Date: January 27, 2010
Author(s): William Kelley
SATA 3.0 may have been available to consumers for the past couple of months, but the number of hard drive options out there are ultra-slim… just one. That drive is Seagate’s Barracuda XT. The question we’re looking to answer here is whether or not the $100 premium for SATA 3.0 is worth it, at least on a mechanical offering.
No one can deny that the current trend in storage is shifting towards larger and larger drives. The average user’s needs have increased exponentially and continue to climb. Between pictures, movies and music you will find most people prefer to store their media on their PC for ease of access and for ease of use. Now that there is a large pool of available digital merchandise ready for download, the needs for more disk storage is becoming critical.
Now that drives are coming in such large capacities, speed is becoming an issue. Western Digital has had a line of super-fast 10K RPM drives for years, and they have proven that speed is king. On the same token, newer drive controllers have been able to overcome this issue of speed, and some 7200 RPM drives are within the same performance levels as the faster models. Couple these speeds, and the fact that the tried and true five-year-old SATA 2.0 bus has yet to be fully saturated, and you get little in the way of further increases and innovation.
Finally, after all those years of such stagnation, the release of the SSD (Solid-State Drive) is thrust onto the world with a true thirst for blood. Easily able to max out the SATA 2.0 bus, these new storage devices are the shining star of the dance floor. With blinding speed and low power use to boot, these drives are set to become the new standard… well, if it were not for one very important factor: cost. At roughly $3 per gigabyte of space, they are just too expensive for most of us to make the transition. Add to that the lack of any true high density models, and we see in full the limitations of this new technology.
The answer to the million dollar question: SATA 3.0. While maintaining backwards capability with SATA 1/2 standards, SATA 3 has stepped up with massive 6Gbit/s bandwidth to enable even the most robust storage drive the freedom to run full speed. Arguably, this benefits SSD drives far more than conventional magnetic drives, but there is no doubt some room for improvement across the board. Any way you look at it, more is better and there is no doubting that this new specification will open some doors to improved performance for all.
Seagate has taken the lead by giving us the first SATA 3.0 drive, the Barracuda XT 2TB. This drive has a lot to offer not only the casual user but also the die hard download freak: SPEED. Whether you are archiving your movie collection or downloading the latest release, the need for any boost in speed is important no matter how incremental. Self-admittedly, Seagate acknowledges the initial gains are not a major jump. But it is hard to argue with ANY increases, especially in storage. If there is any part of the modern PC that has seen little in the way of innovation in the last five years, it is hard drive technology and no one can deny we are all ready for some change.
Stepping up to the fight sporting four 500GB platters spinning at 7200RPM, this drive is poised to not only fulfill all our needs for high capacity but also for speed. The follow-up punch to that sharp right hand is a solid left hook backed by 64MB of cache. No one can deny that this should alleviate all bottlenecks in the drive itself and give us the full potential available. So after digesting all the possibilities, the only question that remains is this: “Does this drive live up to the hype?” Let’s take a deeper look and put it to the test and see just how it stacks up against the competition.
At Techgage, we strive to make sure our results are as accurate as possible. Our testing is rigorous and time-consuming, but we feel the effort is worth it. In an attempt to leave no question unanswered, this page contains not only our testbed specifications, but also a fully-detailed look at how we conduct our testing.
If there is a bit of information that we’ve omitted, or you wish to offer thoughts or suggest changes, please feel free to shoot us an e-mail or post in our forums.
The table below lists the hardware used in our current storage-testing machine, which remains unchanged throughout all of our testing, with the obvious exception of the storage. Each hard drive used for the sake of comparison is also listed here. In addition, each one of the URLs in this table can be clicked to view our review of the respective product, or if a review doesn’t exist, you will be led to the product page on the manufacturer’s website.
Techgage Hard Drive Test System
|Processor||Intel Core i5-750 – Quad-Core, 2.66GHz|
Seagate 320GB Barracuda 7200.10 (OS Drive)
Seagate Barracuda LP 2TB – 3G/bits
Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 1TB – 3G/bits
Seagate Barracuda XT 2TB – 6G/bits
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB – 3G/bits
Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB – 3G/bits
Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit
When preparing our testbeds for any type of performance testing, we follow these guidelines:
Because it gives a more realistic interpretation of the common PC, we leave all of the power-related options in the BIOS to their default selection. This means that for Intel-based boards, SpeedStep is left in tact.
