Test lab. (mail-order hard disk drives)(includes related articles) (Evaluation)
by Pete Clark, Bob Levy, Tom Benford, Scott Megill, Steve Marek, Richard C. Leinecker
Mail-order companies offer a relatively inexpensive way to add mountains of mass-storage capability to your computer. To help you decide whether mail-order hard drives are for you, this month's Test Lab focuses on ten hard drives and the six mail-order companies that provided them for testing and review. Along with test data and reviews discussing the performance of these drives and companies, Test Lab explains the hard drive technologies and offers several tips on purchasing hard drives. One of our drive testers commented, "Purchasing a hard disk via mail order can be a double-edged sword: It can save you lots of money, or it can also be a nightmare. How it turns out depends on the information you have about your computer system and the questions you ask the sales representative when you call to order the drive." This month's Test Lab will help you make sure that the sword cuts your way.
With Conner's CP3184, you get more than 80MB of exceptionally quiet hard drive storage.
This drive is so quiet, in fact, that I often found myself touching the drive in search of some vibrational tingle to confirm it was operational, since there is no hard drive access indicator light (nor the pins to attach an external LED indicator). While having a quiet drive is great, most folks like a reassuring LED to provide visual notification when the drive is being accessed for reading or writing.
Installing the drive taught me a great deal about the importance of understanding the drive technology before ordering. This Conner IDE drive wouldn't hook up as a secondary drive to my current RLL controller driving a Seagate ST-251-1, so I disconnected the existing drive and controller in an attempt to install the Conner alone using the supplied IDE card. Accent should go on the word attempt.
The drive came with no cylinder, head, or sector/track specs, so I placed a call to Hard Drives International's technical support for the information required by the BIOS setup screen on the 386SX test system. The tech support folks provided the drive specs in a matter of minutes, but I found no listing of a drive type fitting these specifications in the setup menu.
Although no one at tech support could help me right away, when I called a second time, a technician did call back. He left a message on the lab's answering machine with a reference number for me to use when calling him back. I called HDI the next morning using the reference number, and a technician talked me through the procedures to install the drive with the supplied Disk Manager program using a drive type that was close to the Conner in specifications. He warned me to bear in mind that this might not work with my current BIOS. (My Everex has a December 1987 BIOS date.)
I followed the prescribed procedures to format the drive, and, sure enough, it didn't work. Then I decided to install the drive on a computer that had a newer BIOS version which permitted user-configurable hard drive types. Installation proceeded on this machine without any problems.
While the original Everex BIOS date doesn't seem overly ancient to me, it couldn't accommodate the Conner drive. The HDI representative said that I could always order a newer BIOS chip set from Everex as a solution to the problem. The documentation that came with the drive makes no mentions of possible incompatibility problems such as these.
Hard Drives International supplies its generic installation/reference manual along with an IDE installation data sheet--a nice touch, as sometimes original manufacturer documentation is difficult to wade through. Lots of general information is provided along with specifics on how to configure jumpers, attach cables, and the like, although I found no mention of mixing an RLL drive and an IDE (or SCSI) drive on the same system. The lesson in all this, of course, is that it pays to talk to a vendor before you buy to find out how your system might or might not work with a hard drive or controller.
Once the installation was completed on a new 386DX machine with a later model BIOS, the half-height Conner drive performed as expected. I installed MS-DOS 5.0 and treated the entire 82MB (formatted capacity) as one large partition. Speed, access time, and overall operation were average--this quiet, reliable Conner drive makes a good choice as a primary or secondary drive when connected to an IDE controller.
The compact Kalok KL3100 100MB drive from Professional Hard Drives fits nicely into one half-height bay and includes all the mounting hardware you'll need. Just make sure you computer can handle the IDE interface.
Initially I didn't known about the IDE incompatibility with my system, so when I installed the Kalok with its IDE controller, my 386SX locked up, and I couldn't boot from any drive. After searching through the poor documentation for a clue as to what the problem might be, I made a toll call to Professional Hard Drives in Houston. The only person who could help me wasn't there, and I was asked to call back in half an hour. When I did call back, the technician said that it would be impossible to install the Kalok in my computer as a second hard drive because of its IDE controller. A definite point to remember if you're considering this as a choice for your second hard drive.
