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Seagate Momentus XT - First Impressions

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February 8, 2011 10:12:01 PM

Ever since the inception of Solid State hard drives, there has been the need to make a value judgement on what type of hard drive to get. SSDs are undeniably the fastest drives on the market, the phenomenal success of the new Macbook Air is proof enough, but their $/GB price point is still pretty high, two years after reaching general availability. This is especially true for laptop users who don't have the option of using multiple drives. Carrying and constantly attaching an external drive housing your ever growing media collection can be a weighty point against going SSD.

I came to that crossroad a few weeks ago and spent hours mulling over the pros and cons of upgrading my MacBook with an SSD. In the end I decided to do something experimental. I knew that it would annoy me to no end if I had to plug in a mobile drive every time I wanted to watch/listen/process my media and there was no way I could plop down $500+ for an SSD with the capacity I needed. Seagate to the rescue.

Last year Seagate introduced a new line of hybrid SSD drives, which combined a small amount of flash memory with a standard hard disk. The bare specs are as follows: 500GB 7200rpm hard disk; 32MB cache; SATA 3Gb/s; and lastly 4GB of SLC NAND Flash memory. For the HDD side the specs are a slight bump up from the regular Momentus 7200 line. Capacity aside, the SSD is top notch, SLC is as good as it gets. One thing to note is that you don't ever "see" the 4GB. All your data is read and written to the 500GB HDD, but algorithms in the drive's firmware actively stage blocks of data that are accessed often into the 4GB SSD. Think of the SSD as a kind of pre-cache. The concept is meant to improve performance where you use your computer the most.

Tom's did a full breakdown and test, which you can see here: HDD + Flash = Seagate Momentus XT, but I thought I'd give my real world impressions and welcome anyone's own experience/comments/questions.

So here's where I started: Intel Macbook (3rd Gen); 2 Ghz Core 2 Duo; 4GB of RAM; 320GB WD Scorpio Black HDD; OSX 10.5

I decided that with the new hard drive going in, I should take the opportunity to do a clean install and upgrade the OS, so I picked up Snow Leopard as well. Swapping drives is as easy as it gets, and having done it before with the Scorpio drive, I was finished in a matter of minutes. Installing OSX 10.6 went without soothly. One note I'll make is you should make sure that you format the drive with a GUID Partition table (under options) or you won't get optimum performance out of OSX. After installing all the updates, I used my Time Machine backup to reinstall my user account/programs/settings. [[As an aside, this part was a little tricky. Going from 10.5 32bit to 10.6 64bit OS with a restore required that I spend a few hours removing or updating all the 32bit programs. Even if an application uses a universal binary, it may be a good idea to rerun the installer in case there are preferences optimized for 64bit. Since Time Machine doesn't let you get granular about what programs and settings to install, you may wish to not install programs and settings and do them manually. I chose the former because it allowed me to see what needed an update and choose what old stuff to get rid of, but if you can create a list before you swap out the drive, it may save you some time.]]

OK, now to performance. I've been using my computer for the past week or so and the results have been pretty good. All of the stuff I use most often (OSX, Mail, Safari, iTunes, etc.) load much faster than ever before. Conceivably, this could be partly due to the clean install, but my subjective impression is that I've never seen Safari, nor my homepage, load in 1 second before now. Cold boots are faster than ever; reboots as well. Mail opens before the icon can finish one bounce. And so on and so forth.

At any rate, I can definitely say I'm pleased with the results. Obviously this drive won't transcode video or copy large files any faster than a standard drive, but if you take that for granted, this drive outperforms any other HDD out there in consumer level day to day usage.
February 9, 2011 2:29:34 AM

I'm glad to hear that you're experiencing a genuine performance increase in so many day to day operations. I can see hybrid drives becoming very common over the near future. :) 
And thank you for taking the time to share your experience with these new drives.

A few questions:
• How long did it take for these performance gains to kick in? Within minutes of your initial boot-up, hours, days?
• Do you know if these drives can be RAID'd together?
• Does the drive handle all processing aspects of the "Adaptive Memory" software? Any measurable load on the CPU,
continuously or intermittently?
• Can you measure or feel any temperature difference from before?
• Did you catch where the drive was made, and what is your warranty?

On a side note, was there any noticeable performance increase when you first upgraded to the Scorpio drive from Apple's OEM?
February 9, 2011 3:23:06 AM

So in full reverse order:
  • Upgrading to the Scorpio didn't have as much of a boost as I had hoped. It also came with sightly more vibration and heat. The main benefit came from the quadrupled capacity.
  • I didn't, but I can tell you tomorrow. I'll be pulling the drive in order to hook it up to a PC and run a firmware update on it. (even hard drives have firmware updates these days, especially SSDs)
  • Compared to the Scorpio it has less vibration and seems to run cooler. I can't really tell for sure, because it's been seriously cold here for the last couple weeks, so my subjective feel is off.
  • All the processing is done internally by the drive and is completely OS agnostic. In fact I also installed one of these drives in my PS3 at the same time. The drive and the Adaptive Memory don't care what the bits are, it just monitors which bits get accessed the most often. To the computer, it looks and feels like any other hard drive, no special drivers needed.
  • They can certainly be put in a RAID array. I saw a review by someone who put two in a RAID 0 config, and found that it beat out several SSD single drive configs. (you run RAID 0 for performance, not redundancy). I think that the SSD portion of the drive would likely be given over to the parity data, since that's accessed constantly to keep the array up, but even so that should give some performance boost.
  • Ah well lets see. I think I was mostly installing/uninstalling the first couple of days to get the new build ready for primetime, and none of that really counts because the drive acts normal when you're copying data to it and or processing allot of files. I think that as soon as I was winding up the last few installs and started doing normal activities, the SSD started kicking in. Near the end, every reboot was faster than the last. I'd probably guesstimate that things started to speed up toward the end of the first day of normal usage.

    I think you're right that we'll see more hybrids. When hybrids first came out, they were an across-the-board failure, but Seagate took that experience and came up with an innovative way to leverage the new tech. My guess is that we'll see Seagate double the size of the SSD portion this year.
    February 9, 2011 8:05:10 PM

    Quote:
    • Did you catch where the drive was made, and what is your warranty?


    So pulling the drive, it's made in China.

    On the warranty question (sorry I missed it), all Seagate drives are warranted for 60 months (5 years) from date of purchase. I think Western Digital is the same. Maybe they all are.
    !