Is a Hybrid Harddrive in your future? Seagate Momentus XT Review

Just about any techie would tell you that the slowest part in a modern computer is still the harddrive. In fact, 90% of the time you wait for your computer is because that little needle is busy reading sectors from a very fast spinning disk (not counting waiting for Seacom delays…). True, hard drives have become very quick over the years, but the other components in a computer has just progressed at exponentially faster pace.
Its for this very reason why you might have the latest Core i7 machine with large amounts of RAM, but still can go make a cup of coffee in the time it takes to boot up. Luckily solid state storage has come along – this does away with the moving platter inside a hard drive and instead replaces it with chips that do away with access times (the average time the needle takes to find that little bit of data) and also makes the drive silent and uses less electricity. Sounds like a terrific solution, except for price. Whereas a 500GB 7200rpm hard disk drive costs R800 today, a similiar size SSD costs around R15000. No, that is not a typo. So people who wanted the speed of SSD were forced to buy smaller capacities – 64GB currently goes for about R1800 for a decent Corsair SSD.
And this exactly what makes the Seagate Momentus XT so special. Seagate refers to it as a “œhybrid hard drive“. The XT has a 500GB traditional HDD merged with a fast 4GB SSD chip. Now 4GB might not sound like much, but you do not have to manually choose which files to drop on this SSD portion. As you use the drive, it keeps track of what files are used often, and stores these files in the SSD. These typically include files that are used by the OS often, your most used apps, etc. The Momentus XT is not only a laptop drive – in fact, it will beat most standard desktop hard drives as well. In many benchmarks it beats the WD 10,000 rpm Velociraptor drives… Its also operating system independent, so you can go ahead and use it with Windows, Mac or even Linux. The adaptive memory just keeps on doing its thing.
Now you might think 4GB SSD is not enough – but here is some of the changes I noticed using this drive. Just for some background – I installed this drive into a late 2009 Apple Macbook Pro 13inch, with a Core 2 Duo 2.53GHz processor and 4GB of RAM. It used to have a Seagate Momentus 7200.3 320GB 7200rpm drive installed, which was pretty quick already. Here is the boot times of a full Mac OS X install. Take note this not a clean fresh install, but instead a install that is made from time machine restore for both the old and new drives. In fact, I havent reinstalled or reformatted my machine in more than 2 years. Time Machine just does such a good job of that, another thing where I really do believe Mac is still better than Windows. This install is full of apps I run often, but also small utility apps that I like to use every now and then. All in all a pretty representitive Mac install. You can expect the same performance improvements on Windows as well.
Both the old and new image is defragmented and then left for about 10 minutes so that the adaptive memory does its thing.

Boot time of Mac OSX 10.6.4

These speeds are carried over to shutdown speeds as well. Again, once the adaptive memory gets used to the shutdown procedure, speed increases as well. Very impressive.

Shutdown of Mac OS X

So how does it affect everyday apps? Just everyday apps like Firefox load in half the time (and this does not include timing from cached apps in memory, this is after reboots). Larger apps like Photoshop get even better performance. iTunes gets zippier as well. Here is some timings I did with the drive. iTunes load time for a 60GB library. (Take note this is timed after a reboot every time).

iTunes Startup times

Here is the startup times for Photoshop. This is a standard install without any plugins. Again, this is a startup after a boot every time.

I did not time everything, but here are some things that improve as well:

  • You know that little wait while you type into the Spotlight search box? Thats gone.
  • Virtual Machines are faster as well. I know an average VM is much larger than 4GB, but over times these do become faster. I guess that adaptive memory looks for files within the VMs as well.
  • Everything is snappier. The stuff you do most often on the computer just happens so much faster. Makes me only wish for the day when SSDs will be cheaper.

I did notice that the drive is a little more noisy than the previous drive, but I can only hear it it if I put my ear right against my laptop. Other than that I did not find any other negatives when using the drive on a day to day basis.
Just a tip to Mac users who would like to install one – do not use  a tool like SuperDuper, rather do a Time Machine backup, and then restore the image during the install process of Mac OSX. For some reason the drive doesnt cooperate with those image cloning tools. This goes the same to Windows users, do not use DriveImage XML. Do a reinstall, I know its quite a process, but the performance boost is well worth it.
The best part of the Momentus XT is that it costs only slightly more than a standard 7200rpm notebook drive. I payed R1200 for the 500GB model. And the performance in real life use is much faster. While it wont quite reach the speed of a fast SSD, it is a fraction of the price. And that makes it a very good deal. So you might want to know if it makes more sense to rather spend your money on a full on SSD or even more RAM. Suppose you have a machine with a normal 250GB 5400rpm drive and 2GB of RAM. Here is a pretty handy chart to put hybrid hard drives into perspective:

So if you want large capacity plus fast performance, it seems like a hybrid hard drive might be the ideal middle ground before SSDs become affordable. I am willing to bet that Seagate will spread this hybrid technology to its other hard drives as well. I think the sweetspot will be a desktop drive with 8GB or 16GB of SSD memory. Hopefully in a few years we will laugh at this as SSD have finally become comparable in price with hard drives… Bring on the speed.
The Seagate Momentus XT reached South African shores last week, its currently only at suppliers, but should reach stores soon.
Highly recommended.