Unsung Heroes: 14 Years of Hard Drive Performance

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Of all the components in a typical PC, the hard drive is typically viewed as the least sexy and most scorned. When AMD or Intel launch a new CPU, they fill PR statements with promises of incredibly fast databases and improved 3D rendering. If AMD and NVIDIA launch new GPUs, the Intertubes hum with promises of realistic graphics, higher resolutions, and multi-monitor gaming. When the likes of Western Digital or Seagate launch a new hard drive, the product is hailed as a more efficient means of storing por...umm, data. Useful?  Very. High class or sexy? Not so much. To add insult to injury, hard drives are often dragged into conversations on completely different topics. HDD performance is trotted out to explain why faster CPUs or streamlined operating systems don't matter.

We decided to take a look at how standard, spinning hard drive performance has evolved over the past 14 years. We rounded up a representative group of hard drives, formatted them, scanned them for bad sectors, and ran a few modern benchmarks to see how much performance has improved. Because this project uses drives we had lying around, there are some gaps we would've preferred to fill. Given our druthers, we'd have included a Seagate 'Cuda IV and either a 72GB or 150GB Raptor, along with the latest 600GB model.

Here are our contestants, listed in (mostly) chronological order, though, as you'll see, the lineage we've assembled shows some interesting trends and data to be sure.

Model

Capacity

Introduction Date

Launch Cost & $/GB

WD Caviar 22100

2.1GB

1996

$279, $132.86

WD 400BB

40GB

2000

$215 / $5.38

WD 800JB 80GB

2002

$189 / $2.36

Seagate 7200.7

120GB

2004

NA
WD Raptor 36GB

36GB

2003

$249 / $6.49

Seagate 7200.10

250GB

2006

$99 / $0.40

WD 1TB Caviar Black

1TB

2008

$183 / 0.18

WD 2TB Caviar Black

2TB

2009

$300 / $0.15

WD Raptor 300GB

300GB

2008

$300 / $1

Most of the drives we tested were cutting-edge in their day for one reason or another. The WD800JB was one of the first HDDs with 8MB of cache, Seagate's 7200.7 was that company's first drive that supported NCQ. The Raptor 36GB was WD's first ultra-high performance drive with a 10,000 RPM spindle speed and the Caviar Black 2TB features 64MB of cache and dual processors.


We could have gone back farther, but Dave didn't think an IBM Cargo Deck HDD was a wise purchase.

We tested all of the drives in question using a Core i5-750 processor, 4GB of RAM, and Windows 7 64-bit. We used Microsoft's default AHCI drivers where applicable and activated AHCI when testing drives that could support it. We were pleasantly surprised by how smoothly the testing went.  Even the 13 year-old WD Caviar was recognized and configured without a hitch.

We used PCMark Vantage's HDD benchmark to model real-world application tests and HDTune to measure read/write speeds and drive latency.  Let's look at the results...

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