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Seagate SSHD Thin 500GB Review

AkG

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Seagate's so-called "hybrid" solutions have been around for a while, successfully combining the capacity of a hard drive with the speed of an SSD. This technology had been previously carried over into the desktop Barracuda XT and notebook-focused Momentus XT lines. Now on its third generation, Seagate’s hybrid lineup is being switched up a bit with the advent of the Laptop Thin SSHD series, supplanting the Momentus nomenclature.

As with all of Seagate’s other Hybrid storage solutions, the SSHD includes a small amount of ultra fast, ultra low latency NAND to optimize performance and speed up those all-important boot times. While this design won’t speed up every single application, your most-used programs will load quicker and overall system responsiveness will be noticeably improved. Naturally, going this route will be extremely beneficial for anyone with an upgradeable notebook. Desktop users meanwhile aren’t being targeted by the Laptop Thin SSHDs but expect this technology to once again trickle down into other markets as well.

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While the original Momentus XT was a 500GB, 7200rpm 2.5” hard drive that was paired with a mere 4GB of SLC NAND, technological evolution has necessitated some changes. For its time, the XT was quite innovative and its performance showed great promise for the future of Seagate’s notebook solutions.

The second generation boosted capacity to 750GB, doubled the size of NAND to 8GB, and used the same Momentus XT name. Performance was once again impressive but an initial price of over $200 was a bit more than budget-conscious users could stomach.

The SSHD series (short for Solid State Hybrid Drive) also comes in 500GB and 1TB capacities and starts at a frugal $80, marking a large departure from previous iterations. This should make it more accessible to a larger cross section of the market.

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As its name suggests, the SSHD Thin uses the thinner 7mm form factor. While a 2.5mm height reduction may not sound all that important, it does allow Seagate’s Laptop SSHD Thin to fit inside Ultrabooks, unlike the larger 9.5mm drives.

What is not as blatantly obvious is this reduced ‘thin’ form factor has necessitated an areal density increase. 7mm hard drives such as this one are by perforce single platter drives. This explains the ‘reduction’ in capacity from the last generation’s 750GB to this generations 500GB. It also explains why the 1TB version uses the more standard 9.5mm form factor as it requires two 500GB platters.

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Increased areal density should certainly help this drive’s spindle and platter based performance and that’s important since the SSHD’s rotational speed has been reduced from 7200 RPM to a more sedate 5400 RPM. This has been done to increase battery performance while still offering near SSD-like speed for any blocks of data housed on the NAND.

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Unfortunately, this brings us the next potential issue: the 500GB drive only has 8GB of NAND. Even ignoring the move from longer lived SLC NAND to shorter lifespan (but potentially quicker) MLC chips, this is still the same amount used on the Momentus XT so nothing has changed on this front. As we stated in that review, once the limited 8GB of space is filled, the rest of your data will be only be read at typical HDD speeds.

On the positive side, the amount of ram cache has been doubled to 64MB from 32MB, the SSHD uses a newer HDD controller and even incorporates an updated SSD controller. Hopefully these hardware improvements will minimize the rotational speed decrease, but there is little hope of it helping on the NAND front. Once the 8GB is full, faster controllers will do little to help the situation.

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AkG

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Testing Methodology

Testing Methodology


Testing a drive is not as simple as putting together a bunch of files, dragging them onto folder on the drive in Windows and using a stopwatch to time how long the transfer takes. Rather, there are factors such as read / write speed and data burst speed to take into account. There is also the SATA controller on your motherboard and how well it works with SSDs & HDDs to think about as well. For best results you really need a dedicated hardware RAID controller w/ dedicated RAM for drives to shine. Unfortunately, most people do not have the time, inclination or monetary funds to do this. For this reason our testbed will be a more standard motherboard with no mods or high end gear added to it. This is to help replicate what you the end user’s experience will be like.

Even when the hardware issues are taken care of the software itself will have a negative or positive impact on the results. As with the hardware end of things, to obtain the absolute best results you do need to tweak your OS setup; however, just like with the hardware solution most people are not going to do this. For this reason our standard OS setup is used. However, except for the Vista load test times we have done our best to eliminate this issue by having the drive tested as a secondary drive. With the main drive being a Kingston HyperX 240GB Solid State Drive.