Disabling my primary drive wasn't enough, as I learned in another call to tech support; I had to remove the existing controller card completely and use only the IDE controller in this system.
Removing the old controller card enabled me to boot from the floppy, but I received an error message telling me that I had an invalid cedia track when I tried to access the hard disk. Since I couldn't find a solution in the manual and the drive did not match up with any drive type in my CMOS setup, I made yet another call to tech support. This time the folks at Professional Hard Drives felt they couldn't remedy my problem and suggested I call Kalok tech support in California.
Kalok was, thankfully, right on the ball. Its tech support rep patiently stepped me through the process from the start and provided a CMOS drive type designation that was similar to (and compatible with) my configuration. He stayed on the line to make sure everything was completely operational before disconnecting.
Physically, the drive looks like any other half-height. Performance, however, is another matter. Once installed and formatted, the Kalok proved to be truly speedy, delivering random seek performance even better than the figures in the Kalok manual.
I can't really fault this drive for the problems I encountered; I wish the documentation and support from Professional Hard Drives had been stronger, however. If you're running a computer with a late model BIOS and looking for a fast drive, this Kalok KL3100 is a good choice.
Corporate Systems Center's Maxtor 4170S provides over 150MB of storage--plenty to handle today's mega-applications--and with the FastCache 32 SCSI controller CSC sent along, its performance is plenty fast.
If you're like most hard drive users, you find yourself accessing the same portions of your hard drive time and time again because you tend to use the same applications over and over again. The result is 100-percent wear on a hard disk that you may use only 10 percent of on any given day. This mechanical stress can eventually result in hard disk failure and loss of important data.
To the rescue come RAM-rich disk controllers, which can prolong the life of the average hard drive. Simply put, information repeatedly used by your hard disk, such as a word processor or a spreadsheet, can now be loaded simulatenously into both your system's memory and an optional RAM cache on a hard drive's interface board. The RAM cache, which has no moving parts to wear down, will then be accessed as the primary memory source if you should need the same information again. This way, the hard disk and its mechanical drive heads are spared the effort of repeatedly seeking and sending the same data.
The FastCache 32 from Corporate Systems Center, a SCSI controller board with expandable RAM capacity, has been offered with Maxtor hard disks to enhance the performance and prolong the life of the drives. The full-height internal hard drive requires either a full bay or two half-height bays. Either way, you can say bye-bye to a couple of half-height drives or get yourself a bigger system cabinet.
The installation of this drive and controller turned out to be more difficult than I expected. The drive itself comes with nothing but foam packing and a technical specifications manual, which didn't provide all the answers I needed. If you don't purchase the FastCache 32 card with the drive, you'll need to buy a SCSI interface, mounting rails, and ribbon cable to complete the installation. Before you buy any drive, be sure to find out what you're getting and what you'll need.
The FastCache 32 card comes with a manual and a set-up disk; I found the documentation to be abysmal. The only photos to guide the inexperienced installer were located in the rear of the manual and dealt with installing additional SIMM chips on the board. The manual assumes that everyone's an expert at installing a SCSI hard drive with a cache board. Because I couldn't find vital information in the manuals, I had to place four separate toll telephone calls to CSC technical support in California to walk me through what should have been a simple installation. These phone calls dealt with issues like DIP switch settings to reflect RAM configurations, controller access preferences, and other topics that should have been covered in the documentation.
Once up, the drive performed without a hitch. The RAM cache made the Maxtor's performance speed go off the charts. SpinRite reported processing speeds of 3 ms--far faster than the drive itself was capable of. Without the cache, the drive performed as would be expected, with a respectable 15-ms seek time and fairly quiet operation.
If you don't mind the size of the drive and the lack of documentation, CSC's Maxtor drive and FastCache 32 make an impressive team. But be sure you are receiving all that you need if you plan to purchase the drive without the FastCache 32. Overall, the drive/card combination impressed me almost enough to forgive the lack of adequate documentation--almost.
PLUS HARDCARD II
The thin size and "unibody" construction of the Plus Hardcard II XL50 don't really give you an indication of the truly awesome performance this unit delivers. Admittedly, I was skeptical about whether this hard-drive-on-a-card supplied by Bulldog Computer Products would install as painlessly as advertised and also perform at the 9-millisecond access time advertised.
