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Maxtor's ATA133: Good Marketing or Bad Timing?

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Subject: Storage
Manufacturer: General
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A few months ago rumors started flying around about a new IDE standard that was causing some trouble in the hard drive industry. Its name was ATA133 and it¡¦s still causing trouble.


Maxtor, one of the largest world-wide manufacturers of hard drives seemed to be the only guys on board to develop the new standard. Why? The world may never know, but it probably has cost them a ton of money and in the end they will have little to show for it.


ATA133 is pointless, in more ways then one. So, why then did Maxtor go out on a limb and make the standard when other guys turned their head. I can¡¦t tell you why, four e-mails to Maxtor over the past two weeks have yielded no response. I can tell you why none of the other manufacturers wanted to be on this Titanic of a standard, doomed the moment it set sail: they were smart.


The IDE interface as we know it, those annoying, air blocking, flat ribbon cables, is dead. Well, not really, but it will be. I¡¦m not saying you wasted your money on that 80GB drive you just bought, relax, I am sure mobo makers will continue to have IDE interfaces on their boards at least for the next two years. Serial ATA, also known as "firewire inside" is on it¡¦s way. By the end of the 3rd quarter we should start to see mobos with the Serial ATA interface, sitting there nice and pretty next to it¡¦s older IDE cousin. Just think of it, a nice slim wire running from your hard drive to your mobo restricting very little air, long enough to be tucked into the corner of the case, small enough to be routed pretty much anywhere. Here is some juicy info on Serial ATA (see bottom for link to more information):


Serial ATA is intended to replace today¡¦s parallel ATA. It is designed to address many of the limitations of parallel ATA, while maintaining 100% software compatibility. This will significantly ease the transition to Serial ATA, as no changes in today¡¦s drivers and operating systems should be required. In fact, demonstrations have already shown prototype hardware running on several Windows and Linux operating systems. Serial ATA enables the industry to move to the lower voltage and lower pin count required for efficient integration in future chipsets and other integrated silicon components. The lower pin count also benefits the system design by making it easier to route traces around a motherboard. It enables a thinner, more flexible cable that improves airflow and therefore facilitates the development of better thermal design and smaller form factor systems. In addition, the new
connector is more reliable, which should improve the end user upgrade experience. Parallel ATA cannot scale to support several more speed doublings, and is nearing its performance capacity. By contrast, Serial ATA¡¦s roadmap starts at 1.5 gigabits per second (equivalent to a data rate of 150 MB/s) and migrates to 3.0 gigabits per second (300 MB/s), then to 6.0 gigabits per second (600 MB/s).

Of course, it will take some time, first the motherboards have to come out, then the devices¡K and then there is the whole thing about buying the new stuff. So like I said, you don¡¦t have to kick yourself for buying a new hard drive, you¡¦ll still be able to use it long after Serial ATA comes out.


So back to the original question: what is the point of ATA133? In order to get the point of ATA133 across, maybe we should look at why it is a bad idea and why it is such a waste, they we will see why Maxtor was, and still is, pushing it so hard.


First, and most important, is speed. The IDE interface has always been slow ¡V really slow. Anyone try to copy files using PIO lately? If you did you are probably still waiting for those MP3¡¦s to move from one folder to another. ATA33 was great, and with the advent of DMA, things were looking up for the long grey ribbon. Then came ATA66 and people started noticing something¡K it wasn¡¦t really "66." Of course, when -33 came out it was such a drastic improvement over previous IDE data transfer methods that no one bothered to notice that it wasn¡¦t "33." So here we are, ATA66 in hand and questions are flying around. At first people just thought they had a bad drive, or maybe their motherboard didn¡¦t support the faster standard, or maybe they didn¡¦t have the right cable. Before long we all started realizing that none of that was true. What was true was that ATA66 was not really ¡§66.¡¨ Then came along ATA100 and everyone knew not to expect much out of it. It used the same cable as ATA66 did, and after being let down by ATA66 we just weren¡¦t ready to jump on the bandwagon of hypothetical speed. While -66 is faster then -33, -100 didn¡¦t really show much improvement.


