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Western Digital Black² 1TB Dual Drive Hybrid Review

AkG

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The continuing tug of war between performance-orientated SSDs and capacity-focused hard drives has created a demand for ‘hybrid’ solutions which allow consumers to experience the best of both worlds. That’s exactly what Western Digital is aiming to accomplish with their new Digital Black² Dual Drive solution. It’s a particularly innovative, unique take on the two issues that normally plague these hybrid solutions: a lack of NAND and very little customizability.

In order to understand why Western Digital is approaching these new drives from a different perspective, the current hybrid situation needs to be explained. The typical hybrid drive combines a relatively large but low speed spindle-based HDD with a few gigabytes of onboard NAND to boost performance. This NAND is set aside for caching purposes and works alongside built-in algorithms to “remember” your most-used programs by keeping the necessary boot files in quick-access storage. However, since the amount of NAND is limited, the onboard controller has to decide which chunks of data have the luxury of being accelerated. This certainly does boost performance but only in a finite number of applications and consumers have no say in what the controller thinks is important.

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So how does Western Digital address these perceived shortcomings? Like the typical Hybrid, the Black² melds a relatively large hard drive and a ‘small’ solid state drive into a single device but its SSD portion has a 120GB capacity and its own controller. This means it is seen as a separate drive by the operating system and can be accessed directly by consumers, applications and the OS.

The easiest way to think of this new device is to consider it two separate storage drives that just happen to co-exist in one 9.5mm, 2.5” form factor and share on SATA port. In some ways it is almost a quasi Intel’s SSD Caching technology, though without the requirement for a supporting platform and with the OS installed onto the SSD portion.

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By designing the Western Digital Black² 1TB, Western Digital have given consumers the power to control exactly what is stored on the fast – but still limited – NAND and what is not as time sensitive and can be stored on the single 1TB platter hard drive. As an added benefit the Black not only has the potential to be faster at read performance than the typical SSHD but will also be able to boost write performance. That’s something other hybrid solutions have historically struggled to accomplish.

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By opening the case and looking inside we can see how Western Digital has been able to create this unique device. Like the name suggests, it is literally is two separate drives which only share the power and data ports. Everything else is separate which should potentially boost performance by a significant amount.

As an added benefit the Black² has more data retention fail-safes built in. Unlike the typical HDD+SSD combination which can only guarantee data retention in the case of NAND failure, if either the hard drive or solid state portion dies the data on the other half is completely secure and accessible.

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The entire ‘top’ of the Black² consists of the SSD chassis which has been bolted down via three screws to the HDD’s internal caddy and uses integrated data connectors for point to point internal communications.

Taking a closer look we can see that this SSD is similar in its architectural design to that of some entry level SSDs such as the Corsair Accelerator. Instead of a full-size PCB it makes use of a much smaller PCB usually reserved for 1.8” or smaller form factor devices. It houses the controller, two 64GB 20nm MLC NAND ICs and a single NANYA branded DDR3-1600 128MB RAM IC for cache.

For the controller Western Digital has opted for the recently released JMicron JMF667HM8 which utilizes a four channel design and is TRIM capable.

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The Black²’s bottom half consists of a separate 7mm form factor 1TB hard drive. In fact we have seen this drive before as it is a slightly modified Western Digital 1TB 7mm Blue Slim….that actually has the SLIM label still on it. By removing its we can see an additional Marvell 88SM9642 IC which is a SATA 3 port multiplier that allows both devices to 'share' the one SATA port. There is also an extra internal data connector which allows this PCB to communicate with the SSD.

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When we previously looked at this 1TB, single platter drive we were less than impressed since a meager 5400RPM rotational speed relegated it to a small segment of the UltraBook marketplace. On the positive side, it does provide decent performance while still being extremely power efficient. Considering any time sensitive data can fit on the 120GB of NAND, this combination of ‘slow’ hard drive and ‘fast’ solid state is a much more sensible solution than others we have seen. These two drives are also picked up as two separate volumes which can be further partitioned.

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While it may be sensible in our books, this combination does bring its own set of issues which may turn off some buyers. First and foremost is the price. A Seagate Laptop SSHD 1TB can be found online for an average of $120, whereas the Western Digital Black² 1TB has an MSRP of $299. This places it firmly in mid-tier 240GB SSD territory and it is treading dangerously close to what some 480GB SSDs like the excellent Crucial M500 can be found for. Desktop users can also look at Seagate's newest Desktop SSHD 2TB.

Some of the Black²’s relatively high price can be explained by its inclusion into a fancy “upgrade kit”, but a USB to SATA adapter cable, Acronis True Image data migration software and an extravagant book style box is not enough to entirely justify its premium. With that being said, with the level of performance Western Digital hopes to bring to the table, a $299 price for relatively high throughput may not be all that bad and those tools are welcome additions.

