have an 8mb cache. More recently, Seagate began shipping premium notebook drives that rotate at 7,200 rpm and have a 16Mb cache, including one with a 500 Gb capacity. I bought that premium drive, hoping the added cost would translate to a significant increase in performance.

    Using an external case with an eSATA connector and an eSATA PC Card inserted into my notebook, I used Acronis True image to clone my old hard drive onto the new drive. Even with the faster interface speed, it took well over an hour to finish.

    Before I replaced the notebook drive, I decided to experiment. I copied to the new larger, hopefully faster drive, 35 Gb in 340 files ranging in size from 20Mb to nearly 1 Gb, using the eSATA connection. Next, I deleted the files and did it again using the external case‘s USB connection. Then I switched to a smaller USB external drive with a 5,400 rpm, 60Gb PATA drive with a 16Mb cache and copied the same files:

    Finally, I swapped out the old 260Gb for the 500Gb drive, re-booted, and tried the same transfers with the with the 250Gb SATA drive installed in the external case. Here are the results (rounded to whole numbers):

  • 500 Gb SATA drive: 260 Gb SATA: 60 Gb PATA
  • eSATA 38 Mbps: eSATA 32 Mbps: USB 8Mbps
  • USB 25 Mbps: USB 21 Mbps

    Comparing apples to apples, looking first at the USB results, it is clear that SATA drives have a clear speed advantage over PATA drives even though some of the slower PATA USB results can be attributed to the IDE to USB interface in one external case vs. a faster SATA to USB interface in the other. Comparing the SATA drives, the increased rpm and cache are responsible for a definite increase in overall speed since the case was the same in both instances. This test revealed more than an 18% increase in speed. Interestingly, the Vista “Windows Experience Index” scored the old drive at 5.3 and rated the new drive 5.9 – an 11% increase. Benchmarks like this, and single tests like my file transfer experiment, share the same limitation: they don‘t reflect drive performance for all real world circumstances.

    So what about my real world experiences? With the new 500 Gb drive installed in my notebook, I experienced faster booting times and a noticeably “snappier” performance. Opening a “My Computer” window, for example, seemed to have eliminated a delay I had gotten used to. Web pages seemed to open more quickly in Internet Explorer. Microsoft Word loaded more quickly. These are perceived, not measured, results. But when it came to running Photoshop, I was delighted to see it load in ten seconds, not the 25 seconds I‘d bemoaned (and timed) for the past year!

    Keeping in mind that my notebook is now working faster, and has more storage than when I bought it, that makes the added price of the new drive worthwhile to me. And with the old drive in an external case, I can now image my notebook drive pretty quickly using eSATA. Hopefully this article and a little research on your part will benefit you similarly when you purchase a new hard drive.

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