I’ve spent so much of the past two years covering SSDs that you’d think I’d forgotten about traditional hard drives. All of my work machines have transitioned to SSDs, as have all of my testbeds for reliability and benchmark repeatability reasons I’ve mentioned before. What I don’t mention that often is the stack of 1TB hard drives I use to store all of my personal music/pictures/movies, AnandTech benchmark files that drive my lab and to power my home theater (yes, final update on that coming soon). Hard drives haven’t lost their importance in my mind, their role has simply shifted.

My OS, applications, page file, documents and even frequently played games (ahem, Starcraft 2) all end up on my SSD. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything else, and for that bulk data there’s no cheaper or better alternative than mechanical storage.

One and two terabyte drives are now commonplace, the former selling for $60 a pop. Recently Seagate announced the next logical step, a five platter three terabyte drive with a catch - it’s external only.

The FreeAgent GoFlex Desk is a mouthful of branding that refers to Seagate’s line of external 3.5” drives. The drives themselves are standard 3.5” hard drives in a plastic enclosure designed to mate with GoFlex Desk adapters that add USB 2.0, USB 3.0, FireWire 800 or Ethernet connectivity to the drive.

Currently the GoFlex Desk is available in 1TB, 2TB and 3TB capacities. We’ve spent much of the past week testing the latter both as a look at 3TB hard drives as well as the external device itself.

Not Just Another Upgrade

The first thing I did with the GoFlex Desk was try to get access to the drive inside. Despite the fact that Seagate is shipping a 3TB GoFlex Desk, the internal drive (also made by Seagate) won’t be available until the end of the year. That’s silly, I thought, so I went about pulling the drive out of its casing.

The drive part of the GoFlex Desk is little more than two pieces of plastic snapped together. Start to separate them and pull as firmly (yet carefully) as you can and they’ll pop off, hopefully without breaking any tabs in the process so you can snap it back together.

Inside the GoFlex Desk 3TB was a standard 3.5” Seagate Barracuda XT drive. There are rubber squares installed where the mounting screwholes are and the drive is in a metal tray, but other than that this is a run of the mill SATA HDD.

The 3TB Barracuda XT is a 7200RPM drive. The drive has a 32MB DRAM cache, which is half of what Seagate ships on its 2TB drive making it clear that the 3TB drive used in the GoFlex Desk isn’t 100% performance optimized. Seagate reaches its 3TB capacity by using five 600GB platters.

Internally the drive uses 4K sectors however it translates to 512-byte sectors before it reaches the SATA port. This means to a SATA interface the 3TB drive looks like a drive with 512-byte sectors. The GoFlex Desk docks then map the 512-byte sectors back to the 4K format. There’s obviously overhead associated with these translations but it’s not huge in most cases. The final 4K translation done by the GoFlex Desk dock means that you can partition the drive using MBR which ensures Windows XP compatibility.

Update: Seagate offered some clarification to the paragraph above. Internally the 3TB drive uses 512-byte sectors, however the GoFlex dock emulates a 4K drive to allow for a single 3TB partition to be created in Windows.

For those of you looking to buy a 3TB GoFlex Desk, crack the case open and use the drive inside your system there are some challenges that you should be aware of.

The 2TB Barrier
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  • Belard - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    ALL brands have their bad batches. Maxtor, WD, Hitachi-IBM, etc... and even intel.

    I have used lots of Seagates and Maxtors with good reliability. Yes, I've had failures - but not really any more than WD.

    In the OLD days, Seagates were called "Sea-crates" typically used in cheap PCs ($2000+ computers) - I'd never touch those junky RLL drives. I bought Quantum SCSI drives which were higher end, more reliable and costs more money... and being SCSI - they were much faster. I miss Quantum. :( Today, I buy Seagates - they are easily quieter than most drives - with only Samsung just as quiet.

    I still buy 1TB Seagates. I don't trust the 1.5~2TB drives from anyone. But the tech used in 2~3TB drives are filtered down to the 500GB drives (single 500GB platter) - so the density reliability issue is there - but the less-parts (heads and arms) factor does help. So todays 500GB drives are very thin... wow! ;)
  • mewgirl - Monday, January 31, 2011 - link

    ....But since WD is THE WORST manufacturer of external hard drives, this post means you are definitely NOT recommending Seagate, then, correct?
  • mino - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    You should NEVER use an on-demand cooling system with magnetic storage.

    Hard disks are an order of magnitude more sensitive to temperature changes than pure high temperatures.
  • Jonathan Dum - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    Interesting. Proof to back up that claim?
  • has407 - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    The OP is nominally correct. While I wouldn't go so far as to say "NEVER use an on-demand cooling system", I'd say they're likely to do more harm than good unless carefully engineered and integrated with the HDD.

