Maxtor rolls out 80GB and 100GB hard drives

In the latest salvo in the spring storage wars, Milpitas, Calif.-based Maxtor Corp. announced two extra-large hard drives for the storage-deprived: the 80GB DiamondMax D540X and the 100GB DiamondMax 536DX.

The 80GB DiamondMax D540X uses Maxtor's latest technology tweaks to double the data storage of a two-sided drive platter from 20GB to 40GB. The DiamondMax 536DX drive has more traditional platter capacities, but it uses three platters for a whopping 100GB of storage capacity -- making it the largest desktop drive on the market.

Maxtor's announcements come one week after Scotts Valley, Calif.-based rival Seagate Technology Inc. launched its newest U Series drives, the first-ever 40GB-per-platter drives.

Both Seagate's drives and Maxtor's DiamondMax D540X can stack two double-sided platters to achieve 80GB capacities. Each drive also spins at 5,400 rpm, although both companies have hinted that higher-performance 7,200-rpm drives with the same 40GB platters may debut shortly.

The DiamondMax D540X will be available by mid-July at an estimated retail price of $239.95 for the 80GB version. Pricing on the other capacities has not yet been set. The DiamondMax 536DX drive, which uses up to three platters averaging 33.3GB each, goes on sale in early July and will carry a suggested retail price of $299.95 for the 100GB capacity.

Both Maxtor and Seagate have achieved greater capacities by refining their existing technologies, rather than moving to new processes. Slight tweaks in the disks' read/write heads and in the method for laying the magnetic material on the disk platter allow them to roughly double the number of data bits per square inch, a measure known as areal density.

For now, Seagate is the real density champ, at 32.6G bits per square inch, but Maxtor is close behind at 29.4G bits. Both companies can squeeze enough magnetic material onto a 3.5-in. platter to reach 40GB.

Maxtor announced its first disk packed with 29.4G bits per inch earlier this month. However, that drive -- the 541D -- only uses one side of the platter, making it a low-cost 20GB drive. Maxtor representatives said they need a bit more time to engineer a two-sided platter, with two read/write heads, at the higher areal density.

In contrast to the incremental approach of its rivals, IBM recently announced that it's migrating to a new magnetic material called antiferromagnetically coupled media, or AFC (see story). The company said that AFC, also known as pixie dust, will help it reach a 100G-bit areal density by 2003.

While most major hard-drive manufacturers have been experimenting with AFC, IBM has been the most aggressive in promoting the material. IBM is also the first vendor to bring AFC to the market, using it in several of its Travelstar notebook drives.

Seagate and Maxtor contend that they can stretch more gigabits out of the existing technology. Neither, however, has ruled out an eventual switch to AFC.

In going to 100GB, Maxtor is challenging the current wisdom that 80GB is the upper limit of demand for PC buyers. Maxtor was the first vendor to achieve 80GB on a desktop drive with its four-platter, 20GB-per-platter DiamondMax 80, announced last July. Rivals Western Digital Corp. and Seagate both max out their desktop drives at 80GB; IBM currently stops at 75GB. (Seagate's server-class Ultra 160 SCSI drive is the capacity leader at 181GB.)

By most measures, 80GB is still a staggering amount of storage. A drive of this size provides enough room for 20,000 four-minute MP3 songs, 8,000 3.3M-pixel digital photos or a stack of printed text roughly 4,000 feet high.

That sounds like plenty of storage, until you start editing video files. Then this seemingly infinite space gets much cozier because uncompressed digital video sucks up about 13GB per hour.

Seeing video as the killer application to stoke customer demand for gargantuan drives, the once low-profile storage industry now has the glitter of Hollywood in its eyes.

"A lot of people who bought their [digital video] recorders for Christmas are going to want to start editing that content," speculated Bob Silva, senior marketing manager for Maxtor's hard-drive group.

Hard-drive vendors are also looking beyond the stagnant PC market and are peddling their wares to the consumer electronics industry. Drive vendors are providing products for set-top digital video recorders from companies such as WebTV and Dish Network. Vendors are also hoping to play ball in the video-game arena. Seagate and Lake Forest, Calif.-based Western Digital, for instance, supply the hard drives for Microsoft Corp.'s upcoming XBox game console.

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