Jan 1996 Reviews

A Gaggle of Gigs That Won't Break the Bank

Add Big Storage for Only a Few Bucks

By Serdar Yegulalp, Assistant Technical Editor, and Philip Albinus, Assistant Reviews Editor

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Performance Score and Report Card

"A gig for a grand" was a catch phrase for PC buyers as little as a year and a half ago. Now a gigabyte drive is de rigueur for new PCs. And users looking to upgrade their current systems are gravitating toward these drives as well, drawn by retail prices that have dropped into the $350 range.

In this review, we examine four 1GB EIDE hard drives from the bigger players in the field: Seagate Technology, Western Digital, Quantum and Fujitsu Computer Products of America. Conner Peripherals also sent us a drive, but we didn't include it because Conner provided us with only volume OEM pricing information.

Each drive was tested on a 100MHz 486 Pentium equipped with an Award Plug-and-Play BIOS. We used WINDOWS Magazine's brand-new Wintune 95 to test the drive's cached and uncached performance. We also placed approximately 300MB worth of text files onto the drive and indexed them with Microsoft Office 95's Find Fast Indexer. We then used Microsoft Word 7.0 to perform a context search for the word "and." Since the index itself took up several megabytes, the drive's own hardware-level caching and retrieval speed got a thorough testing.

You may wonder why, with costs dropping the way they are, we didn't review even larger drives than 1.2GB. We could have, but users who opt for such monster drives running under Windows 95 could wind up having too much of a good thing.

Virtual File Allocation Table (VFAT), Windows 95's souped-up version of the old DOS FAT file system, limits the maximum size of individual drive volumes to 2GB.

The problem isn't fatal. If you buy a 4GB drive, for instance, you can use all of it properly under Windows 95 by partitioning it into at least two drives, each of them 2GB or less in size.

By comparison, NTFS, the file system incorporated into Windows NT, has a maximum individual volume size of 16 billion gigabytes. (Yes, 16 billion!) That's surely large enough for most Windows applications.

So if you find yourself routinely working with volumes larger than 2GB, and you are dealing with data that requires a fair degree of fault tolerance (mirroring, striping and extended partition data), you're better off switching to Windows NT. NTFS has many safety, redundancy and large-volume handling features that may make it the OS of choice in that situation.

Also note that EIDE drives larger than 528MB may not be recognized by a computer with an old BIOS. Some of them require software drivers to handle this problem, such as Ontrack's Disk Manager. (See Enhancing Your Hard Drive for more on this.) Other computers may simply need a BIOS upgrade. Contact your machine's manufacturer to get the straight dope. And know your system's limitations before spending money for something you can't use.

Fujitsu M1614

If a hard drive can be called sexy, then the Fujitsu M1614 deserves the description. Housed in a sleek black case that dramatically complements the chrome-finished hard-drive mechanism, the Fujitsu M1614 was the least expensive hard drive we tested. However, this low-priced drive is still a worthy performer.

Fujitsu has apparently not paid as much attention to the drive's insides as it has to its "come hither" exterior. It's true that the unit finished last in the Microsoft Word search, with an average time of almost 9 minutes, but in the Wintune 95 tests, the Fujitsu M1614 scored a 6.8MB per second in the cached test and a flat 2MB per second in the uncached test, which were average numbers in this review. All told, the M1614 finished second in the Wintune testing, bested only by Quantum. It earned a "B" for performance.

The Fujitsu M1614 has screw holes on the side and bottom portions for easy side- and flat-mounting.

Because Fujitsu did not send a manual with the unit, we were unable to review the documentation.

--Info File--
Fujitsu M1614
In Brief: Fujitsu's drive is the least expensive in this review, putting a speedy gigabyte within the grasp of most users.
Fujitsu Computer Products of America
800-626-4686, 408-432-6333

Quantum Fireball 1080

Quantum's excellent Fireball line of drives is well represented by the 1080, which features stellar performance and solid support. It was the only drive in the bunch rated for a 500,000-hour mean time between failures. Jumper settings are printed on the drive's faceplate, although the jumper itself is on the drive controller board (and consequently a little hard to find at first glance). The drive design has the controller placed entirely outside the chassis, connected to the drive mechanism via a detachable ribbon cable. This allows easy removal and replacement of the controller in the event it fails. Both horizontal and vertical mounting are supported.

