Notebook Hard Drive Developments
While UltraATA will not die out any time soon - there are still many low-cost laptop designs that are based on UltraATA, and there is an upgrade market as well as other applications - the majority of these premium hard drives are now based on Serial ATA. Serial ATA/300 is not really necessary even for many desktop hard drives, as the transfer rates off the physical medium haven't reached ~120 MB/s, which is the net transfer rate of SATA/150. In addition, SATA/300 increases power requirements, making it less attractive for notebook applications at this point.
More and more hard drive makers are offering high-capacity 2.5" products, but some of these aren't based on the traditional 9.5 mm height for notebook use, but rather a 12.5 mm design. The latter allows the drive makers to fit three instead of two rotating platters into a 2.5" drive. Recent results of this approach are Fujitsu's 300 GB drive and Hitachi's announcement of a 500 GB 2.5" drive monster. It will still take a year until 500 GB drives become available in 9.5 mm designs.
If you haven't followed the prices for 2.5" hard drives, maybe you should start to do so - there have been considerable price drops as well. Not only is it possible to get a 750 GB 3.5" drive at only $150, but you can get a high capacity 250 GB notebook hard drive for as little as $115. UltraATA models are more expensive, and they're getting rare, so if you intend to upgrade an existing notebook drive, you should do so quickly.
Hard Drive Selection: Just An Illusion?
Reality usually doesn't allow the laptop customer to change hard drive specifics other than the capacity and spindle speed, although this doesn't provide sufficient information to judge whether or not a hard drive performs well enough. And the alternative - Flash-based solid state hard drives (Flash SDDs) - is still way too expensive for most of us.
There have been 2.5" notebook hard drives at 5,400 RPM for many years now, which means that an 80 GB 2.5" hard drive that might come in a low-cost laptop can technically belong to multiple product generations. Practically, it may still be one or two generations behind the current drive families, which means that such a drive could deliver up to 40% less performance than today's state-of-the art drives. Technical details, such as the cache size or the interface are secondary in this context, as the technical basis is more important for performance than anything else. Our 2.5" HDD Charts include lots of current and older hard drive models for you to compare.
The only way you can be sure about getting a latest generation product is by selecting a hard drive that is only available in a modern product family. One example would be a 7,200 RPM hard drive at 200 GB capacity, which is available from Samsung, Seagate or Toshiba. A 160 GB 7,200 RPM 2.5" drive would already increase the possible product choices, as there are two generations of such products, with all hard drive makers involved.
For 5,400 RPM mainstream 2.5" drives, the state-of-the-art indicator is maximum capacity. If you go for a 320 GB hard drive in a new notebook, you can be sure that you'll either get one of the new Samsung, Toshiba or Western Digital drives. Hitachi has announced a 500 GB drive, but as mentioned earlier, it is based on a three platter design and 12.5 mm drive height, which won't fit into most standard notebooks. The same applies for Fujitsu's 300 GB drive.
All of the 250 GB drives currently available run at 5,400 RPM and deliver performance that can be rated anywhere between good and excellent. However, they are already one technology generation behind the new 320 GB drives; the only exception is Seagate's Momentus 5400.4, which is still relatively new.