The Never-Ending Mechanical Hard Drive

July 20th, 2016

When I brought a Mac into my home in 1989, after using one for several years at the office, I thought I had a truly high-end computer. It had chosen a Macintosh IIcx. Released that year, it sat just below the Macintosh IIx in the lineup, but was relatively affordable as Macs went, at least in those days. I equipped it with a 100MB Rodime hard drive which cost, all by its lonesome, $1,200. In passing, I see you can still buy one, in 2016, for $126.95 from a dealer. I suppose there are people with ancient computers who need new drives.

The entire system, with an Apple laser printer, came to $14,000 even with a discount. I leased the system, but how things have changed!

In any case, traditional storage seems to expand by leaps and bounds every year. Seagate has announced a lineup of 10TB drives, with a standard 3.5-inch 7,200 RPM Barracuda Pro costing a “mere” $535.00. Remember, that’s a tad less than half what I paid for that 100MB hard drive 27 years ago, but that’s what you expect from advancing technology. But even though manufacturers can cram more data in a smaller space — and a storage device that manages atom by atom storage has been announced — the traditional drive technology still has the same limitations.

Imagine what you have to lose if you have terabytes of data on a drive that fails? I assume you’ll want to buy a couple more for backup, just to be sure. But you’re still limited by the speed of traditional mechanical storage.

That takes us to SSD. Using the same flash technology as those tiny thumb drives, they’ve become reasonably affordable in recent years.  Before I get to that, however, they also do wonders for reliability and performance. Not being mechanical, you don’t suffer from the traditional sources of trouble with hard drives. They can also be many times faster than the standard hard drive, and that can do wonders with the perceived speed of your computer.

So a hefty portion of what you do on a Mac or PC relies on the storage device. Where it may take a minute or two for your Mac or PC to boot, when you swap in an SSD, that changes to seconds. Most apps launch pretty quickly too, and saving documents is faster. But getting lots of SSD storage can still be expensive, even though prices drop regularly.

Consider that $535.00 10TB Barracuda Pro from Seagate. What does that figure get you in solid state storage?

Well, Other World Computing is offering various Mercury 2TB SSDs starting at $575.75. That’s for the bare drive, and the price for a complete system, with installation hardware, adds a little more. Regardless, this is a close to what a 1TB SSD would cost you a year or two back, so that’s progress. Indeed, for most people, it’s more than enough storage. I assume professionals with expensive Mac Pro workstations might even assemble several of these for a RAID drive.

If you can get by with 1TB, it’s $337.50 and the sweet spot is a 500TB SSD (actually 480GB) for less than $200. If you stop around, you’ll find somewhat better deals, but OWC designs its storage gear to be fully plug-and-play compatible with Macs. Installation hardware, if needed, is available. So this may sound like an ad, but I outfitted a late 2009 iMac with a 1TB SSD last year. The performance improvement was a revelation. I followed up by putting one of OWC’s 500GB SSDs in a 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro, and most of the sluggishness I had experienced was history.

Apple’s Fusion Drive provides the best of both worlds. Although recent versions have smaller SSDs, the original model consisted of a 128GB SSD and a 1TB hard drive. By OS magic, data is first copied to the SSD. That includes the OS and most or all of your apps. Your most recently used documents are copied there as well, and as documents are less used, they are moved to the hard drive. In the real world, for most users who aren’t managing a number of documents that are multiple gigabytes in size, you get most of the speed of an SSD for a fraction of the cost.

Unfortunately, Apple continues to overcharge for extra storage. If you want your $2,499 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display to switch from a 512GB SSD to a 1TB SSD, the price increase is $500. Remember you can buy a 2TB SSD from OWC for not much more. Of course, RAM upgrades from Apple are also too expensive.

Now if Apple would wake up and smell the roses, they’d serve customers better. I don’t know the profit margins, but I’ll assume that they are paying far less for flash memory than any third-party company.

Regardless, I think the price of SSD is — aside from Apple gouging customers for upgrades — hitting the sweet spot when it comes to affordability. I do expect that we might see 20TB hard drives and bigger, and maybe that atom-drive will show up at a reasonable price before long. But hard drives are on the way out. Some years hence, the SSD will also become an endangered species.

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4 Responses to “The Never-Ending Mechanical Hard Drive”

  1. Kevin T says:

    Wow… I bought my 100 Mb drive for only $900! For the very same Mac IIcx also bought shortly after they were released. I did know it was good price at the time. I had a friend who worked at the dealer (can’t remember the name anymore but I know where the store was) and he got me a good deal. When you add the memory (a steal at $538 for 4 Mb’s!! from Mac Wearhouse(?)), the computer, the Apple RGB monitor, the graphics card with the high resolution upgrade, I paid almost $7,000 for my IIcx. I didn’t get the printer though. That had to wait until less expensive options were available.

    And all so I could play a game… :-p

  2. Joe S says:

    I remember waiting months for my 120M Rodime for my Mac II since I thought that 80m was too small for my needs. I used a 10 meg removable as an intermediate and later for backup after the Rodime arrived.

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