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Samsung Spinpoint SP2504C Hard Drive Review

Samsung Spinpoint SP2504C Hard Drive Review

Supplied by Samsung


Introduction

“Quick and Quiet” is what Samsung has dubbed their latest P120 series hard drives. With the recent ‘boom’ of HTPCs and the drive (no pun intended) for fast and silent computing, Samsung aims to deliver. Let’s take a look at Samsung’s flagship 250GB SP2504C hard drive to see if it delivers on its promises.

Specifications (from Samsung.com)

  • 250GB Total Capacity
  • 7200RPM Rotational Speed
  • 8MB Cache
  • 125GB Formatted Capacity Per Disk
  • Serial ATA 3.0Gbps Interface Support
  • SATA Native Command Queuing Feature set
  • Device Initiated SATA Power Management
  • Staggered Spin-up Support
  • High Speed Dual Digital Signal Processor (DSP) Based Architecture
  • ATA S.M.A.R.T. Compliant
  • ATA Automatic Acoustic Management Feature Set
  • ATA 48-bit Address Feature Set
  • ATA Streaming Feature Set
  • ATA Device Configuration Overlay Feature Set
  • NoiseGuard™
  • SilentSeek™

The Drive

The SP2504C drive arrived in a protective plastic casing. This particular version was the OEM model including only the drive itself. Documentation can be found on the Samsung web site.

The casing has an attractive brushed metal finish to it and is quite reflective. Drives are not usually visible in windowed cases but this one is a real looker to say the least.

As can be seen on the label, Samsung outlines a jumper configuration to manually select SATA 150 (or SATA I) operation. Although SATA 150 controllers should have no issue with a SATA 300 drive, some older models could exhibit some issues. Simply short the indicated jumpers to turn the SP2504C into a legacy SATA 150 drive.

Underneath, you’ll notice the Samsung UC60 8MB buffer module and the Marvel control IC. One important thing to note is the lack of a legacy 4-pin power connector. You’ll have to have a power supply that includes SATA power connectors or an adapter cable. All ATX 2.0 specification power supplies should include SATA power connectors and many modern mainboards will include a ‘4-Pin-to-SATA’ adapter.

RoHS

Although our world has far too many acronyms, I am very pleased to see this particular one stamped on the SP2504C. RoHS is not a catchy acronym to describe a new interface or technology, but rather to describe certain environmental considerations put into the materials composing the device. RoHS stands for “Restriction of the use of Certain Hazardous Substances”. An RoHS compliant device must not contain any (or contain a regulated ‘safe’ amount) of the following substances: Lead, Cadmium, Mercury,

Hexavalent Chromium,

Polybrominated Biphenyl (PBB) and

Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDE). The European Union is putting legislation into place to make RoHS compliance a requirement for new electronic equipment in Europe (including hard disk drives). Although not a requirement in North America, most manufacturers are distributing RoHS compliant devices across the globe.

Installation

Installation was a snap, and there were no surprises or ‘gotchas’ to report. Upon first boot up, the SP2504C was detected in the BIOS and initialized for first use when I arrived in Windows XP. I proceeded to format the drive using the NTFS file system and default file allocation size.

2504C_FORM_CAP

The actual formatted capacity of the drive was 232GB. There is always a discrepancy because hard drive manufacturers list 1GB as 1,000,000,000 bytes. In actuality, 1GB is equal to

1,073,741,824 bytes. There is a common misconception that those few gigabytes are lost during format. This is not the case; they are simply calculated differently.

Performance Testing Configuration

To put the SP2504C through it’s paces, the following configuration was used:

  • AMD Opteron 148 Overclocked to 3.0GHz
  • 4x512MB of PC3200 DDR Memory @ 200MHz (2-2-2-5, 2T timings)
  • DFI NF4 Ultra-D Mainboard
  • PC Power and Cooling 510 Express PSU
  • Windows XP SP2
  • Nvidia NF4 Chipset Drivers 6.7 (October 2005)

The drive was run outside of the case with no active cooling. Before testing was started, the drive was formatted using the NTFS file system and default file allocation size. All tests were done on an empty drive.

Applications Used for Testing: ATTO Disk Benchmark, Sisoft Sandra ’05 and Diskspeed32.

STR Performance Testing

STR stands for ‘sustained transfer rate’ and is used to describe sequential access to the contents of the drive. Generally speaking, the larger the amount of data being read/written, the faster the drive performs. ATTO Disk Benchmark is a classic benchmarking tool that gives a good indication of overall STR across varying data transfer sizes.

I was very pleasantly surprised to see the results. The SP2504C is without a doubt the fastest SATA drive (as far as STR is concerned) that I have ever used. 73MB/s STR in the ‘high range’ is pretty amazing. Prior to this drive, I have only seen those kind of numbers from some high end SCSI drives.

