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By Shiv Shivaji
Editor: Julio Franco

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Editor's note: Make sure you also read our interview with Shiv Shivaji, Hitachi GST’s Director for 3.5-inch (Hard Drive) Commercial and Consumer products, that was also posted today.
Often Overlooked, the Hard Drive Plays a Critical Role in Overall Gaming System Capacity and Performance.

The ultimate gaming PC includes some obvious givens. Today, it means you’re driving a Core 2 processor, you’re packed with at least a couple gigs of high-performance memory and you are running a last generation DX-10 gaming graphics card. Check, check and check. But if you want a real edge in your next encounter, you must also give careful consideration to the hard drive and the hard drive configuration you employ.

While often overlooked, the hard drive plays an important role in the system’s overall capacity and performance which can be vital in ensuring a smooth-running, glitch-free experience. If data bogs down at the hard drive, you won’t have a chance in Zanzibar to experience the full power of your system, no matter how much processing power you’re packing.

Hard drives can differ in capacity and performance. Over the last several years, advancements in technology have pushed the envelope in these two these areas and an understanding of each will help you chose the best hard drive for your needs.

Capacity

Over the last decade, the storage capacity for standard 3.5-inch hard drives has more than tripled in size. This year, the industry experienced another leap in capacity with the introduction of 1-terabyte desktop hard drives like the Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000. The TB HDD will quickly establish a new standard in capacity.

To reach maximum capacity, many gamers hook up multiple hard drives in a RAID configuration. In such cases, data files are divided and stored on each of the drives. There are a many types of RAID configurations but for performance seekers, RAID 0 is not only the simplest but also the fastest. Here, data files are broken down into stripes of a particular size and then sent to each disk in the array. Small files made up of a single stripe reside on a single drive while larger files – made up of several stripes - get divided among the various drives in the array. With multiple drives simultaneously accessing the data files, performance is enhanced. RAID 0 also eliminates redundancy routines used in other RAID configurations thus increasing performance even further.

As a side note, you should know that for running a RAID setup you will need a special controller added to your system, or have one built-in your motherboard which is a common feature in enthusiast-oriented products nowadays.

Performance

The performance of a hard drive can also vary greatly from unit to unit. The rate of data transfer to and from the drive and its data cache can all play an important role in the overall performance of your gaming system.

In order to take full advantage of fast seek times and cached data, the hard drive must deliver collected information as fast as possible and that’s where the unit’s interface technology takes over. Over the last few years, Serial-ATA (SATA) technology has quickly replaced the earlier Parallel-ATA (PATA) specification as the preferred interface for high-performance hard drives. With 3.0Gb/s SATA drives becoming common in today’s systems, serious players are pushing the envelope even further.

Some cutting-edge hard drives on the market today offer another performance differentiator called Native Command Queuing (NCQ). This advancement allows the hard drive to automatically reorder requests for data in a manner that maximizes speed. Say for instance, you need fast access to data files that are located throughout the disk. NCQ gathers all the files that are close together at the same time before going after files located elsewhere. It would be like going to the grocery store with a shopping list that includes carrots, celery and peanut butter. Without NCQ you might pick up the carrots then go get the peanut butter and then come all the way back for the celery. With NCQ, you’d be sure to get both items located next to each other in the produce section before hiking all the way over to the other side of the store for the peanut butter. Get it?

A drive’s buffer size can also make a huge performance difference. In much the same way that RAM is essential in providing lightning-fast access to commonly used CPU data, hard drives use a cache system to speed up performance. Hard drives typically used in today’s business applications offer 8MB of cache. Higher-end consumer systems, such as media centers, usually provide a 16MB buffer. For maximum data processing, hard drive manufacturers offer drives with up to 32MB of cache today, as it is the case with the terabyte drive.

Computer games are only increasing in performance-demanding sophistication. Multi-threaded, AI-centric, frame-intensive action will require faster, more reliable equipment. As always, the real edge will be obtained by those who go beyond the obvious and look to maximize all the components of their gaming system – and that includes the hard drive.