New Laptop Hard Drive 5400 beats 7200 and SSD?

My Dell XPSM1330 has a 160GB 7200rpm Hard Drive, its > 80% full and the performance is completely gone. I have spent a fair few hours researching a replacement Hard Drive and found the results to be so unintuitive that I’m writing this blog post. The short answer is I’m buying a 500GB 5400rpm drive and my reason is for performance – sounds backwards hey? Read on…


I’m not your “typical laptop user”, maybe you can relate? I run multiple copies of Visual Studio, Photoshop, SQL Server, IE, Firefox and Chrome as well as messenger, witty, skype and outlook. My laptop is my primary dev machine and it gets punished. For fun I run DeepZoom composer or AndreaMosaic (or Both) producing 100,000’s of tiny tiled images. As my Hard Drive filled up to capacity its performance completely died, even after a defrag.

Lesson 1. Don’t fill your hard drive. A mechanical hard drive is faster on the outside of the rotation platters, as the drive fills up random writes and reads will slow down. 

Solid State Hard Drives

Super low latency, no issue with fragmentation, low power usage, very fast but expensive the marketing tells us. This seemed to me on the surface to be the option I needed. I could justify $500 on something that would significantly speed up my day to day life. I would have to drop capacity though. The first thing you do when looking at SSD is work out how small a hard drive you can live with, for me that was 128GB. I quick look on the online computer stores showed 3-4 brands selling 128GB models for around $500 – awesome, I’m sold. Lucky for me the stores are closed over Christmas so I did some digging into just how much faster my laptop was going to be. The sad truth was it was going to be slower and use just the same amount of power.

Not all SSD’s are created equal, first up you discover there are two types of memory modules MLC and SLC, MLC’s are 1/4 price read well but write poorly. I fair comprise, you get what you pay for. The 128GB SSD’s @ $500 are MLC while a 64GB SLC is over $1400. I could justify some lower write speeds, on paper they didn’t seem all that bad, and 128GB is what I need. Then I started hitting very conflicting reviews, on one hand I had “problems with random read and writes causing the drive to not respond for several seconds” to “5 of these babies in RAID0 creates the faster SAN we have ever seen”. The answer it seems comes down to the controller chip from JMicron lacking cache.

It would appear that for intensive random read write, for example decompress a 5GB zip fill full of small image while opening a webpage the drives can’t keep up and the webpage trying to get that file from the temporary internet files hangs. The blistering performance of putting these in RAID using a proper controller card by chance solves this problem with a proper cache on the RAID controller card doing the work. Thus we get conflicting reviews, these cheaper drives are doing amazing things in desktop gaming rigs but are not suited for my laptop.

Lesson 2. SSD are not created equal. Max Read/Write figures are not the true story. Find an independent review of a multitasking type scenario like writing thousands of tiny files while reading others.

The new Intel 80GB SSD uses MLC but with an Intel controller with more cache, it performs extremely well but I could only find one of these in Australia for about $900. Don’t be fooled by cheaper drives, if your not going to use an expensive RAID controller then wait for the next generation or for Intel’s to fall in price / raise capacity.

7200 vs 5400

No brainer right? The faster the drive spins the faster you can read and write from it. Trade off is power consumption, heat, noise and vibration. I have always bought a 7200 drive. But you may also have read about these bigger, more dense, drives are getting faster as well. The data is more tightly packed together so you can read and write more of it in a small space. If we were comparing two identical capacity and technology drives at different speeds the 7200 would be the faster drive but in the current products we are doing this. A 320GB 7200 drive is $159 and a 500GB 5400 drive is $192, both easily in my price range 😉 So what is the actual difference between them, well tom’s hardware guide has an awesome chart.  I’m comparing the Western Digital Scorpio Black (320GB 7200) with the Blue (500GB 5400rpm) and a Seagate 320GB 7200 drive for good measure. These are the fastest drives I found for sale in Australia. Let compare a few key benchmarks, see the Toms link for full details:

  Western Digital Scorpio Black Western Digital Scorpio Blue % Difference
Rotation Speed 7200 5400 25.00%
Average Read Transfer Performance 64 63.8 0.31%
Average Write Transfer Performance 83 83 0.00%
Random Access Time 15.4 16.2 -5.19%
Minimum Read Transfer Performance 41.4 41.3 0.24%
File Writing Performance 76.1 77.8 -2.23%
Average WriteTransfer Performance 63.3 63.8 -0.79%
Maximum Read Transfer Rate 84.3 83 1.54%
Minimum WriteTransfer Performance 41.4 41.3 0.24%
Database I/O Benchmark Pattern 741.45 675.28 8.92%
Webserver I/O Benchmark Pattern 697.76 604.35 13.39%
Idle Power Consumption 1.12 0.78 30.36%
Maximum Power Consumption 3.26 2.62 19.63%
Windows XP Startup Performance 8.5 7.1 16.47%


What is noticeable is the lack of difference in results from the basic tests, random access time is better (5%) and the patterns show up to 15% gain. But the power consumption jumps 15-30%.

Lesson 3. A 5400rpm Hard Drive can get close to the performance of a less dense 7200rpm drive.

What is really missing here is a comparison of the 320GB and 500GB drive both 250GB full of data. I’d be interested in seeing that result and see if the 5400rpm drive pulls out in front.

Ever Changing Environment

Computer gear gets faster and yet cheaper every year so its always good to keep in mind what you can reuse in the future. New notebooks from Dell are coming with eSATA ports to allow full speed connection to an external hard drive. With any luck in 9 months time my new notebook may come with a next gen SSD, although still low capacity (128GB). A large, yet portable, external hard drive maybe very useful.


The expensive SSD drives are out of my price range for the capacity I need, the cheaper ones are potentially worse then your current drive. The 7200rpm drives seem to still be the choice for affordable notebook performance but the dense 500GB 5400 drives are so close in fact that this is what I’m upgrading too. My rational:

  • I filled 160GB, only going to need more.
  • Fast SSD is too expensive for a notebook
  • The performance difference between the 320GB 7200 and 500GB 5400 seems to be about 10% at best
  • I suspect when I hit 250GB of data (likely estimate) this performance difference will be tiny.
  • 15-30% power reduction is good
  • When this laptop retires the 500GB drive will make a good portable HDD.