When the Seagate folks asked me if I wanted to try out their new hybrid drive, my jaw dropped. I'm no stranger to the concept: IBM mainframes had hybrid drives decades ago, but the IBM drive was the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and cost as much as a Mercedes Benz. Seagate's version costs just $156 for 500GB of disk and a 4GB SSD (solid-state drive), and it fits in a laptop. Not only that, but it is operating system independent: The NAND flash memory is directly integrated into the drive controller board and does not require any specific software to be loaded on the operating system.
Other drive vendors such as SilverStone are shipping what is in essence an SSD front-end cache in a 3.5-inch drive tray, but the SilverStone product is strictly a cache and doesn't seem to have any sort of adaptive technology. Another vendor, Raidon, offers an SSD that seems to serve as a read cache, since the SSD in this case mirrors what's on the spinning platters. Both are good efforts, but they leave me wanting.
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Seagate's product isn't just a hard disk with a 4GB SSD cache -- the SSD is adaptive, meaning it keeps tabs on your most frequently used data in order to serve it up in an instant. Seagate's NDA briefing stressed that the first time you try to load anything from the hybrid drive, you won't see any difference in speed from any other 7,200-rpm disk drive. However, each subsequent load will get faster and faster. How much faster? Mileage will of course vary, but Seagate claims as much as 40 percent. Naturally, I ran my own tests to find out.
Considering just how many folks use Microsoft Office, I figured that Microsoft Word 2008 on my MacBook Pro with the original hard disk would serve as a good baseline. Even before I swapped in the hybrid drive, my tests showed that application load times shortened with each subsequent launch, going from 23.30 seconds on the first load to 12.35 on the second to around 2.76 for each load after that. Clearly, either Microsoft or Mac OS X was already doing some sort of caching, so to gauge the true effect of the SSD caching, I shut down the MacBook Pro between tests.
The results, as you can see in the table below, are impressive. Mac OS X boot times were cut in half. After two loads, Word was launching twice as fast as on the original drive. By the fifth launch, both Word and Excel were loading four to five times faster. Just imagine launching Word or Excel in three or four seconds -- it's shockingly fast.