As well as the Hardcard was designed, though, during the installation process a few problems did arise. The one-piece drive and card unit, filling a full-length expansion slot, wouldn't work on an old IBM AT (6 MHz) running MS-DOS 3.3. However, a quick five-dollar flat-fee phone call to Plus technical support revealed that the problem stems from a quirk in the IBM processor itself. This peculiarity makes MS-DOS unusable with the Hardcard on my machine. (PC-DOS, however, functions just fine with the software patch program provided with the drive.) The quirk has something to do with one high bit that IBM changed in the old AT BIOS since my machine was released (January 10, 1984). Tech support suggested that I switch over to PC-DOS and run the patch program to alleviate this incompatibility problem. Since I didn't have a copy of PC-DOS available, I decided to do the installation and review on another machine.
I then installed the Hardcard on a 386SX under MS-DOS 3.3 and found the rapid automatic installation a remarkably painless procedure that could be followed to a T with one small exception. The installation was complete in a couple of minutes. However, I then realized that my existing C and D drives had become C and E, and the Hardcard had interjected itself as a 32MB D drive. What had happened to the other 18MB of Hardcard space? It was, after all, supposed to have a 50MB formatted capacity.
Since MS-DOS 3.3 can recognize partitions only up to 32MB, the solution was simply a matter of returning to Plus's installation software, selecting manual partitioning, and creating an 18MB F drive. The excellent Plus user's manual provides lucid, detailed instructions on how to do this.
The drive is a superquick star performer, exceeding even its published specs. And it's quiet, too--completely inaudible over the hum of the system's cooling fan. Only during intense datawrite testing could I hear any sound at all.
Since the Hardcard mounts internally in an expansion slot, you don't have the benefit of a drive access light commonly found on standard hard drives. The Plus engineers have thoughtfully provided a utility that generates a flicering plus sign in the upper corner of the video display whenever the Hardcard is accessed. (You can optionally disable this feature if you so desire.)
The Plus Hardcard II XL50 proved to be a well-engineered piece of equipment. It's an excellent choice for the novice user who wishes to install a mass storage device that's also easily removable. I give the Plus Hardcard my highest recommendation for ease of installation and for the best telephone technical support that I received.
PLUS HARDCARD II
This hard-drive-on-a-card is a screamer! Not only does it provide excellent capacity, but it's lightning fast and a breeze to install. But I'm getting ahead of myself; let's start at the beginning.
If available expansion slots are at a premium in your computer, the fact that Plus's Hardcard requires a full-length slot might pose a problem. However, if all of the available bays on your system are already occupied with a couple of floppy drives and a hard disk and you still need more storage, then you should definitely take a look at the Plus Hardcard II XL105. This drive could be your ticket.
After successfully installing the Hardcard II in just a few minutes without incident, I could tell that Plus Development had spent lots of time designing the hardware, installation software, and user's manual. Inserting and using this device is extraodinarily easy, even if you've never installed any hardware before. To aid the installation process, there's a totally automatic mode that makes all of the decisions about partitioning and other pertinent aspects of the technology for you. In most cases, the automatic selections work just fine, but there's also a manual mode should you decide to override these computer-chosen defaults.
After completing the installation in less than 15 minutes, I had three 32MB partitions and one 7MB partition (a total of 103MB formatted capacity) running under MS-DOS 3.3. The trim unit is less than an inch wide, allowing it to fit comfortably in a single card slot.
While the Plus Hardcard doesn't have a drive access LED like those on conventional hard drives, a light utility is provided in the setup software which provides a plus symbol in the upper right-hand corner of the monitor whenever the drive is being read from or written to. This is a nifty feature which, like everything else about the Hardcard, is well covered in the user's manual.
Bulldog didn't offer me tech support on this drive but did refer me to the manufacturer's tech support service. While no telephone tech support was really required during this installation, I know from experience that the tech support department at Plus Development is thorough, helpful, patient, and conscientious. At a flat $5 fee for a tech support call, it may well be one of computerdom's great bargains. If you have an open card slot and would like your computer to have additional hard drive space, the Plus Hardcard II XL 105 is definitely worth looking into.