Quantum's spiral-bound manual is excellent and thorough, although it desperately needs to be updated: The revision we received was dated November 1994 and didn't have specific data for the Fireball 1080. It was easy enough to get the drive installed and running, however, and the manual is still full of useful information, right down to the part numbers for the correct screws to use when mounting the drive horizontally or vertically.

The Fireball's performance scores were consistently high when it came to cached performance (6.7MB per second); when dealing with uncached data it only delivered 2.1MB per second on the average. It performed spectacularly well in the word-search test, raking through the data on the disk in an average of 7 minutes flat.

--Info File--
Quantum Fireball 1080
In Brief: Quantum provides a good, solid performer all around, with easy configuration and detailed, complete instructions.
Quantum Corp.
800-624-5545, 408-894-4000

Seagate Medalist 1080sl

Slimmer and lighter than the other drives we reviewed, the Seagate Medalist stands out in many ways.

The full itinerary of jumper settings is spelled out on the drive's faceplate, making it easy to get the drive hooked up and talking to your system. Screw holes on the drive's sides and underside facilitate side- and flat-mounting. The gasket around the drive's edge is sealed tightly with tape as an extra precaution against contamination. Apparently, this also has some noise-abatement value: The drive's noise rating is a very acceptable 30dB.

The manual contains a wealth of illustrations that spell out drive installation and configuration in plain terms. Despite the simple language, the manual is also quite technical. The back is chock-full of tables on such esoterica as low-level PIO mode programming, but the overly technical information doesn't hamper learning how to hook up and prepare the drive.

In Wintune 95, Seagate's uncached performance registered a 2MB per second, and it scored a respectable 7.1MB per second in cached performance. However, it came in third in the word-search test, with an 8-minute, 42-second average.

--Info File--
Seagate Medalist 1080sl
In Brief: This is the smallest, lightest, least noisy and most power-efficient of the bunch.
Seagate Technology
800-468-3472, 408-438-8111

Western Digital Caviar AC21000

Accept only the finest," reads the slogan on the faceplate. Western Digital's Caviar certainly lives up to that motto by being one of the finest hard drives on the market today.

Open the box for Western Digital's hard drive kit, and you're greeted with goodies that simplify the chore of installing a new hard drive. Along with the instructions, a wall chart spells out every stage of the installation procedure with clean, straightforward, captioned illustrations. The manual itself is every bit as good, written in clear English and also illustrated (and the chart's not simply a rehash of the manual's illustrations). Troubleshooting, variable hardware setups and multiple operating systems are all covered.

The jumper settings aren't spelled out explicitly, but the exposed circuit board traces for the jumpers have the letters CS, MA and SL (for cable select, master and slave) etched on them. The drive's gasket is also sealed with tape all the way around (and emblazoned with the stern warning "Warranty Void If Removed"). Screw holes in the chassis allow the drive to be mounted horizontally or vertically, depending on the computer's case.

The Caviar's cached and uncached performance were both average for this review: 6.7MB per second and 3MB per second, respectively. The Caviar's handling of the word-search test was second best, rating 8 minutes, 30 seconds, slightly ahead of the Seagate.

Also included are Ontrack Computer Systems' Disk Manager and DriveRocket utilities. Disk Manager provides compatibility for 1GB drives with older system BIOSes, and Drive Rocket enhances drive performance through caching. Windows 95 users should not use Drive Rocket, since it interferes with Windows 95's own disk caching.

--Info File--
Western Digital Caviar AC21000
$300 (street)
In Brief: The Caviar drive comes with a poster that details every step of the installation. It also is equipped with Ontrack's Disk Manager (for those of us with older, less compatible systems).
Western Digital Corp.
800-832-4778, 714-932-5000

The Easy Way to Install a Hard Drive

A step-by-step approach to upgrading

1. Check your system. Check your machine's manual to find out where internal drives get mounted and make sure there's room. If there isn't, consider temporarily removing one of the other drives, especially if you can consolidate your data. For instance, the data on a pair of 250MB drives could fit comfortably into a 1GB drive with room to spare.

