Western Digital Doubles The Pleasure

Ever since the emergence of Solid-State Drives, there's been a conundrum facing laptop users in regards to storage options. Storage could be fast, large capacity, or low price - pick two of the three. We've seen hybrid drives that mesh SSDs with HDDs using a caching method to boost performance but generally the SSD portion is less than ideal. Western Digital has a new spin on this concept with a hybrid drive of a different sort that they've aptly named Black². With it, they've actually combined a 120GB SSD and a 1TB HDD on a single drive, although separate save for the the SATA III interface they share. Before you go wetting yourself with anticipation, have a look at the performance numbers and our impressions to see if it truly delivers full SSD performance with HDD capacity (hint: not quite).

Black2 Box

We've been a bit ambivalent towards hybrid drives in the past as they offer some improved performance but often at the expense of additional risk or required compatible hardware. Generally they lack enough SSD storage to be as effective as we'd like but doing so also negates most of the cost savings they provide. However, we're always willing to look at new methods of employing them so having an open mind, we venture forth with the Black² drive. Retailing at $299.99, it's still not going to make the inexpensive drive list but compared to a 1TB SDD it's at least half if not one third of the cost. The WD specifications list the reads to max out at 350MB/s and writes at 140MB/s. Writes are hindered a bit by the hybrid controller though the impact of slower writes is much less perceived by the user than reads would be so that works out nicely. It does have a 2.5" form-factor with a 9.5mm z-height to make it compatible with most notebook computers.

Black2 Front

The exterior design is a bit different with a hint of circuit board pattern embossed onto a third of the top side of the drive giving hint as to the SSD lying beneath. The predominant color is a glossy black with splash of gold in the form of the drive logo in the corner. Of course, no review would be complete without the obligatory marketing video to whet your whistle followed by the specifications...

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoEoYdmEYV8[/youtube]

WD Black² Features and Specifications:

Black2 Rear

When you flip the drive over, it suddenly looks very HDD-like with nary a hint of the SSD buried within.

WD Black2 Packaging

We have to say that the packaging and presentation are impressive. The drive comes packaged in sleeved box that then opens up via magnetic flap. There's a card stock crafted, key shaped USB drive that contains the necessary software for using both drives - a process we'll look at later.

Black2 Cables

Also included in the package is a super useful SATA to USB cable so those wanting to migrate from an existing notebook can do so with relative ease. Using USB is a lot slower than a traditional SATA connection but it beats the pants off of trying to track down another PC to do the drive copy.

Into The Black² and Setup

Getting the drive apart was not fun at all and in fact downright scary. It took quite a bit of time and patience to break down. We say this a lot, but seriously, do not try this at home! There's a significant chance of damaging the delicate PCB that's very firmly taped down and there's no undo for that mistake.

Black2 Disassemble

The SATA interface was easy enough to take off as it was merely held by several small screws seen on the face of the drive. This carries a Marvell SATA bridge chip that allows concurrent access to both the SSD and HDD.

Black2 Open

When we finally managed to peel away the SSD portion of the drive from the HDD portion the HDD was revealed to be a Blue Slim (7.0mm z-height) drive which makes this whole product possible as it leaves enough space for an additional 2.5mm of SSD to be added to the top to make a standard 9.5mm height drive. The dual platter hard drive carries a 16MB cache and spins at 5400RPM.

Black2 SSD

The SSD portion of the drive is diminutive as well taking up only roughly 1/3 the drive length. It's managed by a JMicron JMF667H controller with the 128GB of 20nm MLC NAND split across two chips.

Black2 Key

This is the key that gets it all started. Prior to loading the software, only the SSD portion of the drive is available.

WD Black Software Install 4

Most of the major languages are covered!

WD Black Software Install 3

Zoom, zoom...sorry, wrong company. Is that the WD F1 car that we detailed here?

WD Black Software Install 2

This is where we get down to business. Once you click install, the magic happens and then requires a reboot. After rebooting, the HDD portion of the drive should be visible and ready to rock. There may be a delay before it boots to the desktop while everything is configured.

Test System & Comparison Drives

All tests were performed on a fresh and up-to-date install of Windows 8 Pro x64 with no other applications running while using AHCI mode set through the BIOS. Synthetic Benchmarks were run with the OS loaded on a 120GB Corsair Force SSD. In between every test, the test drive was secure erased using an instance of Parted Magic. As such, all results should be indicative of optimal performance. All components were set to their default speeds and are listed below.