The miniaturization of electronic devices and components, a byproduct of technological advances, has made a clearly positive impact on the world of personal computers. The compact laptop computers of only a year or two ago are quickly giving way to even more diminutive notebook models. Hard drives, too, have steadily decreased in physical size while thier capacities have grown by leaps and bounds. The original IBM XTs came outfitted with a full-height 10MB hard drive that could do double duty as a boat anchor. Then half-height drives appeared on the scene. Now Quantum's LPS52 drive takes size reduction to the next logical step with a design that's only one inch thick.
A sleek piece of equipment, this inch-high Quantum drive has a formatted capacity of 50MB and uses VLSI (Very Large Scale Integration) technology to pack a great deal into a remarkably small package. The drive sports a builtin access indicator light, and you get an additional two-pin jack to rig an extension LED indicator for hidden mounting situations--a nice touch. I like to be able to see some indication of hard drive activity and know that the file I meant to save is actually being saved.
The drive came supplied with a mounting kit and an IDE floppy/hard controller card, but I opted to plug it into my existing IDE controller. Even though it's about half the thickness of an ordinary half-height drive (you can fit two of these into the same mounting bay), the supplied mounting kit documentation assures you that it will nestle comfortably into any half-height opening.
I partitioned the drive with FDISK in a matter of minutes, loaded MS-DOS 5.0, and was up and running in under ten minutes--from start to finish. This was truly a painless installation, and on the basis of this pleasant experience, I would recommend this particular drive/controller combination as a good choice for someone installing a drive for the first time.
I found the supplied installation instruction sheet easy to follow, something a user of any experience level can and will appreciate. If you follow the step-by-step directions precisely, calls to tech support shouldn't be necessary.
The drive noise was about average for an IDE drive--much quieter than the older, larger drives I've used. As far as performance goes, the drive is quick--much faster than the old trusty Seagate ST-251-1 that usually resides in my test system. Easy installation, good documentation, and good performance earn this drive my high recommendation.
The idea of a removable high-capacity hard drive appeals to many users, and the design of SPC's Remedy models makes this scheme a practical reality.
Essentially, the Remedy 105S drive is a streamlined 3 1/2-inch unit that docks inside a 5 1/4-inch frame--physically the same size as a standard 5 1/4-inch half-height drive. The frame installs inside the PC with four screws and is the permanent (nonremovable) part of the installation. The drive itself slides into this frame and clicks into place, making contact with an edge connector at the rear. Removal of the drive is simply a matter of pulling it out of the frame--in effect, the drive itself is a cartridge which snaps into place in the bay. Of course, in order to be able to remove the drive from the frame, you need to mount it in a bay accessible from the front of the PC.
The Remedy 105S came supplied with a Future Domain TMC-860 SCSI interface card for controlling the unit and a 50-pin ribbon cable for connecting the card to the drive. A good user's guide, supplied with the Future Domain SCSI card, made the physical hardware installation simple and straightforward with no special skills or technical knowledge required; all required screws, cabling, and other hardware were supplied.
I installed the Remedy 105S in a 386SX PC which already contained a 40MB Seagate ST-251-1 with an RLL controller card. According to the documentation, installing the Remedy as a second drive shouldn't have posed a problem, since the new drive was SCSI-interfaced. Actually, installation turned out not to be quite as straightforward as expected.
When the PC was powered up, it would boot normally. But since the existing drive was already partitioned as C: and D:, a conflict existed with the new Remedy drive, which was also partitioned as C: and D: as shipped. The PC recognized the C: section of the Seagate drive but looked at the Remedy for Drive D:. The location of the D: partition of the Seagate and the C:, E:, and F: partitions of the Remedy drive remained a mystery.
To try to rectify the problem, I made a call to SPC tech support. After several unsuccessful attempts at finding a cure to this incompatibility, SPC suggested that repartitioning the existing Seagate drive might be the best solution. Since my data on that drive isn't expendable, I opted to disconnect it totally and run the Remedy as the sole hard drive on the system. I didn't really need the Seagate drive operational to proceed with the review, so this was my work-around. Without the Seagate running interference or competition, the Remedy booted and performed flawlessly from that point on.
