Seagate tries a new hybrid solid-state HDD, this time without Microsoft's help

Seagate Technology top story badgeThe latest hybrid notebook storage device announced today by Seagate Technology, the 2.5-inch form factor Momentus XT, promises radical performance improvements from every hybrid drive that has come before. Seagate says it can now offer this performance by literally divorcing the drive from, and breaking all connections with, the Windows-based technology that catalyzed the company's entry into the hybrid SSD business to begin with.

Back in 2005, Seagate appeared to stand firm against what many believed to be the coming wave of solid-state storage technology, made feasible by more reliable flash RAM technology whose costs were plummeting and form factors shrinking. Seagate said at the time that flash wasn't exactly as reliable as it seemed on paper compared to magnetic disks, in which the company was solidly invested.

One year later, Microsoft helped bring about the formation of an industry alliance for building hybrid solid-state/hard disk drives. It did so by making the ability to support hybrid drives a requirement for notebook PC manufacturers to obtain the much-desired Vista Premium logo, one of the higher tiers of Microsoft's originally intended multi-level support program for Windows Vista. So the following year at CES 2007, standing on the podium together to represent the new market that Microsoft was effectively forcing open, were representatives from Samsung, Toshiba, and most surprisingly of all, Seagate.

The technology that these companies were relying upon was something called ReadyDrive, a series of Vista drivers that enabled caching in the SSD part of hybrid drives, especially to help accelerate boot times. But by 2008, hybrid drive manufacturers were complaining that the advantages offered by ReadyDrive were more than outweighed by the disadvantages of simply dealing with Vista.

Fast-forward to today, when Seagate product marketing manager Joni Clark triumphantly announces to Betanews that Momentus XT will not be bound to ReadyDrive at all.

"We are no longer dependent on the [operating system] to control what gets put into the flash," Clark told us. "If you recall, the first [Seagate hybrid] drive needed ReadyDrive to enact or enable that functionality. We have a new driver that our engineers put in place -- actually more of an algorithm -- that we call 'Adaptive Memory.' This is a self-learning algorithm that monitors the LBA [Large Block Addressing] access on the drive. That algorithm doesn't care whether what OS is running it, whether it's a game or an Office application, or who the user is. All it knows is that there are frequently accessed LBAs, and some of them are tougher to get to than others. So it'll take the ones that are frequent and tough to get to, even though it takes longer, and place those LBAs into the solid-state flash.

"This learning doesn't happen just in the beginning," Clark continued, "it's constantly, always learning in the background. So it doesn't matter whether you're during the day a corporate executive, and by night you're a gaming enthusiast; it's going to constantly monitor and put these files into that solid-state, so you're always going to be performing at the top of your game, no matter what you're doing."

Clark freely admits now that Seagate's original Momentus product line, which included the 5400 PST announced in June 2006, didn't live up to many users' expectations, and that it can't heap all the blame upon Microsoft. Many of the complaints came from enthusiasts, including gamers, who didn't see any performance improvements -- and often saw the reverse -- because their programs weren't making use of ReadyDrive. Others came from Linux users...Let's face it, there is no ReadyDrive for Linux.

"With the first drive [5400 PST], we took a standard drive and we bolted on hybrid technology," Clark had no trouble adding. "This new drive is hybrid-architected from the core." Momentus XT's new flash cache has been raised from 128 MB (or 256 MB in later models) all the way to 4 GB.

How will these facts directly impact all the programs that users run, not just some of them, and all the functionality they experience? "The first thing that people will notice, I'll tell you up front, is the boot time," Seagate's Joni Clark responded. "After the third boot with this drive, I've seen people come back and say, 'My boot time was cut in half.' I don't know about you, but when I'm running from meeting to meeting, I'm the next presenter, and I'm waiting for my system to boot so I can share some files, it's very, very frustrating."

In a test designed to approximate real-world workloads, Seagate engineers tested a high-performance Asus G51J gaming notebook system using a script that automated the same series of user interactions starting at bootup, then proceeding to running Excel, to calling up files from iTunes, then calling up the game Crysis Warhead, and so on. A fully solid-state drive ran the script sequence in 140.1 seconds. Momentus XT -- a 7200 RPM drive -- ran the script in 153.8 seconds, which is not much slower but certainly appreciably faster than the 10,000 RPM drive at 188.2, and a standard Seagate 7200 RPM drive at 225.6 seconds.

Perhaps most importantly, Momentus XT booted up the Windows 7 64-bit system in 23 seconds versus 59 seconds for the 7200 RPM HDD.

With respect to price, Seagate is also aiming for a sweet spot: $153 suggested retail for the 250 GB model, as opposed to $78 for a standard 250 GB 7200 RPM HDD, and $808 for a full 250 GB solid-state drive. Models at 320 GB and 500 GB will be available also, with pricing information to be revealed Wednesday.
The fact that Seagate didn't test Momentus XT in a system known for power conservation is a clear indicator that there's not much about it that's "green." That's a big lesson learned from the Momentus 5400 PST days, when Seagate also tried to appeal to the energy cost-conscientious crowd.

"The first hybrid drive did try to cut down on power consumption," Clark told us, "and actually did quite a bit. There was some spin-down going on...and we tried to increase the reliability of the drive and the performance. We were trying to be everything to everybody with that first drive. But the market came back to us and said, if you're going to put solid-state on a drive, make sure it's for performance. That's the number-one thing...So with this drive, we quit trying to be everything to everyone, and we focused on the one value point that customers told us they wanted: affordable performance. So you will not see this drive spin down at all. We will spin like a normal 7200 -- it doesn't consume any more power than a normal 7200 RPM drive. Your shock is the same, and even your acoustics are identical."

Seagate is inviting the general public to see this performance for itself, in a live webcast scheduled for Wednesday, May 26 at 2:00 pm EDT / 11: 00 am PDT. Seagate is taking reservations now at this address, and attendees will be eligible for prize drawings including one of three Asus G73 notebooks.

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