hard drive history

1998: a year of transition

Western Digital Caviar AC35100

Photo: Red Hill.

Western Digital Caviar 2.1 and 2.5

Through the second half of the decade, Western Digital seemed to proceed in alternating bouts of stagnation and rapid change. Where the major makers had vast resources to draw on for product development, WD was reliant on third-party suppliers and could not always match the latest models from IBM and Seagate (both huge companies with productive research arms) or Quantum (which could draw on the manufacturing might of Matsushita-Panasonic).

The introduction of the Caviar 2.1 range in 1998 marked one of Western Digital's periodic catch-up phases. On paper, the new models were impressive: for the first time a WD drive had MR heads; seek times were down to 9.5ms; the drives spun slightly faster at 5400 rather than WD's traditional 5200 RPM; and 256k cache became standard — twice as much as most of the older WD drives. In the flesh, the Caviar 2.1s lived up to the specifications: these were excellent drives.

In service with us, the Caviar 5400s had a spotless reliability record for the first six or eight months of their life, but then came a period of six months or so when we saw a number of failed units — and, as if to confound our newfound lack of confidence in them, very few failures since that time. I am not sure how to explain this: we sold so many Western Digital 5400s that I don't think random chance can have had much to do with it. I can only surmise that Western Digital's QC standard slipped for a short while, then recovered.

With good performance, great pricing, and (in general) excellent reliability, these were easily our best-selling drives for the southern summer and autumn of 1998; they still sold well through winter, and only slowed as the march of time caught up with them in the last months of the year. As a matter of interest, the drives that eventually pushed the WDs off our best-seller list were the Seagate Medalist 5400 (similar speed but cheaper), the Quantum Fireball EX and Fireball EL (similar price but faster) and the Seagate Medalist 7200 (more expensive but very fast).

Data rate135 Mbit/secSpin rate5400 RPM
Seek time9.5msBuffer256k
Platter capacity2.1GBInterfaceATA-33
AC121002.1GB2 MR heads****
AC232003.2GB3 MR heads***
AC243004.3GB4 MR heads****
AC351005.1GB5 MR heads***
AC364006.4GB6 MR heads****

Performance1.12Reliabilityno data
Data rate148 Mbit/secSpin rate5400 RPM
Seek time9.5msBuffer256k
Platter capacity2.5GBInterfaceATA-33
AC125002.5GB2 MR heads
AC251005.1GB4 MR heads
AC384008.4GB6 MR heads*