The drive came with DOS 3.3 already installed, but I wanted to upgrade the drive to DOS 5.0 and eliminate the partitions in order to have one nice, large 105MB drive to work with; the upgrade went off without a hitch. I that will allow user-definable drive configurations." This option was not viable (or desirable) at the time, so I moved the drive and controller card over to another 386 with a newer AMI BIOS that does permit user-definable drive configurations.
With drive and controller installed in the 386DX chassis, I selected type 47 (user-definable) from the setup menu, keyed in the spacs, and proceeded to format it from the command line. The drive formatted to 62MB without further incident.
After they work with IDE and SCSI drives, it's easy for today's computer enthusiasts to become jaded and spoiled by their quick speed. The Seagate ST277R-1 is not a contender for the Guinness Book of Fast Drives. I could tell a difference in performance. Though the drive is rated at 28 ms, it consistently clocked slower seek, contiguous/fragmented sector read, and write times than this rating. Waiting for the drive to access and load files frequently became tedious, and writing data to the disk seemed to take an inordinately long time.
As with other drives supplied by HDI, this one came with fairly detailed documentation. However, it gave no advice on how to proceed with an installation on a machine like my Everex.
If you're running an older drive under RLL controller technology, this might be a good choice to replace it. Be prepared to settle for older technology and slower access speeds, however.
This half-height Seagate drive arrived completely formatted with the MS-DOS 5.0 operating system and a CONFIG.SYS file already installed--a pleasant surprise, indeed.
Along with the drive, Harmony Computers supplied the appropriate IDE hard/floppy controller card. All I needed to come up with was a mounting kit to secure the 3 1/2-inch unit into an available 5 1/4-inch bay in my test system.
The physical installation of the drive went along without a hitch, requiring less than 15 minutes to secure the drive in a bay and attach the cables to the controller card. Next on the to-do list was selecting the appropriate drive type from the PC's CMOS setup list, and here's where things got a bit interesting.
In addition to the Seagate installation guide booklet supplied with the drive, Harmony provided a "drive geometry" printout, which gave specific data about this particular drive. Included were its serial number, ROM/RAM versions, date and time stamp, and the physical configuration, which was listed as "Cyls: 1021 - Heads: 5 - Sectors/Track: 44, 36, 30 - Bytes/Sector: 512." On the surface this appears to be was very impressed with the Remedy's speed--especially knowing how slowly by comparison my 28-ms Seagate ST-251-1 usually performed in this same machine.
If you're interested in a removable mass storage medium and particularly if you have data you'd like to be able to transport conveniently between two or more computers, the Remedy 105S is a convenient and efficient (albeit expensive) solution.
I've had some bad experiences installing and reviewing mass storage devices in the past, so when I pulled this drive out of the box, I breathed a sigh of relief. The general consensus here at the lab was "It's a Seagate. We'll have this drive up and running in a matter of minutes." Little did I know that the projected half-hour installation was to turn into a nightmare of the first order.
The physical installation of the Seagate ST277R-1 drive and the RLL controller card into the test system went without a hitch, but severe error messages during the disk partitioning segment of the setup (using the included Disk Manager software) indicated that I had a DOA (Dead On Arrival) on my hands. A call was placed to Hard Drives International's tech support department, and I described the problems. The technician agreed that it sounded like the drive was inoperable and provided me with an RMA (Return Merchandise Authorization) number. I also mentioned my really tight schedule and asked if the replacement unit could be shipped using my Federal Express account number.
The Hard Drives International representative responsible for helping me work out my problem was most accommodating and assured me that a replacement unit would ship as soon as the defective unit was returned. I didn't mention that I was reviewing this unit for COMPUTE because I wanted to see the kind of treatment an average customer would receive. HDI usually ships via ground delivery service, which takes longer than the overnight air service I requested at my expense.
Upon receipt of the replacement unit (within 48 hours after my call), I proceeded to install the drive and controller card in my computer. My Everex CMOS setup screen didn't show a drive type with the same number of cylinders, sectors, and capacity as the Seagate drive's, so I opted to let the Disk Manager software select the correct type and write the ID info to the CMOS registers.
When I loaded FDISK to repartition the drive, it indicated that the drive capacity was only 31 megabytes; Disk Manager had obviously chosen the incorrect drive type. I made another call to tech support at Hard Drives International and was advised to "pick something close to that configuration from the CMOS menu--it should work." It didn't.