For synthetic tests we used a combination of the ATTO Disk Benchmark, HDTach, HD Tune, Crystal Disk Benchmark, IOMeter, AS-SSD and PCMark Vanatage.

For real world benchmarks we timed how long a single 10GB rar file took to copy to and then from the devices. We also used 10gb of small files (from 100kb to 200MB) with a total 12,000 files in 400 subfolders.


All tests were run 4 times and average results are represented.

In between each test suite runs (with the exception being IOMeter which was done after every run) the drives are cleaned with either HDDerase, SaniErase or Intel Toolbox and then quick formated to make sure that they were in optimum condition for the next test suite.

Processor: Core i5 2500
Motherboard: Asus P8P67 Deluxe
Memory:
8GB Corsair Vengeance "Blue" DDR3 1600
Graphics card: Asus 5550 passive
Hard Drive: Intel 520 240GB, Intel 910 800GB
Power Supply: XFX 850

Unless otherwise noted the drives used were:

Solid State Drives:
Intel 335 180GB

Hybrid Solid State Drives:
Seagate Momentus XT 500GB
Seagate Momentus XT 750GB
OCZ Synapse 64GB
Seagate SSHD Thin 500GB

5400rpm:
Western Digital Scorpio Blue 1TB (WD10JPVT)


7200rpm:
Hitachi 7K750 750GB
Seagate Momentus (ST9750420AS) 750GB
Western Digital Scorpio Black 750GB


10,000rpm:
Western Digital Velociraptor 1TB
 
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AkG

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5,274
Read Bandwidth / Write Performance

Read Bandwidth


For this benchmark, HD Tune Pro was used. It shows the potential read speed which you are likely to experience with these storage devices. We don’t put much stock in Burst speed readings and thus we no longer included it. The most important number is the Average Speed number. This number will tell you what to expect from a given drive in normal, day to day operations. The higher the average the faster your entire system will seem.

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Write Performance


For this benchmark HD Tune Pro was used. To run the write benchmark on a drive, you must first remove all partitions from that drive and then and only then will it allow you to run this test. Unlike some other benchmarking utilities the HD Tune Pro writes across the full area of the drive, thus it easily shows any weakness a drive may have.

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As with the previous generation of hybrid drives, the SSHD's sequential read performance isn’t enhanced in the least by the NAND. The net result is decent results for a 2.5” hard drive, but a tad low when compared to what the previous generation Momentus XT 750 and even older Momentus XT 500GB can accomplish.

In other words this new third generation acts a lot like any 2.5” form factor 5400 RPM hard drive in these tests. Hopefully, once the NAND and new controller enter the equation things will look a lot brighter for this new model.
 
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AkG

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ATTO Disk Benchmark

ATTO Disk Benchmark


The ATTO disk benchmark tests the drives read and write speeds using gradually larger size files. For these tests, the ATTO program was set to run from its smallest to largest value (.5KB to 8192KB) and the total length was set to 256MB. The test program then spits out an extrapolated performance figure in megabytes per second.

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Just like the first and second generation Seagate Momentus XT line it supersedes, this new SSHD doesn’t use its NAND for ATTO either. This certainly does make synthetic testing quite difficult as this is the de-facto standard most manufactures use.

Even excluding the NAND, the hard drive portion of this new SSHD is rather slow by modern standards. We do have to question whether or not the reduced asking price – and potential increase in battery life – will make up for the fact that this new drive acts a lot like old and slow predecessors.

On the positive side, these new SSHD Thin drives do scale very well when in RAID.
 
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AkG

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Crystal DiskMark / PCMark 7

Crystal DiskMark


Crystal DiskMark is designed to quickly test the performance of your hard drives. Currently, the program allows to measure sequential and random read/write speeds; and allows you to set the number of tests iterations to run. We left the number of tests at 5 and size at 100MB.

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Once again the SSHD Thin’s true performance cannot be accurately judged by standard synthetic tests. It has been built for real world scenarios and not synthetic benchmark junkies. Of course, once again the hard drive portion of the SSHD Thin’s Hybrid equation is disappointingly slow by modern standards. Even in an increase in areal density can not make up for such a large reduction in rotational speed.


