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Serial ATA Is Here: Seagate Barracuda ATA V and Five of the Latest Controllers Reviewed

Conclusion: Serial ATA Is Better, But Not Faster

If you expected to see the Barracuda ATA V break records, the benchmark results will bring you back down to earth. Upon closer inspection, however, this drive has qualities that the other manufacturers have neglected in their search for ever-faster transfer rates.

As is the case with its predecessor, the Barracuda ATA IV, its operating temperature is much lower than that of other 7,200 rpm drives. Even more significant is the substantial reduction in noise levels - a very important ergonomic criterion. There is a tendency nowadays for more and more PC users to leave their computers switched on all the time. This is only possible with quiet fans and drives.

What is impressive here is that these thermal and acoustic improvements have been gained only at the expense of the highest data transfer rates, above 50 MBytes/sec. The application benchmarks are acceptable. Seek time and the minimum write rate are good, which makes this drive a particularly good choice for video and audio processing.

Used in a home or office PC, the Barracuda ATA V represents the ideal compromise between cool running, low operating noise and currently attainable performance levels. Only power users would be better off with the sector-leading models from IBM and WD - not forgetting Maxtor, which already has new models waiting in the wings.

The choice of suitable Serial ATA controller is more difficult. The performance differences between platforms using VIA and Intel chipsets shows that there is still some room for improvement.

The convenience of Serial ATA is unbeatable - connect the power and data cables, and you're done. The only time it gets more complicated is when you are configuring a RAID array. Apart from that, fitting a new hard drive has never been easier.

The RocketRAID 1520 from HighPoint was our top performer. Not only that, but there is a generous bundle of accessories with all cables and adapters for IDE drives included in the package. Unfortunately, there is no provision for connecting more than two hard drives. The RocketRAID 1540 four-channel version overcomes this limitation, but at the expense of lower high-end application performance.

The Promise controllers fare better, and offer a good performance across the board. In our tests, both the SATA 150 TX2 and TX4 were unable to transmit more than 63 MBytes/sec via the bus in our reference system. This is not important today, but it would hold back faster disk drives.

As you can tell from the merely average performance in WinBench 99, it is clear that 3Ware's Escalade 8500-8 was not designed for the home user. However, it is the most compatible card of the group, delivering the same performance on both of the platforms we used.

Apart from that, our feelings are mixed. In this exhaustive test of the first Serial ATA drive to be released onto the market, we were unable to discover any performance advantage over a comparable model with an UltraATA/100 interface. At present, our view is: Serial ATA is superior, but not faster than current parallel ATA solutions.

It only makes sense to switch to Serial ATA if you feel that the problem-free cabling is worth it, or if you are upgrading a system and want to buy a drive that is as future-proof as possible. We will only recommend a complete PC with Serial ATA when the controller is included in the chipset - something we don't expect to see until the summer at the earliest. Otherwise our recommendation is to wait and see.