Unlike other hybrid drives, the new Black² cannot be placed in a RAID array and requires special drivers before the hard drive portion can be seen or accessed. At this time this means it is only Windows compatible and is certainly not ‘plug and play’. However the increased performance, ability to choose what is stored where and even the excellent 5 year warranty are all high points which may go a long way towards convincing buyers of Western Digital’s direction.
 
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AkG

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Installation and TRIM

Installation and TRIM


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Unlike most consumer-grade SATA drives, the Western Digital Black² is not a plug and play device since it requires custom drivers to fully function. In its default out of the box configuration only the 120GB SSD is fully useable and the 1TB hard drive portion isn’t inaccessible. This has been done on purpose as it allows consumers to install their Windows operating system onto the faster of the two drives and then when the OS is installed, load the custom driver and use the second ‘D’ drive for its intended role: long term data storage.

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Consumers need first plug in the included USB ‘key’ and have its software connect to the internet and download the latest drivers from Western Digital’s servers. This key and extended installation process is the reason the Black² only comes in a upgrade kit at this time since without it, obtaining the drivers is a touch more complicated. Once the software is installed, you need never to use the ‘key’ again unless the OS needs to be reinstalled.

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The installation itself will only moments to complete. Plug the key into a free USB 2.0 port, let the OS install the driver for the USB key, and then wait for the software executable to start. When it does select your language, choose to install the drivers – or download the manual – and sit back and relax.

Once completed, OS will be able to properly communicate with the Black²’s built in port multiplier and recognize that there is a second device ‘attached’ to the SATA port. At this point the OS will install the standard HDD drivers, whereupon the 1TB partition can be formatted and used like any secondary drive.

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Even though both the hard drive and solid state drive do share a single SATA port, there are no worries about the connection lacking bandwidth due to its SATA 6Gb/s compatibility. Simply put, neither of these drives are precisely extreme performance devices and even accessing both at the same time won’t cause any problems. Both may share a SATA port but each has its own controller, onboard cache and separate storage.

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Bottlenecking may not be a concern, but what is a potential concern is TRIM since adding in an additional hardware layer between the SSD controller and the TRIM command is never an optimal solution. To test and make sure that TRIM is indeed working we used the simple but ultra-reliable TRIMcheck by CyberShadow. According to it, even with this extra hardware layer the Western Digital Black² indeed TRIM compliant which should prevent this drive from entering a degraded state if the TRIM command is indeed capable of reaching it.
 
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AkG

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Read Bandwidth / Write Performance

Read Bandwidth


For this benchmark, HDTach was used. It shows the potential read speed which you are likely to experience with these hard drives. The long test was run to give a slightly more accurate picture. 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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Both of these results are certainly best in class for a Hybrid drive, but the relatively low read and abysmally low write numbers are slightly concerning. It could be that Western Digital's use a only two NAND ICs is causing the JMicron controller’s performance to suffer and the end result is a decent performer but one that certainly is not able to compete against ‘real’ Solid State Drives.
 
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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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Once again these results are very decent and damn impressive for a Hybrid device. Western Digital’s unique approach certainly has merit, but the implementation of it leaves a lot to be desired in certain instances. This controller may not be as powerful as a LAMB, Intel’s latest and greatest or even SandForce’s aging SF2281 but its low file performance should be better than this.
 
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AkG

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Crystal DiskMark / PCMark 7 / AS-SSD

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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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.


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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.

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These results can be interpreted one of two ways: positively or negatively. When compared with devices in its price range these middle of the pack results from the Black²'s ‘SSD’ portion are rather disappointing. Most modern 120GB SSDs can easily outperform this model which is unfortunate. On the positive side, these results leave even the mighty Seagate Desktop 2TB SSHD choking on the Black²'s dust.

The lackluster write and deeper queue depth file handling performance points to the controller that isn't being fully harnessed. By using only two NAND ICs and simply using each portion of the NAND stack to populate each of the JMF667’s four channels, Western Digital has removed the all-important NAND interleaving which allows a controller to spread the load out over multiple channels. It is the combination of channels and interleaving which allow today's controllers to post such high numbers.
 
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AkG

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IOMETER

IOMETER


IOMeter is heavily weighted towards the server end of things, and since we here at HWC are more End User centric we will be setting and judging the results of IOMeter a little bit differently than most. To test each drive we ran 5 test runs per HDD (1,4,16,64,128 queue depth) each test having 8 parts, each part lasting 10 min w/ an additional 20 second ramp up. The 8 subparts were set to run 100% random, 80% read 20% write; testing 512b, 1k, 2k,4k,8k,16k,32k,64k size chunks of data. When each test is finished IOMeter spits out a report, in that reports each of the 8 subtests are given a score in I/Os per second. We then take these 8 numbers add them together and divide by 8. This gives us an average score for that particular queue depth that is heavily weighted for single user environments.

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Hybrid drives aren't meant for workstation scenarios and this test proves that. On the positive side, this is the very first SSHD which can even be compared to SSDs in IOMeter. Typical SSHD results would be nothing more than a smudge along the bottom of the chart and yet this dual drive dis actually able to play with some of the big boys. That's impressive.
 