Our Windows Vista Desktop for Storage-Testing
To aide with the goal of keeping accurate and repeatable results, we alter certain services in Windows Vista from starting up at boot. This is due to the fact that these services have the tendency to start up in the background without notice, potentially causing slightly inaccurate results. Disabling “Windows Search” turns off the OS’ indexing which can at times utilize the hard drive and memory more than we’d like.
In order to get a great overall outlook on how a particular drive performs compared to the competition, we run a variety of real-world and synthetic benchmarks. As they’re standard in the industry, our synthetics include PCMark Vantage, Iometer and HD Tune Pro. For our real-world tests, we use 7-Zip, Adobe Lightroom, dBpoweramp, file transfers, and also measure boot times. On the non-performance side of things, we also measure for drive temperatures, acoustics and power consumption.
Each one of our tests is explained in more detail on its respective page.
There are few PC enthusiasts who are unfamiliar with the name “Futuremark”, as the Finland-based developer has been producing quality benchmarks to help us gauge our computer’s worth for years. Originally known as Madonion, Futuremark has expanded its focus to go beyond its bread and butter, graphics and gaming, and tackle other areas, such as full system performance. That’s where PCMark comes into play.
The company’s most recent addition to the PCMark family is Vantage. For most users, a full suite would be run, but because we’re focused on storage performance only, we instead run only the HDD-specific tests. Fortunately, Futuremark makes this easy for us to do as it has split up the entire suite into seven separate sub-tests, one being the aptly named “HDD Suite”.
PCMark’s HDD Suite may look simple on the surface, but it’s actually quite exhaustive. While the benchmark does deliver a simple “overall” result, it actually tests I/O performance based on a variety of scenarios, from adding music to Windows Media Player, to loading applications in succession, to editing video, to running a malware scanner, and more. It even includes metrics to evaluate a simulated Windows Vista boot time, so Futuremark has done a fine job of combining many useful scenarios into a single button press.
The Barracuda XT is not only able to run with WD’s VelociRaptor, it is able to deliver the knock out with a convincing win. While it does trade punches on both sides of the coin, there is no denying it is the overall victor. This is a strong testimonial of the advanced SATA 3 controller and its effectiveness in delivering extra bandwidth.
Originally developed by Intel, and since given to the open-source community, Iometer (pronounced “eyeawmeter”, like thermometer) is one of the best storage-testing applications available, for a couple of reasons. The first, and primary, is that it’s completely customizable, and if you have a specific workload you need to hit a drive with, you can easily accomplish it here. Also, the program delivers results in IOPS (input/output operations per second), a common metric used in enterprise and server environments.
The level of customization cannot be understated. Aside from choosing the obvious figures, like chunk sizes, you can choose the percentage of the time that each respective chunk size will be used in a given test. You can also alter the percentages for read and write, and also how often either the reads or writes will be random (as opposed to sequential). I’m just touching the surface here, but what’s most important is that we’re able to deliver a consistent test on all of our drives, which increases the accuracy in our results.
Because of the level of control Iometer offers, we’ve created profiles for three of the most popular workloads out there: Database, File Server and Workstation. Database uses chunk sizes of 8KB, with 67% read, along with 100% random coverage. File Server is the more robust of the group, as it features chunk sizes ranging from 512B to 64KB, in varying levels of access, but again with 100% random coverage. Lastly, Workstation focuses on 8KB chunks with 80% read and 80% random coverage.
Because these profiles aren’t easily found on the Web, with the same being said about the exact structure of each, we’re hosting the software here for those who want to benchmark their own drives with the exact same profiles we use. That ZIP archive (~3.5MB) includes the application and the three profiles in an .icf file.
HD Tune has long been one of our favorite storage benchmarks, thanks in part to its ease-of-use and its ability to deliver consistent results (which is obviously important). Like Iometer, no partition is created on the drive while benchmarking with this application, as the write tests will not work any other way. There are absolutely no performance gains from not having a partition, as HD Tune does its thing below the file system level during its write tests.