Another call to tech support elicited the advice that I purchase "upgraded ROMs for [my] computer helpful information that is essential in selecting an appropriate drive type from the CMOS menu. However, in the Seagate installation guide I found other specs conflicting with this shipment document.
On page 10 of the manual, a table advises that Drive Type 35 should be selected for machines running an AMI BIOS dated April 9, 1990, or later (as on our test system); the setup for Type 35 automatically comes up with 1024 cylinders, nine heads, 17 sectors, and 77MB capacity--all quite different from the enclosed geometry document. But that's not all. The upper half of page 11 in the Seagate manual states that Drive Type 35 should come up with 80.2MB capacity. It gets even more interesting on the bottom half of page 11, which advises, "if you have a system BIOS which offers a user-defined drive type [as mine does], select from the following drive configurations: For an ST1102A drive--1024 cylinders, ten R/W heads, 17 sectors/track, 89.1MB formatted capacity."
It all sounded pretty confusing to me. Which specs should I use for the CMOS setup? Fortunately, I have another PC in the lab which also runs a late-model AMI BIOS, and it's also equipped with a Seagate ST1102A drive. I took a look at the CMOS setup on that machine and saw that it was User-Defined Type 47 (1024, 10, 1025, 17, 85MB), so that's the one I used for our review unit as well.
All of this conflicting information was confusing, indeed! Just to be on the safe side, I placed a tech support call to Harmony Computers, and the technician immediately told me to select User-Defined Type 47 and set it up for 1024 cylinders, ten heads, 17 sectors, and a 1025 compression setting (an exact match of our choices). He even provided Seagate's 800 number in case I needed any additional help. Hats off to Harmony's tech support staff!
After I exited the CMOS setup, my test PC rebooted directly from the Seagate drive, and I proceeded to run some tests. One thing that really perplexed me was SpinRite II's inability to determine the seek time of this disk. A message displayed said, "This computer's hard disk subsystem is ignoring cylinder seek commands." I changed the operating system to MS-DOS 4.01 in an effort to get a seek reading but to no avail. I then tried to reconfigure the drive in CMOS to a different drive type as suggested in the Seagate Hard Drive installation manual, but this didn't alleviate the problem either. As a last resort, I tried running the SpinRite II test on our other similarly configured PC, but the same message appeared on this machine as well. Apparently some sort of incompatibility exists between SpinRite II and the ST1102A drive, at least when it comes to taking seek-timing measurements.
I didn't have any problems getting performance measurements with COMPUTE's proprietary benchmark software or with Norton Utilities 5.0, so I went with these figures and proceeded to load files on the drive and put some miles on it. The drive is a quick and reliable performer that packs 80MB of storage into a small, fast package.
The 203MB Swift ST1239N drive is a testament to Seagate's commitment to performance and quality, as evidenced by the unit's quiet operation and 15-ms average seek time.
The installation of the drive couldn't be simpler. You'll need a SCSI interface card and a 50-pin ribbon cable, which were not supplied with the drive. The interface card plugged into an expansion slot, and I installed the tiny drive in an open 5 1/4-inch half-height bay using mounting brackets. Once I'd connected the power cable to the rear of the drive, the majority of the work was done. The drive comes low-level formatted to 203MB, so all you need to do is partition the disk and create logical drives with MS-DOS's FDISK utility (not supplied with the drive).
After completing the installation, I had a 160MB partition and a 43MB partition, designated as drives E: and F: (the resident 40MB drive on my computer system already had C: and D: designations). After some of the installation enigmas I have experienced with other drives, you can't imagine my relief at the ease with which this drive installed, especially since it had no problems getting along with the resident 40MB drive in the system. The Seagate manual is packed to the brim with all the information needed for a successful installation and includes illustrations of the process to supplement the descriptive text.
Once running, the drive performed exactly as expected: quietly, with speed and reliability. Its diminutive size certainly posed no problems in any performance-related areas. Supported by both omputer Systems Center and Seagate itself, technical assistance is not lacking for this drive, although I didn't require any tech support. Far too often you can find yourself on the short end of the stick when dealing with mail-order and discount companies offering amazing deals. The Seagate Swift ST1239N is an excellent choice, and dealing with CSC is a pleasant experience.