Are Hybrid Hard Drives Faster?

Category: Hard-Drives

I need a new hard drive for my laptop, and just came across something called a hybrid hard drive. It sounds cool, but I'm not a techie. Can you explain how hybrid drives are different, and if the increased performance justifies the higher price tag?

What Is A Hybrid Hard Drive?

A hybrid hard drive (HHD) - also called a hybrid hard disk drive or just "hybrid drive" - combines familiar magnetic media with RAM memory to achieve much faster read/write performance without increasing costs very much. Hybrid drives are an intermediate storage technology between standard electromechanical hard drives and pure solid-state drives. Here's what you need to know...

Hybrid hard drives aim to give you the best of two worlds -- the speed of solid state technology, and the low cost of a standard magnetic hard drive. A bit of software magic helps them work together for improved boot times and faster access to files. (See my related article Upgrade Your Hard Drive To SSD for more info on solid state hard drives.)

A hybrid drive stores the user's most active data in its super-fast SSD component, moving data to and from magnetic storage only when absolutely necessary. In fact, a hybrid drive's magnetic platters do not spin most of the time. That eliminates a lot of power consumption, motor heat, and noise. It's rather like a hybrid automobile which runs silently on battery power when cruising around town, with the internal combustion engine burning gasoline only when extra power is needed.
Hybrid Hard Drive

Seagate's Momentus XT hybrid hard drive is one of the first examples to actually hit the market. Basically, Seagate took its Momentus XT 7200 rpm magnetic hard drive and doubled its cache to 32 MB, then added 4 GB of solid-state flash memory. Seagate then wrote some proprietary software for this combo that it calls Adaptive Memory. The company claims the result is a drive that performs like a Solid State Drive (SSD) that would cost more than twice as much. The MSRP of the 500GB Momentus XT hybrid drive is $130 but as of this writing it's going for around $100 in many online stores. You can get the 320GB model for $78 at Amazon; and not surprisingly, the 250GB model is about the same price.

Hybrid Drive Performance Advantages

Seagate's Adaptive Memory software "learns" what applications and data are best stored in SSD based upon the user's behavior. So it takes a few cycles of daily work, shut down, and rebooting to see the full potential performance boost of this hybrid hard drive. Based on reviewers' tests, once the Momentus XT learns your computing style you can expect significant performance increases. In PCMark Vantage benchmark testing, the Momentus XT showed a very impressive 80 percent performance gain over traditional 7200 rpm magnetic hard drives.

In real life, that means your computer will reboot or wake up from hibernation 6-8 seconds faster, which is nice but not life-altering. The most noticeable benefit lies in how quickly one can open and switch between applications; sift through image files; and other small but frequently executed tasks. The Momentus XT excels at doing little things much faster than magnetic hard drives. Reading and writing of large multi-gigabyte files, e.g., converting a video file from one format to another, is not that much faster with hybrid drive technology.

OCZ Technology has taken hybrid technology several steps further with its new OCZ RevoDrive Hybrid. The RevoDrive has 100 GB of SDD storage (vs. the Momentus XT's 4 GB), so the hard drive is even less likely to be accessed. The RevoDrive also sports 1 TB of 5400 rpm hard disk storage and advanced caching software. In tests, the RevoDrive Hybrid hit throughput speeds of 910 Mbps, nearly as fast as pure SSD drives. The RevoDrive Hybrid is also the first to put both the SSD and hard drive components on a single PCIe board. But all that advanced technology comes with an advanced price tag.

The 1TB RevoDrive has an MSRP of $495, and sells for around $469 online. I did see it priced at $366 in one online store (AAA Computers Online) but the huge price difference makes me wonder if that's legit. The site has no Privacy or About page, which is always suspicious.

A hybrid hard drive seems ideal for mid-priced and high-end laptops: low power consumption and heat generation; greatly reduced risk of head crashes because the head is parked most of the time; and decreased noise. But if price is no object, or if you need to move large chunks of data much faster, a more expensive SSD may be the way to go.

The lifespan of a hybrid drive may be less than that of a magnetic hard drive. The electromechanical portion of a hybrid drive wears out more slowly because it moves less frequently. On the other hand, magnetic media can be read and written to many more times than Flash memory can be. It's too soon to tell how long hybrid drives will last in consumer's hands.

Do you have a hybrid hard drive? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Are Hybrid Hard Drives Faster?"

Posted by:

Jon Andriotis
11 Nov 2011

Bob, I recently found you site and really like it! On this post though, I do have a question. Your comment at the bottom states "The lifespan of a hybrid drive may be less than that of a magnetic hard drive. The electromechanical portion of a hybrid drive wears out more slowly because it moves less frequently. On the other hand, magnetic media can be read and written to many more times than Flash memory can be. It's too soon to tell how long hybrid drives will last in consumer's hands".This seems to contradict itself. If the electromechanical portion wears out more slowly then wouldn't it have a longer lifespan? Would you please clarify this for me.
I am thinking of building my own machine and these hybrid drives sound very tempting.

EDITOR'S NOTE: You're right, I could have worded that more clearly. No worries on the electromechanical part, but there's some concern that the flash memory can "wear out" after too many write cycles. Here's more on that:

Posted by:

Miller Microcomputer Services/A.R.Miller
11 Nov 2011

About a year ago, I bought a 500GB Seagate Momentus XT for $90. I swapped it into my own Asus Eee PC 1001P netbook, run it almost entirely under Linux (now 11.10/Unity), and it has performed as advertised. It delivers extra space and extra speed, with only slight extra noise and only slightly shorter time per charge. I recommend it for those who value the difference and can do the swap-out - which is easy on some computers, less so on others.

Posted by:

Kit Kimes
14 Nov 2011

RE: Jon's question. Bob is right. In a hybrid system, the mechanical drive will last even longer than a pure disk drive because it is accessed less. On the other hand, the flash memory may fail first because it can only take so many read/writes before it starts having problems. (think jump drive here)

That should still give you years of service though, so I wouldn't reject it just because of that.

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