For our tests with HD Tune, we use both the “Benchmark” and “File Benchmark” (the latter is available in the Pro version only), as the latter gives us a bit more control over file sizes. From the Benchmark section, we gather both the read and write Min/Avg/Max results, and also the access time, and for the File Benchmark section, we run a file length of 1MB and 64MB, and record the results from the 4KB, 64KB, 512KB and 1MB chunk sizes.
While suffering badly in Iometer, the results when running HD Tune are better for the Barracuda. I’m not exactly sure why we see such a wide range of scores here, but in the end there is no doubt that the XT can keep up with the competition again. While I would speculate that early revisions of the SATA 3 chipset could be to blame, I will just let the results speak for themselves.
From a storage standpoint, two of the most common scenarios for almost all computer users include copying a file from one place to another, and also archiving a folder for storage (as in backup, or portability). We tackle both of these here on this page. For our real-world transfers, we take a 4GB file and also a 4GB folder, one at a time, and copy it from one place to another on the same drive. Our 4GB folder includes 4,800 files, which we consider to be a realistic number for a media folder of that density. Included inside are numerous documents, music, photos and other miscellaneous files.
For our archiving test, we are using the excellent open-sourced 7-Zip, as it’s lightweight, feature-rich, and fast. Our test consists of us taking the same 4GB folder as mentioned above, and archiving it to a .7z format using the program’s default settings.
Here we see the Barracuda performing very well. Without a doubt it is the fastest drive during these operations and no one can deny a clean victory here. These specific tests are sure to be of interest to many users as this is a real-world use that many will take advantage of.
Thanks to the fact that mobile audio players are more popular than ever, so is music conversion. It’s not uncommon for even the regular consumer to find a reason to convert a music file, whether it be an incompatibility issue, the fact that a file is too large, or because the file needs to be used for a more specific purpose, such as for a video, webpage, game, and so on. Of all the music convertors on the market, though, one of the absolute best is Illustrate’s dBpoweramp.
The reasons are simple. First, there’s the ease-of-use, and then there’s the fact that it supports a wide-range of music formats. If you have even the most bizarre audio file extension, dBpoweramp will no doubt be able to handle it. A second reason dBpoweramp is so powerful is because it supports multi-core encoding, which means that the beefy quad-core in your PC actually gets put to good use. At the same time, because we’re able to convert four files at once, it makes for a great storage benchmark.
Photo manipulation benchmarks are more relevant than ever, given the proliferation of high-end digital photography hardware. For this benchmark, we test the system’s handling of RAW photo data using Adobe Lightroom, an excellent RAW photo editor and organizer that’s easy to use and looks fantastic.
For our testing, we take 100 RAW files (in Nikon’s .NEF file format) which have a 10-megapixel resolution, and export them as JPEG files in 1000×669 resolution, similar to most of the photos we use here on the website. Such a result could also be easily distributed online or saved as a low-resolution backup. This test involves not only scaling of the image itself, but encoding in a different image format.
Here’s a scenario that most of us deal with on a daily basis… boot times. Believe it or not, storage performance can play a rather sizable role in the duration of boot process of the OS. Storage devices with lower access times excel the greatest, as a lot of the boot data is stored on various parts of the drive – it’s not usually all sequential. So, it’s no surprise that 10K RPM and higher drives, or SSDs, excel where this is concerned.
Here we see a draw with a strong showing when running dBpoweramp and yet a mid-pack lackluster showing when exporting under Adobe Lightroom. As for Windows Vista boot time, I cannot help but be surprised that the VelociRaptor is the victor, but it is nice to see the XT pulling a strong second place finish.
When the time comes to pick out a brand-new hard drive for a PC, most consumers tend to look past everything except the densities. While most enthusiasts care a lot about performance, regular end-consumers usually don’t even know there’s a difference between drives. Well, as we’ve seen throughout all of our tests, there’s a clear difference between drives, even those that have identical rotational speeds. But, aside from these two things, there are a couple more aspects to look at: Temperatures, Acoustics, and Power Consumption.