The power supply should have at least one free four-wire lead. If it doesn't, your local computer store sells splitters which, like extension cords for wall outlets, can be used to make two power leads out of one. Also, make sure you're not overloading your supply. Each device connected to the power supply, and the supply itself, should have a wattage rating printed on it. For safety's sake, the connected devices' power ratings should not be more than about 90 percent of the supply's rating. It's not likely that you'll even get close unless you have an older machine with a small power supply (less than 200W) and lots of peripherals installed.

2. Take precautions. Static electricity, which builds up in your body constantly, can destroy computer equipment. Hard drives are among the most static-sensitive devices. You can defeat static buildup by running a humidifier, wearing antistatic gloves or working on an antistatic computer mat. Or simply touch a piece of exposed metal on the computer's case every few minutes during the installation. This will ground you out and drain static away.

3. have the right hardware. Mounting rails and/or brackets should be shipped with the drives, but are needed only if you're putting a 3.5-inch hard drive into a 5.25-inch bay. If your drive didn't ship with the necessary hardware, contact the manufacturer or call a computer parts warehouse, most of which stock hardware for various drive brands. Also, make sure you use the correct sized screws. A screw that's too large will go too deep and may damage the drive.

4. Get connected. Power cables plug in only one way, but some hard drive data cables (multiconductor ribbon cables) are not indexed. Fortunately, the cable always has a red stripe indicating where to match the first pin on the drive's connector.

If you're attaching a drive to an IDE chain that already has a drive on it (there are two connectors per cable), make sure you set one drive as a master and the other as a slave. Consult your drive's instructions about how to do this; usually, it requires a jumper setting. If there's only one drive on a chain, it should be set to a neutral setting (often called "cable select" or "jumper storage"). Setting it wrong may cause your machine to fail to boot or to give inaccurate drive readings. Leave the cover off the first time you power up again, in case there's a problem.

5. Configure it right. Each computer has a different method for identifying a new hard drive. Some machines require you to force detection in BIOS setup; some handle it automatically. Any machine that can accept an IDE drive off the motherboard should have some kind of autoconfiguration.

Enhancing Your Hard Drive

You may need more stuff to make it all work.

By John Gartner, Technical Director

If you've got an old PC, adding a fast, spacious hard drive may require some additional hardware and software. Unfortunately, trial and error is the only sure way to find out if your PC is ready for one of these Enhanced IDE drives. If after formatting it and updating your BIOS, your new drive works as expected, great. If not, then your system was probably manufactured before the summer of '94, when new drivers and controllers became available.

EIDE, or Fast-ATA drives as they are also called, should have an EIDE disk controller. EIDE extends the original IDE interface by supporting drives larger than 528MB (an old DOS and BIOS limitation), and faster data transfers of up to 16.6MB per second, in what are known as PIO Modes 3 and 4.

The 528MB limitation (see Power Windows, February 1995) is a result of the way the operating system (DOS) and the hardware (through the system BIOS) store and communicate data based on the sector, head and cylinder location. New systems that include an updated BIOS and EIDE drive controllers no longer have this limitation. To work with legacy systems, drive manufacturers bundle driver software (such as EZ-Drive or Disk Manager) that translates the larger drive capacities into a format that DOS and older BIOSes can understand.

To get the faster speed on a non-EIDE system, you'll need some new hardware. An ISA-bus EIDE card will let you attach larger hard drives and ATAPI CD-ROM drives, but data transfers are limited to IDE speeds of 3.3MBps, which is really a limitation of the ISA bus. For the best performance, look for a PCI or VL-Bus EIDE controller (depending on the type of slots in your system). If your PC doesn't have local bus slots, it might be time to consider upgrading.

One note about adding a second hard drive under Windows 95: New hard drives must still be partitioned and formatted before they can be used. You partition the drive by running Fdisk from a DOS window; this sets the size of the logical volume(s) that you want on the drive. After Fdisk finishes, you must format the drive, either by running Format from the command line or right-clicking on the drive icon and selecting it. Hard drives are not listed in Add New Hardware (under Control Panel).

This sounds complicated, but take heart. Some drive manufacturers bundle these functions into a utility that handles all the steps automatically.