PCMark 7


While there are numerous suites of tests that make up PCMark 7, only one is pertinent: the HDD Suite. The HDD Suite consists of numerous tests that try and replicate real world drive usage. Everything from how long a simulated virus scan takes to complete, to MS Vista start up time to game load time is tested in these core tests; however we do not consider this anything other than just another suite of synthetic tests. For this reason, while each test is scored individually we have opted to include only the overall score.

pcm7.jpg

Finally we get a glimpse of this drive's true potential. As with all other synthetic tests, the first run shows what the hard drive portion of this hybrid is capable of since the learning algorithms don’t kick in. However, the 8th run shows how fast the SSHD can be.

Of particular interest is the difference between the 1st and 4th and the 4th and 8th runs. As you can see the learning curve is extremely short and is actually better than the previous generation in this respect. As with all Hybrid setups, repetition and patience is the key to success. Only through multiple application start-up and shutdowns can these drives “learn” your usage patterns.
 
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AS-SSD

AS-SSD


AS-SSD is designed to quickly test the performance of your drives. Currently, the program allows to measure sequential and small 4K read/write speeds as well as 4K file speed at a queue depth of 6. While its primary goal is to accurately test Solid State Drives, it does equally well on all storage mediums it just takes longer to run each test as each test reads or writes 1GB of data.

asd_w.jpg

asd_r.jpg

While the PCMark 7 numbers were impressive, the SSHD Thin’s synthetic results are back to where they were at the beginning of this review with no signs of the NAND and the “hybrid” design entering the equation. This is not unexpected as the previous generation Seagate Hybrid drives react similarly.
 
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AkG

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Vista Start Up / Adobe CS5 Load Time

Vista Start Up


When it comes to hard drive performance there is one area that even the most oblivious user notices: how long it takes to load the Operating System. While all the other tests were run with a Windows 7 operating system, this particular test uses another older test bed's “day to day” OS (copied over to our new testbed) which has accumulated a lot of crud over the months from installs and removals. We chose the Anti-Virus splash screen as our finish line as it is the last program to be loaded on start up.

boot.jpg


Adobe CS5 Load Times



Photoshop is a notoriously slow loading program under the best of circumstances, and while the latest version is actually pretty decent, when you add in a bunch of extra brushes and the such you get a really great torture test which can bring even the best of the best to their knees. Let’s see how our review unit faired in the Adobe crucible!

adobe.jpg

Now that we have turned our attention to real world scenarios, Seagate's SSHD Thin can start to show what it is really made of. Unlike the rather bleak picture the majority of synthetic tests painted, this hybrid drive not only learns your habits quicker than the previous generation, but it seems to learn even faster than software-based hybrid models.

However, not everything is as impressive as a quick glance at these charts would lead you to believe. Hidden in plain sight amongst all these great numbers lays an underlying issue: the SSHD's hard drive portion tends to slow the process down.

The first run results aren't nearly impressive as the 8th run results. Not only is the HDD portion slow by modern standards it is slow compared to even older 5400 RPM drives. This will create a Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde split personality where only a minor portion (about 1.6%) of data will ever get the ultra fast ‘royal’ treatment. Everything else is going to be loaded at an extremely lethargic pace. This is a problem with every hybrid Seagate has released, but the decrease in rotational speed exacerbates this issue.
 
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AkG

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Firefox Portable Offline / Real World Data Transfers

Firefox Portable Offline Performance


Firefox is notorious for being slow on loading tabs in offline mode once the number of pages to be opened grows larger than a dozen or so. We can think of fewer worse case scenarios than having 100 tabs set to reload in offline mode upon Firefox startup, but this is exactly what we have done here.

By having 100 pages open in Firefox portable, setting Firefox to reload the last session upon next session start and then setting it to offline mode, we are able to easily recreate a worse case scenario. Since we are using Firefox portable all files are easily positioned in one location, making it simple to repeat the test as necessary. In order to ensure repetition, before touching the Firefox portable files, we have backed them up into a .rar file and only extracted a copy of it to the test device.