Arguably, temperatures are the most important factor of the three, as if a drive runs too hot all of the time, then its life span is going to be decreased. Not to mention, it will add unneeded heat to the inside of your PC, causing everything else to run even hotter. Even in a chassis with superb airflow, hard drive heat remains a problem, especially when one is dealing with transfers for a long period of time. Most companies will agree that a hard drive can run up to 50°C and still remain reliable, but if your drive runs hotter than that, it’s time to figure out a solution.
Then there’s the acoustics, and if you’ve ever had a loud-running drive, then this is likely a factor that’s important to you. Although all drives have improved in this regard over the years, it’s still not rare to hear a hard drive doing its thing, especially when the room is quiet. Lastly, there’s power consumption. Admittedly, power consumption tends to be a non-issue for most people, since they draw such a low amount of power compared to CPUs, GPUs and other components, but we include the results for sake of interest.
All three of these tests are conducted at the same time. After the PC is boot up, we allow five minutes to pass while Windows settles down, at which point we monitor the idle wattage, acoustics and temperatures. To stress the drive, we load up our Iometer test and let it do its thing, capturing the highest figures we see for each test. The temperatures are captured with Everest Ultimate Edition 5.3, while our power consumption is captured with a Kill-a-Watt EZ, dedicated to its own socket, with only the PC plugged into it. We capture the drive’s acoustics with a SL-5868P audio meter, with its microphone located a few centimeters above the drive.
Another round of testing and we see the XT finishing pretty much in the middle of the pack. All of these results show this drive is well within all tolerable standards. Most of the criteria here are not overly important to most of us, but it is nice to know that the XT can stay with the pack and give great results with acceptable attributes as well.
At the onset of this review, I pretty much had myself convinced that there was going to be little to gain from the increased bandwidth of the new SATA 3 bus with this drive. Time and time again we have seen bandwidth speeds increase, while other factors creep in to negate any real world benefits. In our briefing from Seagate, we were even told that initial results were promising but not mind-boggling. I have to give them the thumbs up for that type of honesty since it is easy to find examples of other innovations being over-hyped and overrated.
That being said, the Barracuda showed that SATA drive technology is far from dead. While it is a generalized comparison, I liken magnetic storage as the AGP of the hard drive world. AGP has been called dead for years, but I have personally upgraded a few older machines with current tech AGP cards with excellent results. While current SATA drives are nowhere near as obsolete as AGP graphics cards, I expect magnetic drives to be around for many more years to come as they have tremendous potential to offer at an amazing price. No one can deny the sub $1 per GB ratio when choosing a new storage drive for their system.
Coming in at $299 retail, the Barracuda XT 2TB drive is not the cheapest drive on the market. In fact, if you do a direct comparison there are far cheaper drives with the same density. The important factor here is what you get for your money. If you want the best overall performing drive with the highest density, you need not look further. It is hard to deny the facts when it easily trades punches with the venerable VelociRaptor while still holding off the rest of the competition as well.
The final question is this: “Are we ready for SATA 3?”. If you ask me, SSD drives will get the most use out of this new specification. The XT is nowhere near saturating SATA 2 specs while in the same breath I can say that it is also the first in a long line of upcoming SATA 3 drives. Prices for SSD’s are just out to lunch and in comparison I do not believe the average consumer is ready to make the switch.
When you dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s I firmly believe the XT proves it’s worth. If you are looking for a super-high capacity drive that does everything in one package, you need look no further. System-wide performance is excellent and nothing with this amount of density can beat it. If absolute speed is not your desire then I have to say there are some cheaper alternatives, but you do get what you pay for. For those of you that want to adopt the latest tech as soon as it is released then there is no need to read further, get out and get one (or tow!).
Any way you look at it, this is a great drive. If I were to numerically rate it I would give it an 8 out of 10. The faults are small, but there are faults to be seen. There are definite areas of performance that are lackluster at best and at $299 you are paying quite the premium as well. I cannot help but suggest this drive as more of a system drive than a secondary drive since speed in the secondary role is just not important. With that consideration in mind, I can’t help but think this is the ideal system drive since you are a partition away from having a super-fast booting OS as well as a truckload of space for all your digital media.
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