    Rapid changes in temperature can kill a drive faster than elevated temps due to, e.g., thermal expansion/contraction of components (heads, platters, spindles, etc.), and air density changes which affect head ride height.

    Those changes require active adjustment and compensation, and are necessary and common in today's drives/controllers. However, there are limits. Drive manufacturers specify a maximum temp change/time (even if it may not show in the data sheets available on their web site).

    The best solution is to maintain a steady and moderate temperature change. The worst solution is a typical/cheap "bang-bang" controller that starts/stops when temperature limts are reached, and which causes rapid changes in the drive's temperature.

    Case in point: The absolute worst thing you can do for your laptop drive after leaving it in the car for hours on a frigid day is drag it into a warm room and immediately start pounding on it. Virtually guaranteed to result in errors and reduced life (if not short-term failure).*

    In short, active cooling is not necessarily bad, but stupid active cooling that causes wide temp swings over short periods in the drive can cause far worse problems than allowing the drive to run at an elevated and slowly changing temp.

    This has been a problem for many years, and increasingly as tolerances decrease (especially with higher track densities). While drives/controllers continue to adapt and improve, it's still a significant factor, and the larger the media the worse the problem. For recent papers (sorry, don't have any recent freely available links), see:



    * Yes, people talk about the "freeze your HDD" to try and recover it. (It may even work--never tried it.) But subjecting an HDD to that kind of rapid temperature change abuse even occassionally is guaranteed to kill it in short order.
  • JonnyDough - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    It makes a lot of sense, even without the links. The hardest thing on a car is starting it in the dead of winter when there's no oil up in the engine. It grinds, and then as the friction causes it heat up quickly with cold oil it continues grinding until it is warm and coated in oil internally.
  • mindless1 - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    That is wrong. If you have a constant speed/always-on cooling system, it means that the drive changes in temperature as it wakes up, reads and writes, and more as it keeps running.

    If you have on-demand, as the drive starts to warm the fan kicks in and keeps the drive at a more constant temperature, including increasing fan RPM as needed to keep the drive at the same temperature! Plus, with on-demand all those times you are not using the drive and it is sleeping and at low temperature, your fan isn't pulling in dust to clog up things.

    Also, it IS high temperature that does damage. Granted, yes it has to change temperature to get to a high temp, but the more the temperature changes the more the different coefficients of expansion come into play. For example, you can stretch a rubber band all day long, but if you stretch it too far it starts to rip apart.
  • Belard - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    This or anyone else... should have minded the heat problems. There are external cases for HDs that have an 80mm cooling fan - low RPM.

    My Seagate drives in my case (1TB) are currently 39c... I run my fan at LOW speed to keep the noise to pretty much silent. A drive hitting 50c+ would make me nervous... 60+ is VERY bad!

    And for a 3TB drive holding that much data, RELIABILITY is most important! USB 3.0 and such are important features when moving that much data and it'll slow down when you're using the drive for what it is intended?!


    The dock is a handy, but a wider one would be nicer... there are other dock-drive designs out there, some with dual docks. Generic versions that allows you to put in ANY drive would be the way to go. OR better yet... use the HOT-SWAP abilities of eSATA and pop your drive into a drive bay on your computer - NO DOCK NEEDED!

    Theres about 60+ options on Newegg. Many docks, you just plug in your drive - sans case.
  • Aikouka - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    Heat problems are one of the reasons why I'm starting to shy away from Seagate drives after using them for a few years. A few months ago, I noticed that one of my WD 1TB HDDs was exhibiting some odd file read issues. When I opened up my server, I found it right above a Seagate 1TB HDD, and when I tried to pull the Seagate drive out, it was almost too hot to touch!

    Of course a (mechanical) hard drive will produce heat, but the Seagate seemed to be in a league of its own compared to all the other drives in my file server. I'm really not sure what brand to even go with now... I purchased a Samsung drive based on recommendations, and that drive died after only two months (the whole random disappearing act leading to refusing to ever show up). I recently purchased a WD 2TB drive that came up clean in a full-disk error check, so we'll see how that goes!
  • mindless1 - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    Your server is not set up correctly, blame it not the drive. A proper case configuration for stacked drives leaves at least 1cm or so between each and ample cool intake airflow through the drive rack. In that scenario you will have no problem cooling any 7200 RPM drive, or with higher airflow rate, 10K RPM drives too.

    Also, there is not a significant difference in operating power or running temp of equivalent drives from Seagate vs other brands. Single-digit # of degrees is not enough to matter one way or the other till you reach the upper limits.

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