Review: Seagate's whopper of a drive -- the 1TB Barracuda

The only venue in which the new Seagate drive lagged was in its reported burst Speed

You're probably thinking that by the time a product hits its 11th generation, it might be starting to wear a little thin. But if you have that notion about Seagate's Barracuda 7200.11 series of hard drives, you'll need to revamp your preconceptions. Now into its 11th generation, the Barracuda has taken perpendicular storage technology (implemented here in its own second generation) to new heights with a 1TB version. Officially dubbed the ST31000340AS, Seagate's latest data monster uses a Serial ATA NCQ interface and carries a rather sizable 32MB of cache.

You may have heard about NCQ -- or Native Command Queuing, as mere mortals often call it. It's a method of letting your hard disk optimize the way commands are carried out, with an eye toward reducing the amount of head travel across the surface of the disk or platter. (For the really hard-core, there's an "interesting" white paper on NCQ produced by Seagate and Intel back in July of 2003 that will just keep you on the edge of your seat as you pore over it.)

NCQ, in theory and often practice, speeds up overall performance and slows down the wear and tear on the drive's mechanicals by keeping the heads where they're most often needed most of the time, even if that means reordering data read and write requests. In the case of the 1TB Barracuda drive, there are eight heads and four platters, so that's no small accomplishment. Add in the 32MB of cache to enhance data-transfer speeds by storing both anticipated and requested information in advance in memory rather than needing to retrieve it from the disk itself in real time, and this Barracuda should be a stellar performer.

So much for suspense. ... Tested with Simpli Software's HDTach, the Barracuda posted an 85.5MB/sec. average read speed. Compare that with the 57MB/sec. recorded from a 250GB Seagate hard drive (ST3250824AS 3.AA) also installed in the system. That's a huge difference for a hard drive. Random-access time was also lower for the 1TB Barracuda at 12.9ms, vs. 15.7ms for the 250GB drive.

The only venue in which the new Seagate drive lagged was in its reported burst speed, where at 134.2MB/sec., it trailed the smaller drive's 152.4MB/sec. If the average read and burst speed results had also been slower, it would be easy to criticize overall performance. However, burst speed is a bit of a marketing myth. It's used to test the transfer speed of short bursts of data between the drive's cache and the interface. It's not an indication of sustained data-transfer rates -- which are typical for most accesses.

With performance out of the way, price is the second hurdle and, at least conceptually, it's a steep one. The 1TB Barracuda will cost you somewhere around $330 (street price), and in a world of relatively cheap hard drives -- 500GB for around $120 -- you may have second thoughts. You might even consider going down to your local big-box store and scooping up a pair of 500GB external drives in its place. They're often available at heavily discounted prices.

In fact, you'd probably save enough for a really fine dinner for two, and you could put the time spent eating to good use too, as it will keep you occupied while you wait for your data to be transferred. A 500GB Western Digital MyBook attached to the same system via USB 2.0 posted a miserly burst speed of just 21.1MB/sec. and a genuinely impoverished average read rate of 20.9MB/sec. The SATA 3GB/sec. internal Barracuda is more than four times faster than the external USB drive. Better add a dessert course to that dinner.

That last hurdle is need and, to be honest, few consumers really need a 1TB drive just yet. It amounts to just a bit more than 1,000 standard definition 43-minute video broadcasts (the average time for 1 hour television show stripped of commercials) edited at a reasonably good bit rate. That's well beyond the total run of most series, with the possible exception of Doctor Who. As HDTV and video arrive, things will change. IT will, however, love this drive, but it will probably be more attracted to the ES.2 SAS version (ST31000340NS) for its somewhat more robust error-handling and RAID features. The ES.2 would be over-overkill for the desktop.

Should you buy this Seagate drive? Certainly! Fast cars, lumbering SUVs, trophy wives and big houses are rarely matters of practical consideration. This is 1TB! The odds are excellent that Windows will never again tell you that you're running low on hard disk space, and that alone might be worth the price of admission.

Drive read/write rate comparisons

  ST31000340OAS SD03 ST3250824AS 3.AA WD 5000AA External 200i
Capacity 1TB 250GB 500GB
Burst speed 134.2MB/sec. 152.4MB/sec. 21.1MB/sec.
Random access 12.9ms 15.7ms 13.5ms
Average read 85.5MB/sec. 57.0MB/sec. 20.9MB/sec.
CPU utilization 3% 1% 3%

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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