Hybrid hard drives finally come of age

Becky waring By Becky Waring

Once hailed as the perfect compromise between pricey solid-state drives and cheaper-but-slower platter models, hybrid hard drives quickly became a technological flash in the pan.

But new models from Seagate have resuscitated the technology — the Momentus XT line offers many of solid state’s benefits without the sticker shock.

The theory behind hybrid hard drives was intriguing, and back in 2007 the technology made quite a splash. Marrying a small amount of nonvolatile flash memory to standard hard disks would greatly improve overall drive performance — especially system boot and application startup times. And hybrid drive technology would cost a fraction of full solid-state drives (SSDs).

Get our unique weekly Newsletter with tips and techniques, how to's and critical updates on Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows XP, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Google, etc. Join our 480,000 subscribers!

PC Drive Maintenance (Excerpt)

Subscribe and get our monthly bonuses - free!

Your hard drives store photos, books, music and film libraries, letters, financial documents and so on. This ebook is aimed at helping you understand your hard drives, expand their capacities and length of life, and recover what you can from them when they fail. We're offering you a FREE Excerpt! Get this excerpt and other 4 bonuses if you subscribe FREE now!



Unfortunately, those early drives relied on special Windows OS support (anyone remember Windows Vista ReadyDrive?) to determine what data should be stored in flash. You also needed custom drivers for every hybrid-drive model. As described in a 2007 ZDNet story, “Hybrid drives: not so fast!,” the reality was underwhelming performance. To make matters worse, the drives had reliability issues, and you could not use standard disk-maintenance tools.

In a 2009 ExtremeTech interview, a Seagate executive even predicted that hybrid hard drives would never return. The article went on to state that Microsoft had no interest in hybrid-drive technology and had no plans to support it in Windows 7. It was a marketing and consumer nightmare, with Microsoft and drive manufacturers pointing fingers at each other. So, an interesting technological advance suddenly seemed like an evolutionary dead end.

Surprisingly, Seagate didn’t give up on the concept. This summer it shipped the first OS-independent hybrid drives. Neatly bypassing the problems of the first generation, these new drives require no special drivers. They can be installed in place of any ordinary, 2.5-inch SATA drive.

Hybrids offer more bang for the buck than SSD

Seagate’s Momentus XT (info page) is designed to fit in notebooks, and that’s where hybrids offer the most value. For the hybrids’ small bump in price, you get near-desktop drive performance. Many benchmarks — such as Storagereview.com’s May 24 review — put the XTs ahead of the 10,000 rpm Western Digital VelociRaptor, an enterprise-class drive. (Near-desktop performance is why hybrids are better suited for notebooks.)

The Momentus XT line’s street price ranges from around U.S. $95 for 250GB to $130 for 500GB. Each of the three models (there’s also a 320GB version) has 4GB of flash memory, standard 7200 rpm platters, and 32MB of cache.

That’s about double what you might pay for the same-sized non-hybrid notebook drive, but it’s still quite modest compared to SSD prices. A hundred dollars will buy you only a 40GB SSD drive, and you’ll pay $400 for a 256GB model. Want a 500GB SSD in your laptop? Be prepared to shell out $1,500 and up.

Seagate also warranties the Momentus drives for five years — far better than the three years on most SSDs.

So how did Seagate finally make hybrids work? The company developed a technology it calls Adaptive Memory, which puts frequently accessed data on the faster, nonvolatile, solid-state memory. And when you restart your computer, data is still in solid-state memory, giving OS and application startup times that fall about halfway between regular and SSD boot times.

You won’t get a sustained performance increase while playing large videos or when working with huge data files that can’t squeeze into the 4GB of flash memory. But system boots, application start times, and other common tasks should be noticeably faster (and a 7200 rpm hard drive is no slouch to begin with).

Power consumption is always an important consideration with notebooks. In most tests, such as those in AnandTech.com’s May 24 review, the difference between hybrid and traditional platter drives was a wash. Any power savings a hybrid drive might get from fewer platter-based read/writes was consumed by the flash memory. So overall, there’s little or no impact on notebook heat or battery life.

Whether a hybrid is a worthwhile upgrade depends on what drive is currently residing in your notebook. If you have a 5400 rpm drive, the Momentus XT will scream in comparison. If you already have a 7200 rpm drive, the boost will be much more modest. That said, if you need more capacity and were going to buy a new drive anyway, by all means get the XT.

Use a drive dock for easy cloning and upgrading

The easiest way to upgrade your notebook drive is to attach the new drive externally, clone the internal drive using one of any number of disk-copy utilities, then swap the drives. Seagate provides a free cloning tool, the Seagate DiscWizard (download page), which is based on Acronis’ True Image technology.

But how do you attach the bare drive to your computer?

You can buy a disk enclosure and put the new drive in it temporarily — and then use the enclosure to repurpose the old drive. Or you can buy an external drive dock, which lets you pop in a bare drive, copy data, and pop it out again — without the hassle of using enclosures.

My favorite dock is the $45 Thermaltake BlacX ST0005U (info page), shown in the photo below. This device has both USB 2.0 and eSATA ports, giving up to 3Gbps data transfers if your notebook has an eSATA port or an ExpressCard slot with eSATA card. For those on the cutting edge, Thermaltake also makes a USB 3.0 version, the BlacX 5G ST0019U.

Thermaltake blacx st0005u The BlacX accepts any 2.5- or 3.5-inch SATA drive, and in most cases, no extra drivers are needed. (One is available for download, if for some reason your system does not recognize the dock.) Just plug the dock into your notebook, pop in your drive, and Windows should automatically mount it. Then use the Seagate DiscWizard or other cloning utility to copy your data over.

If you have older IDE drives as well as SATA, consider the $50 StarTech UNIDOCK2U (info page), which accepts both types of drives and has a USB 2.0 interface.

Docks are handy for much more than drive upgrades. Other common uses include making full-drive backups, rescuing data from failing drives, and securely erasing old drives before disposal. For more on that topic, see Fred Langa’s Langalist Plus item, “Is data-wiping deleted files worthwhile?,” in the paid section of Windows Secrets.

Corporate and education IT people also use docks to clone disk images for mass installations. If you handle bare drives more than once or twice a year, the expense of a dock will be nothing compared to the time and cost of using enclosures.

Feedback welcome: Have a question or comment about this story? Post your thoughts, praises, or constructive criticisms in the WS Columns forum.

Becky Waring is the former editor of NewMedia Magazine and has written for PC World, Macworld, Wired, Upside Magazine, Technology Review, CNET, and many other outlets.
= Paid content

All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2010-10-21:

Becky Waring

About Becky Waring

Becky Waring has worked as a writer and editor for CNET, ZDNET, Technology Review, Upside Magazine, and many other news sources. She alternates the Best Software column with Windows Secrets contributing editor Scott Spanbauer.