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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  • zdzichu - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    In first performance table you switched results for SATA and USB3.0 of 3TB drive.
  • oc3an - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    The maximum integer which can be represented with 32 bits is 4294967295 i.e. 2^32 - 1 which allows for 4294967296 values. The article is worded incorrectly.
  • mino - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    "...so the largest partition you can have in a MBR partitioned drive is 4294967296 * 512-bytes or 2,199,023,255,552 bytes..."

    Are you sure that is an incorrect wording?
  • mino - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    BIOS does support booting from GPT.
    It is the Windows boot loader that cannot boot from GPT on BIOS systems.

    As a matter of fact I am writing this from Gigabyte 780G board running Ubuntu 10.04 on top of GPT(on top of LVM on top of MD on top of GPT).
  • yuhong - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    To be more precise, all that BIOS does is read the first sector of the drive, check for the signature at the end, and if it matches, then it jumps to the real mode x86 code at the beginning. It is actually partition scheme agnostic. Now some BIOSes are not quite partition scheme agnostic and will rely on the contents of the first sector being in the MBR format, luckily GPT support a protective MBR.
  • baker269 - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    I would love to see what the Ethernet speeds are like. Not that great I would guess since it's not a true NAS, but still would be nice.
  • mindless1 - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    ?? It doesn't have an ethernet interface does it? Speeds would be similar enough to any current-gen 7200 RPM drive already in a system on your LAN.
  • baker269 - Tuesday, August 24, 2010 - link

    From the forth paragraph of the article.

    "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."

    It"s not as easy as just plugging in a hard drive with a RJ45 to a router, there needs to be some kind of CPU in between the two. NAS performance through Ethernet varies greatly.
  • derkurt - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    Is it such a big deal that Windows doesn't boot from GPT drives if the BIOS is not EFI-capable? Whoever spends 400+ USD on a drive probably just needs lots of storage space for plain data. It's unlikely that there is no fast boot drive present in any system this drive is plugged into. Actually, since the first expansive 3 TB drives are bought by enthusiasts, chances are that the customers are already using an SSD as a boot drive.

    That said, in a realistic setting for a performance workstation with Windows 7 x64 installed on a 80+ GB SSD, there won't be a problem. You can connect the drive to the internal SATA connector, partition it with GPT and start using it, while your BIOS doesn't need to know anything about EFI or GPT. The heat issues might also look better when using the drive internally.

    I don't understand why Seagate is holding back with selling the internal model. An estimated 95% of users will never even try to boot from it, and for the rest (who do want to boot from it but don't know about the 2+ TB issues), there could be a red warning note inside the box explaining the juicy details. After all, those who spend such an amount of money on a hard drive are not exactly the kind of people who have no clue about hard drives at all.
  • dryloch - Monday, August 23, 2010 - link

    One of Seagates biggest advantages has been that their external hard drives come with a 5 year warranty. Why would they go to a two year warranty on the most expensive drive they sell? If anything they should have at least gone with three years. If they don't even trust this drive then I sure won't. I'll be waiting for Western Digital to have their drive out.

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