Even with a 7200RPM drive and a low seek time, it was impossible for anyone to burst to 100. In fact, most -66 and -100 drives have trouble bursting to -45. Then there is the sustained transfer rate, I don¡¦t even have to go there. As you know, "-33," "-66," and "-100" really only tell you that the drive can burst up to that particular speed. I really don¡¦t know what kind of special think tank set up they have when they decided that this drive could do this, and that drive can do that. I have a couple of each, -66¡¦s and -100¡¦s, I even have a -33 laying around here somewhere. No matter what OS, CPU, mobo, or any other component; I have never seen any of my drives even come close to touching their "rated" transfer rate.


So, what¡¦s the point of ATA133 in terms of speed? There is no point, no one will be able actually achieve that kind of speed, even if they have the right cable, IDE card and hard drive. Plain and simple, if you were thinking of replacing your -66 with a -133, don¡¦t bother, wait for Serial ATA to come out and then upgrade.


The second problem with ATA133 is it¡¦s timing. Plain and simple, with Serial ATA right around the corner, why is anyone going to by a more expensive (compared to -66 or -100) drive, and then have to throw down on a new mobo (or IDE PCI card) in order to have the BIOS say they are using ATA133? I certainly wouldn¡¦t do it and I doubt that any cost-consciences person would either.


There are some small advantages to ATA133, but you have to dig to find them. We have all had to deal with barriers in our lives, and the IDE/ATA standard is no different. With today¡¦s prices on hard drives dropping like a lead ball off the Empire State Building (in case you were wondering, a lead ball dropped from the Empire State Building will fall at 9.8 meters/secondƒU until it reaches it¡¦s terminal velocity), it is easy to pick up a massive 100GB or 120GB drive for very little money. Don¡¦t expect, however, to see -66 and -100 drives get much bigger. Anything over 137GB will be ATA133. The shift to -133 also includes a change in addressing from 32-bit to 48-bit, allowing the IDE interface to take advantage of drives larger then 137GB. While this is a wonderful thing it both hurts and helps my point. It hurts because it adds function to the -133 spec and Maxtor¡¦s development of it, albeit relatively useless function ¡V there are no drives out (yet) that are that large and by the time they do hit the market, Serial ATA will be at your doorstep. It helps because it shows one of the many weaknesses of the IDE interface.


Since I never heard back from Maxtor (which I am not too happy about) I can only guess what they were thinking when they decided to push for the ATA133 specification. It had to be the marketing department. It had to be. The costs with researching, developing and then selling ATA133 had to have been (and still are) enormous.






Click to enlarge


I came across the above image in a PDF file from www.serialata.org. It shows, as of February 21, 2001 of last year that Maxtor had no plans for the -133 spec, leading me to believe that it is simply a marketing gimmick that was thought up at the last minute so as to be able to charge more for something that doesn¡¦t give more. Moreover, it shows the beauty of Serial ATA, starting at 150MBps and working it¡¦s way up to 600MBps. Serial ATA really will be to hard drives what fiber optics was to telecommunications.


The only thing I can guess, is that the marketers thought that if it had a bigger number after ATA then they could charge more and people would think they were getting something worthy of that extra cost¡K Gee, that sounds familiar¡K maybe Maxtor borrowed Intel¡¦s P4 marketers to come up with ATA133. Costs more, doesn¡¦t perform anywhere near what the cost would suggest¡K sounds like a P4 chip to me.



More information on Serial ATA is available at www.serialata.org, namely, http://www.serialata.org/news/SATA%20backgrounder.pdf which is an overview of the upcoming standard explaining the interface, speeds and other pertinent information. The above PDF link is the source of all Serial ATA information contained in this column.


Little White Dog (where on earth did that name come from?) has a review up of the Promise Ultra 133 controller at http://www.littlewhitedog.com/reviews_hardware_00034.asp with some Sandra benchmarks showing no more then a 5% speed increase. Much less then the advertised 33% increase from ATA100 to ATA133.


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