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Real World Data Transfers


No matter how good a synthetic benchmark like IOMeter or PCMark is, it can not really tell you how your hard drive will perform in “real world” situations. All of us here at Hardware Canucks strive to give you the best, most complete picture of a review item’s true capabilities and to this end we will be running timed data transfers to give you a general idea of how its performance relates to real life use. To help replicate worse case scenarios we will transfer a 10.00GB contiguous file and a folder containing 400 subfolders with a total 12,000 files varying in length from 200mb to 100kb (10.00 GB total).

Testing will include transfer to and transferring from the devices, using MS RichCopy (set to 1 file depth) and logging the performance of the drive. Here is what we found.


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The more we use the SSHD in “real world scenarios” the more its split personality comes to the forefront. On the one hand, even in the ultra hard Firefox test, the final 8th run – and even 4th run – results are excellent. It literally goes from a from a slow and relatively mediocre performer into a real powerhouse.

On the other hand the real world file copy results underscore exactly how little NAND these drives have to work with. Based on the excellent RAID 0 results, we know the SSHD Thin could do a lot better but since it only has 8GB for its algorithms and controller to work with, it tends to fall behind on the last 20 to 25 percent of data in these tests. The end result is a very fast Hybrid SATA drive, but one that simply is under equipped to properly handle all modern scenarios.
 
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AkG

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Conclusion

Conclusion


The idea of combining the best of the SSD and hard drive worlds into a single product is a novel one, but few products have truly taken advantage of the possibilities this approach offers. Seagate’s approach has thus far been the closest to absolute success and their SSHD Thin is unique in its direction but that doesn’t necessarily make it an outstanding storage solution for everyone.

For most notebook consumers there are three critical areas which are important when making a decision to upgrade: price, capacity and performance. On first blush, the Seagate Laptop SSHD Thin 500GB arguably covers most of these bases nicely. The Laptop SSHD Thin offers space that you’d have to pay a fortune for in the SSD market and boasts the ability to take 8GB worth of data to near-SSD levels of performance. It is even faster and more intelligent in learning your habits than the previous generation. The THIN portion of this equation also allows it to fit inside low profile notebooks and Ultrabooks, something the Momentus series couldn’t accomplish.

Unfortunately, in order to achieve such a compact form factor and ensure notebooks battery life remained a priority, some sacrifices had to be made. The implementation of a single 500GB platter helps mitigate the extremely low rotational speeds Seagate saddled the SSHD with but it can’t entirely cover up the performance shortfalls. As a result, this may actually end up feeling like a downgrade in some cases where the integrated NAND won’t enter into the fray.

Speaking of the NAND, it has been well integrated and the controller’s ability to learn usage patterns is nothing short of uncanny. When everything is humming along the SSHD can close the performance gap between SSDs and HDDs quite well. However, a mere 8GB fast NAND of storage is simply too little by modern standards, especially when it is backstopped by a rather slow hard drive. It simply can’t hold the information necessary to ensure a wide variety of applications load quickly. This was true when the Momentus XT 750GB was launched a year ago and it is even more poignant today.

Seagate’s SSHD 500GB presents an interesting combination of performance and pricing in a market that’s become increasingly cluttered with more expensive SSDs. Depending on your usage patterns, the SSHD has the ability to be either a frustrating or rewarding upgrade. If the list of applications you use is small, its 8GB of NAND space will be plenty provided you don’t expect it to accelerate every single file. On the other hand, many will ultimately end up being disappointed by its performance and with good reason: at its heart lies a lethargic 5400 RPM drive which drags down

If you need a 7mm form factor storage drive and either 90GB of SSD space will not be enough or an additional $30 puts 120GB SSD’s outside your budget, the new Seagate 500GB Laptop SSHD Thin would be a viable choice. For everyone else, there are simply better solutions to spend your upgrade budget on.


Pros:

- Improved learning performance over previous generation
- Impressive real world results
- Unlike most Hybrid setups it does not need CPU cycles work do work its magic
- Price


Cons:

- 3 year warranty
- 8GB of NAND is simply not enough by today’s standards
- Performance is still variable
- No control over what is stored on NAND
- 5400 RPM Hard drive
 
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