I’d consider the ‘low end’ write performance (using small transfer sizes) to be a little slow, but it quickly picks up as the transfer size increases beyond 8K. It appears that the drive has been ‘tuned’ for best performance with larger files. This is particularly good news for those looking for a high performance HTPC or video editing PC.

Diskspeed32 provides a similar picture of the STR, but reads across all 30,000+ sectors of the drive.

At the outer limits of the drive a very respectable 34MB/s was maintained, and a maximum speed of almost 75MB/s towards the inner limits of the drive.

Access Time

Another important aspect of drive performance is access time. ‘Access time’ is essentially the sum of varying latencies in the drive (such as the seek time). Most manufacturers list ‘average seek time’ in milliseconds as a specification for their drives. Since it is very difficult to measure seek time only, the average access time is often used as a reference point. The rotational speed of the drive often has a large impact on the ‘Access Time’. I was surprised to see that Samsung did not advertise this specification. The 14.4ms reading taken from Diskspeed32 appears to be about average for a 250GB, 7200RPM drive such as the SP2504c. I was able to verify this reading using HDTach. Sisoft Sandra ’05 estimates the drive’s latency and usually comes close to what the manufacturer specifies as ‘Average Seek Time’. In this case, it estimated 8ms.

Comparison to Other 7200RPM SATA Drives

I want to say off the bat that this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. It’s more of a Granny-Smith-to-Royal-Gala comparison. Unfortunately, I do not have other 250GB drives at my disposal for testing, and the sizes of the drives I have vary. I’m going to focus primarily on STR for comparison, as access times can vary based on drive size. All tests were done with the Samsung in SATA 150 mode to keep the interface consistent. I will use the Sisoft Sandra ’05 file system benchmark and ATTO for testing.

Drives for comparison:

  • Samsung SP2504C (SATA 150 Mode), 250GB, 8MB cache, 7200RPM
  • Seagate 7200.8 300GB, 8MB cache, 7200RPM
  • Seagate 7200.7 160GB, 8MB cache, 7200RPM
  • Maxtor DiamondMax 10, 100GB, 8MB cache, 7200RPM

2504C_GRAPH_COMP

As you can see above, the Samsung came out on top of the pack in each test. It appears that the Samsung drive is the only one capable of bursting beyond the limits of SATA 150. The random and sequential tests are the most ‘real world’ relevant tests.

2504C_GRAPH_ATTOREAD

ATTO gives a better picture of transfer speed across varying data sizes. Although the Samsung performed the best at data sizes above 8K, the Maxtor DiamondMax 10 is the best performer when it comes to small files. There is almost a 20MB/s difference at times in the low range.

Important Note: The NF4 chipset drivers consistently produce that large ‘dip’ that occurs between in the ‘mid range’ file sizes in the ATTO ‘Reads’. This is not due to the drives, but rather the controller/software. Please disregard this ‘dip’ as it is not representative of the actual drive’s performance. It is especially evident with the Maxtor drive.

2504C_GRAPH_ATTOWRITE

ATTO write performance shows a similar story, and the Samsung comes out on top for anything larger than 8K. Once again, the Maxtor seems to handle small data sizes the best, but loses out in the high-range. The two Seagate drives outpace the Samsung in small files by a small margin until the 8K mark is hit. At anything larger than 8K, the SP2504C leads by a significant 10MB/s margin.

SATA vs SATA2

Just about any PC purchased within the last two years is almost guaranteed to have SATA support. The original SATA specification was for 150MB/s of bandwidth. In the not too distant past, the new SATA2 or SATA 300 specification was implemented in most new mainboards and SATA controller cards. SATA2 offers essentially the same features as SATA, but with double the bandwidth.

This of course begs the question: Is it possible to even utilize 300MB/s of bandwidth from a single hard drive? Unlike Ultra 320 SCSI, where up to 14 devices could be operating on the same channel (where heaps of bandwidth is very useful), SATA is designed for only a single device per channel. Since my DFI NF4 Ultra-D includes SATA2 support on the chipset based disk controller, I decided to put the SP2504C to the test.

2504C_GRAPH_SATA1vs2

As expected, the random and sequential read/write operations simply can not saturate the available bandwidth. For some odd reason, SATA 150 performed a little better in some tests. This was verified using ATTO as well as Sandra ’05. It is difficult to validate whether or not this is due to the NF4 disk controller, or the drive itself. The discrepancy is small enough to disregard in my opinion.

The buffered read/write tests are another story though. Very large gains could be seen when SATA2 mode was enabled. Clearly this drive is capable of bursting to well above the 150MB/s ceiling of SATA 150. There was a 67% gain in buffered writes and about 42% improvement in buffered reads.