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AkG

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Windows 7 Startup / Adobe CS5 Load Time

Windows 7 Start Up w/ Boot Time A/V Scan Performance


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. Where Windows 7 has become nearly ubiquitous for solid state drive enthusiasts we have chosen Windows 7 64bit Ultimate as our Operating System. In previous load time tests we would use the Anti-Virus splash screen as our finish line; this however is no longer the case. We have not only added in a secondary Anti-Virus to load on startup, but also an anti-malware program. We have set Super Anti-Spyware to initiate a quick scan on Windows start-up and the completion of the quick scan will be our new finish line.


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ADOBE CS5 LOAD TIME


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!

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After the consistent synthetic tests, these real world performance results were expected. All that extra NAND certainly allows this drive to power past the more firmly entrenched Seagate SSHD models.
 
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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 and logging the performance of the drive. Here is what we found.


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The Black²'s SSD portion boasts quite decent performance even though it is tied at the hip to a slow 5400RPM hard drive. It really is the first Hybrid drive that demands to be compared against SSDs rather than SSHDs or hard drives. For a first effort, Western Digital really has created something special. It is unfortunate that hard drive portion is so underwhelming, but this level of performance is more than adequate for handling non time-sensitive tasks such as storage and retrieval of power point presentations or other multimedia related activities.
 
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AkG

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Partial and Full Drive Performance

Partial and Full Drive Performance


While it is important to know how a drive will perform under optimal conditions, more realistic scenarios are just as important. Knowing if a solid state drive will behave differently when partially or even nearly full than when it is empty is very important information to know. To quickly and accurately show this crucial information we have first filled the drive to 50% capacity and re-tested using both synthetic and real world tests. After the completion of this we then re-test at 75% and 90% of full capacity.

Synthetic Test Results

For our synthetic testing we have opted for our standard PCMark 7 test.

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Real World Results

For a real world application we have opted for our standard Windows 7 Start Up with Boot Time A/V Scan Performance test.


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All things considered these numbers are very reasonable. The performance drop-off is minimal and certainly points to the JMF667 being very capable in this regard. But as is the reoccurring theme, Western Digital has not given this controller enough NAND interleaving to realize its potential.
 
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AkG

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Conclusion

Conclusion


The hybrid storage market may not be huge but Western Digital needed and answer to Seagate’s thoroughly entrenched SSHD series. The Black² 1TB goes a long way towards balancing the scales and it does so in a unique, intriguing way which will surely cascade down into the desktop market in short order. For the time being, this new drive may be just what notebook users are looking for as they try to balance capacity and speed.

The Black²’s main selling point is its wide-ranging adaptability which has been attained by eschewing the long-standing traditions of hybrid drives. Instead of relying upon complicated, often slow algorithms to determine what should be accelerated and what is left behind in the dust, Western Digital’s two-in-one solution is both highly adaptable and user modifiable. This will certainly appeal to enthusiasts who are willing to take the time necessary to balance their storage subsystem. With that being said, the Black 2 does lack the plug and play approach novices are looking for and even some veteran users may not appreciate the amount of hand-holding this drive requires.

Since the notebook market is Western Digital’s preferred target for the Black², some sacrifices were made in order to ensure it remained within a strictly predetermined power consumption envelope. The HDD’s rotational speed is pegged at a pedestrian 5400RPMs and the onboad NAND controller tends to lag behind regardless of its stellar pedigree. While these are relatively minor steps backward from the traditional aspects of Western Digital’s Black lineup, this new drive gives notebook users a two drive solution without an add-in mSATA SSD or secondary drive. It also beats Seagate’s offerings clean from a raw performance standpoint.

Success or failure for Western Digital’s latest drives will ultimately come down to how well their potential customers can manage their expectations. The Black²’s performance metrics need to be understood to their fullest extent and then taken advantage of for it to be successful. For example, anything on the HDD portion will be slowed down to a crawl, making it an excellent location for notoriously quick-loading applications, HD videos, documents and games you may not use all that often. Meanwhile, the onboard 120GB SSD is large enough to hold half a dozen new games, the Windows OS and a few other heavy applications like PhotoShop and AutoCAD. By leveraging its duality, a user should be able to wring the most out of the Black².

While the Black² 1TB does successfully combine capacity and performance, its price of $299 may be just a tad too high. For about the same amount of money, you can currently buy a 480GB Crucial M500 or Corsair Force GS. Granted, Western Digital is offering up a lot more storage space but there’s still something enticing about a full-speed SSD that doesn’t require wrestling with varying installation folders and potentially slower performance for the lion’s share of your data.

The Western Digital Black² has plotted an interesting course; one which works on many levels but which could also fall a bit flat with some users. It may not be a perfect solution for everyone but this drive represents an exciting direction for the hybrid drive market.

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