Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New HDD's Won't Affect XP Users And Why The BBC Has It Wrong

An article provided by the BBC News stating that "Hard drive evolution could hit Microsoft XP users" has garnered a ton of attention this afternoon, most of which is nothing more than a knee jerk reaction to mass media sensationalistic nonsense.

Background on the new format
The BBC article point to an ongoing move by hard drive manufactures to an advanced format where as drives which are typically formatted into 512byte sectors will now be formatted into blocks of 4K sectors. The change means about eight times less wasted space but will allow drives to devote twice as much space per block to error correction.

The problem is this is not new news. Western Digital already made users aware of the new formatting and has already provided an Advanced Format Alignment Tool. In fact most of this was covered by Anandtech (article) and HotHardware (article) as early as Dec of '09.

The issue at hand
The BBC grabbed a lot of attention with their claims, some of which is totally misguided.

First off they claim "Windows XP was released before the 4K format was decided upon." Well this is not true, in fact as MS points out in this KB article and again in the Windows Professional Product Documentation Windows XP does write 4k block segments for all drives over 2GBs. Problem is that XP writes 4K as eight 512 byte sectors and does not start with a multiple of 8 for the first sector. So the drive reads a full 4K then updates the part of the 4K that corresponds to the sector numbers XP sent. Then finally does the write. This creates a lot of overhead and creates unaligned sectors.

Again this is an issue already addressed by WD with their alignment tool.

Secondly, as the article already points out the new advanced format drives utilize 512 byte emulation which is meant to help Windows XP cope (even if it doesn't need to) by pretending they still use sectors 512 bytes in size.

"When reading data from a drive this emulation will go unnoticed." said David Burks, a product marketing manager for storage firm Seagate. He added, "However  in some situations writing data could show a hit performance. In some cases the drive will take two steps to write data rather than one and introduce a delay of about 5 milliseconds." Burks, added that, in some circumstances, it could make a drive 10% slower.

10% slower, this is hardly something that should warrant some of the alarm bells that have rang out across the web.  Look at it this way, you are likely to get a 15-20% boost from newer drive tech over drives that are currently performing very well with XP. So you might drop that by lets say 1/2. You are still seeing a size-able gain in not only performance but available space. Making these claims that "New Harddrives May Force Windows XP Upgrades" pretty unreasonable.

Lets not forget
Most computer users out there that are running Windows XP and have refused upgrades aren't likely to add new drives anytime soon and even if they do there are tons of drives out there now that we can use w/o issues. By the time these drives are dated to the point they are no longer viable Windows XP will be at the end of its life-cycle and we'll likely be running Windows 8, 9 or 10 or whatever and most drives will be ssd's or something better.

So as I said the BBC's article looks like nothing more than sensationalistic, alarmist junk to me!

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