So what exactly does this equate to in real world terms? Not a whole lot, unfortunately. Buffered reads/writes are not what the average user is going to ‘feel’. Most data being accessed is not going to be stored in the cache. The sequential and random performance of the drive is much more significant.

It is important to note that an SATA controller can only perform as fast as it’s slowest link. In some systems this bottleneck is the PCI bus. Many controllers (even onboard SATA controllers) use the PCI bus, which has a maximum transfer rate of about 130MB/s. To make matters worse, this is shared bandwidth that other PCI devices can use. Thankfully the SATA available on the NF3/4 and some Intel chipsets do not suffer these limitations.

Noise

High performance does not always equate to high noise as the SP2504C has proven. I was very impressed by how quiet this drive is. I didn’t have any SPL measuring equipment at the time of writing this article, but I can tell you that just about any PC with a fan in it will mute any noise this drive will make. There is very little motor whine, and it was only audible with my ear half an inch from the top of the drive. Read/Write operations are also incredibly quiet and only audible when very close to the drive. The drive also runs fairly cool and should do just fine without the added complexity and added noise of active cooling. The Seagate 7200.7 and 7200.8 drives that I tested in the previous sections are incredibly quiet drives, and I was very pleasantly surprised to see that the Samsung was even quieter. Samsung’s R&D department has developed two specific technologies: NoiseGuard™ and SilentSeek™ to ensure near-silent operation. Here is a quick rundown of each.

NoiseGuard™: NoiseGuard technology is essentially a set of design considerations made to minimize noise in the 1000Hz to 3000Hz frequency ranges. Human hearing is especially sensitive to these ranges, so minimizing these particular frequencies can make the drive sound much quieter. Samsung achieves this by selecting noise absorbing materials for specific drive components and has given special consideration to everything from the motor ball bearings to the shape of the top cover.

2504C_SAMS_DBA

Image taken from Samsung.com

SilentSeek™: ‘Seek Noise’ is produced when the hard drive actuator moves from one track to another. This is commonly heard as ‘clicking’ or ‘light grinding’ as the drive reads/writes from/to the platters. Without getting into too much detail, SilentSeek ensures that a special electrical signal gets sent to the positioning mechanism to ensure that the head decelerates slightly before arriving at its destination. This greatly reduces seek noise while only minimally affecting head settling time.

You can get the complete rundown on each at the below URLs:

NoiseGuard™: http://www.samsung.com/Products/HardDiskDrive/whitepapers/WhitePaper_02.htm

SilentSeek™: http://www.samsung.com/Products/HardDiskDrive/whitepapers/WhitePaper_03.htm

Price

At present time, the SP2504C is competitively priced. It appears to be within 5% of the cost (usually below) of competitive products from Maxtor, Seagate, Western Digital and others. Considering the performance and noise level of this drive, I’d consider it’s pricing to be excellent.

Conclusion

I was very impressed by the Samsung SP2504C hard drive. It really does live up to its promise of being ‘quick and quiet’. Its performance is top notch, and the large file performance is faster than any other SATA drive I’ve seen to date. It’s very low noise levels also make it a perfect candidate for a home theatre or silent PC.

Design/Layout
9
Drive is appears to be well constructed, and RoHS compliance is a real plus. The SATA 150 jumper option is also a great bonus to ensure 100% compatibility even with old first generation SATA controllers. The drive was never hot to the touch, and thermal design considerations were clearly put into the drive as well.
Documentation/Installation
7
Being an OEM style drive with no included accessories, there was no included documentation as expected. There is some concise installation information available at the Samsung web site, however, I would have liked to see some more detail for beginners and less technical users. I ran into no issues during installation.
Noise
10
The SP2504C is incredibly quiet. Samsung’s R&D into their NoiseGuard™ and SilentSeek™ technologies have definitely made this drive a perfect candidate for a home theatre PC, or for those with a sensitive ear. This is the quietest 7200RPM SATA drive I have used to date.
Performance
9
The SP2504C has the fastest STR I have seen from an SATA drive to date. Large file transfer performance for this drive is fantastic. Performance with small files on the other hand was a little slower than I would have liked to see. Access time was about average for a drive of this specification, however taking into consideration the noise reduction enhancements, it is quite good.
Presentation/Packaging
9
Samsung has a unique plastic clamshell used for OEM drives that provides much better protection from bumps than the traditional anti-static bags.
Cost
9
The drive is competitively priced, and can usually be found slightly cheaper than competitive models from other manufacturers. Without a doubt, this drive is a great ‘bang for the buck’.
Total Score
53/60
A total percentage of 88%

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Highs

  • Incredibly quiet
  • Fastest STR I have seen from an SATA drive to date
  • SATA 150 jumper option

Lows

  • Performance with small files on the other hand was a little slower than I would have liked to see
  • Would have liked to see some more detail in documentation for beginners and less technical users

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