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Appeared on: Monday, July 24, 2006
Seagate ST380811AS

1. Introduction

When deciding to build a new PC, be it for for office use, software development or for playing the latest games, one of the most important factors you have to consider which impacts on the overall performance is the HDD. From booting the operating system, opening text files or loading a presentation, all file I/O operations are directed at the HDD. You therefore need to have a fast HDD to handle the most demanding tasks.

Since the adoption of the SATA interface, most users have preferred to move from ATA to SATA and more recently to SATA2. Since my budget was rather limited, an 80GB HDD seemed to be the best choice. However, there are several manufacturers that offer drives at this capacity. And after looking at the specs, I decided to trial the brand new Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 series. I was also interested in seeing how it compared to my old WD 800JD which I had previously. To be honest, I was not particularly impressed or influenced by the various claims that "SATA2 is better" or "NCQ makes a whole difference". I wanted to see for myself if there really was as big a difference as these claims made out, and in this review I will try to explain the Seagate drive's main features as well as put it through the benchmark tests to see just how good it is.

- Seagate ST380811AS

Seagate currently offers both IDE and SATA Barracuda 7200.9 HDD drives. The entire line up starts from 40 GB and reaches 500 GB, offering SATA/SATAII compatibility and of course, NCQ (Native Command Queuing). As Seagate states: "...Native Command Queuing is a process in which a hard drive reorders outstanding commands to reduce mechanical overhead and improve I/O latencies..."

In order to take full advantage of Native Command Queuing, you must have the following:

The ability of an operating system to execute different parts of a program, called threads, simultaneously. The programmer must carefully design the program in such a way that all the threads can run at the same time without interfering with each other. (Webopedia).

What are the advantages of using NCQ?

Some of the advantages of using NCQ supported hard drives are:

Will I notice a big performance increase when using a NCQ supported hard drive?

Each hard drive model will have its own product specification which you should use to determine performance. You will not see a big performance increase when using applications that do not utilize multi-threading technology. Performance increase is more noticeable when utilizing transactional workloads.

How do I enable NCQ?

With Seagate drives, Native Command Queuing is enabled at the firmware level of the hard drive and cannot be altered, which means you have support as long as all the other requirements are met. If all requirements are not met, NCQ will not be utilized.

- Features

Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 series provides the following key features:

• Fastest SATA interface (3Gb/s) provides a larger data pipe for fast cache transfers and multi-drive performance.
• Covers your application needs—offering 2- or 8-Mbyte cache and interfaces including ATA/100 and SATA 1.5Gb/s or 3Gb/s
• SATA click connectors and thin cables for easier integrations and better cooling airflow
• Seagate SoftSonic motor enables whisper-quiet operation.
• Enhanced G-Force protection defends against handling damage.
• RoHS-compliant—environmentally conscious product
• Backed by an industry-leading, five-year warranty

Features Benefits
New Low Profile Height
Lighter design weighs less and reduces shipping costs.
Seagate SoftSonic
Seagate SoftSonic motor enables whisper-quiet operation.
Reversed PCBA Electronics
By reversing the circuit board, the drive electronics are protected from handling damage during shipping and integration.
5 Year Warranty
Seagate offers the industry's leading warranty to demonstrate our commitment to product reliability and our customers' success.
Perpendicular Recording Technology
Perpendicular Recording increases data density while decreasing moving parts for a more dependable drive.

2. Package - Installation

Seagate's Barracuda 7200.9 arrived in a sealed anti-static bag. The retail price of the ST380811AS should be around €50 (depending on place of purchase and VAT).

Compared with the WD 800JD, 80GB SATA drive, it is slightly thinner:

The installation process is very easy, just plug the SATA power cable and connect with a SATA cable to the motherboard. As Seagate notes, in order to use SATA2 (300Gb/s) performance, you have to remove a jumper on the back of the drive that enables/disables SATA (150Gb/s) compatibility mode. NCQ (Native Command Queuing) cannot be disabled and is always on and activated, if the proper motherboard is used. With Lavasys Everest Ultimate Edition 2006, we can see various details about the HDD:

3. Benchmarks

In order to test the Seagate ST380811AS, we connected it to an Abit IL8 motherboard, with the latest BIOS and software updates installed. We used a number of benchmarking software to test the performance, in both reading and writing.

First, we loaded HD Tach RW, which provides both reading and writing tests over the full surface area of the HDD. As you can see, the performance of the tested drive was very good, starting at 75MB/sec at the start, and ending at 35MB/sec. In comparison, the WD800JD started off at 60MB/sec but also ended at 35MB/sec. Random Access times were better with the WD800JD which posted 13.7ms as opposed to 17.5ms for the Seagate.

Next, we ran another popular benchmark from FutureMark, called PC Mark 05 (v1.1.0). We have three scores: one with the Seagate drive in compatibility mode (SATA), one with SATA2 enabled (jumper removed) and the third for the WD drive.

The Seagate drive with SATA2 enabled achieved the highest score of 5216 marks, while the WD 800JD managed 4329 points. You can view the test details for each: Seagate SATA, Seagate SATA2, WD.

Next, we fired up Sisoft Sandra 2007. This software can compare the current devices performance against other, pre-tested devices so that you can get a rough idea about its relative performance. Putting it through the Physical Disks Test, we got 67MB/sec with 18ms Random Access Time, while the WD800JD scored 55MB/sec and 14ms.

For the last benchmark, we used PassMark Performance Test 6.0, which includes several tests for HDD drives. The results are given in the following table. As was expected, the highest score was with the Seagate drive using the SATA2 interface, however the WD800JD, due to its lower seek times, gets a nice score in the "Random Seek + RW" test.

Passing to the advanced tests, we can run several pre-defined tests that include both reading and writing operations at the same time, to simulate several environments (Workstation, Database, Server). By using the included Workstation template, we logged the following scores:

For a typical workstation profile, the best score was achieved with the Seagate drive using the SATA interface, surprisingly enough. The Seagate with SATA2 gets second place with 2.8Mb/sec, while the WD 800JD was not very far behind with 2.7Mb/sec. Looking at the two I/O graphs, the Seagate drive reaches a peak of 3.8Mb/sec, but the high performance margin of 1.3Mb/sec keeps the average throughput to no more than 3.0Mb/sec.

The WD drive on the other hand, reached a peak of 3.0Mb/sec with a performance margin of only 0.6Mb/sec, due to its better seek times.

Lastly, we would like to comment on the temperatures of both drives. The WD drive ran at 27°C, while the Seagate at 33°C (idle mode). The noise from both drives is relatively low, so there should be no complaints there.

4. Conclusion

Seagate has a long tradition with 3.5" drives, good performers at an affordable price. The Barracuda 7200.9 series is an interesting line with SATA2 and NCQ technologies, aiming for the highest performance and reliability. Seagate offers a generous 5 year warranty, which should please most users.

Compared with our older WD 800JD SATA drive, we saw a big performance increase with higher throughput (up to 75MB/sec), although unfortunately, the Seagate's seek times were also higher (17ms vs 13ms). Operating temperature was at around 33°C during idle. The price range in the 80GB category is around €45~55, with small differences between the various models. At that price, you could buy not one, but two Seagate ST380811AS and use them in a Raid 0,1 setup to create a reliable, high performance desktop computer.

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