Z77 Test Bench

LR Bench

Intel LGA 1155 Test Platform
ComponentBrand/ModelLive Pricing

Processor

Core i5 2500k

Motherboard

ASUS Maximus V Gene Z77

Memory

Kingston HyperX KHX16C9B1RK28 8GB

OS Drive

Corsair Force 120GB (FW 2.4)

Power Supply

Antec Basiq BP550W Plus-EC

Operating System

Windows 8 Pro 64-Bit

Comparison Drives And Other Models We Have Tested

Since there are so many SSDs out there now with different controllers, we started a reference table of which controllers are used by each drive to help you compare results. Different controllers definitely perform differently and each has various strengths and weaknesses. Like CPU's, even identical drives will have variations in performance and part of that variance may be attributable to the NAND flash used. Since the tests of the drives listed have spanned different test benches and represent different interfaces, we have listed the most recent ones for easy reference.

SSD MODEL CONTROLLER Interface
Corsair Force LS 240GB Phison PS3108 SATA III
Samsung Evo 500GB MEX S4LN045X01 SATA III
Seagate 600 240GB LAMD LM87800 SATA III
OCZ Vertex 450 256GB Indilinx Barefoot 3 M10 SATA III
Crucial M500 480GB Marvell 88SS9187 SATA III
OCZ Vertex 3.20 240GB SandForce SF-2200 (SF-2281) SATA III
Samsung 840 Pro 240GB Samsung MDX SATA III
Sandisk Ultra Plus 256GB Marvell 88SS9175 SATA III
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB LAMD LM87800 SATA III
Intel 520 Series 240GB SandForce SF-2200 (SF-2281) SATA III
OCZ Vector 256GB Indilinx Barefoot 3 M00 SATA III
Kingston SSDNow V300 120GB SandForce SF-2200 (SF-2281) SATA III
Samsung 830 Series 256GB Samsung S4LJ204X01-Y040 SATA III

CrystalDiskInfo 6.0.4 Readout:

For the WD Black² drives, note that both drives are displayed on the same screen labeled D: and T:. The readout on CrystalDiskInfo is two-fold though a bit misleading as it shows that both NCQ and S.M.A.R.T. are enabled as expected but also TRIM shows for both which certainly does not apply to the HDD yet the command does pass through the same SATA III (6Gbps) interface that the HDD is using. This is a great free tool to see lots of detailed information about the drive such as the firmware version for which we are running the latest available at the time of testing - 01.01A01.

CrystalDiskMark Info 

Let's have a look at the performance with some synthetic benchmarks followed up by some real world tests.

ATTO & AS-SSD Benchmarks

ATTO v2.47

ATTO is one of the oldest drive benchmarks still being used today and is still very relevant in the SSD world. ATTO measures transfers across a specific volume length. It measures raw transfer rates for both reads and writes and places the data into graphs that can be very easily interpreted. The test was run with the default runs of 0.5KB through 8192KB transfer sizes with the total length being 256MB.

ATTO - Intel Z77 Platform:

ATTO

Benchmark Results: Because of the way the drive is designed, the reads reap the benefits of the SSD but the writes are hindered by the hybrid nature of the SATA controller which is painfully obvious in the benchmark results. Still, if I was to choose to have either speedy writes or reads, it'd be reads all day.

ATTO Grid

AS-SSD (1.6.4237.30508) Benchmark - Intel Z77 Platform:

We have been running the AS-SSD Benchmark app for over some time now and found that it gives a broad result set. The programmer has worked very hard on this software and continues to make updates often so if you use it, show him some love and send him a donation. There are now three tests that are found within the tool and we'll show the results from two of them.

 AS-SSD AS-SSD Grid

Benchmark Results: Here we see the same dynamic with the writes lagging considerably due to the HDD.

AS-SSD Compression Chart

Benchmark Results: No impact to performance from the level of data compressibility so the graph shows relatively flat slopes.

CrystalDiskMark & Anvil IOPS

CrystalDiskMark is a small benchmark utility for drives and enables rapid measurement of sequential and random read/write speeds. Note that CDM only supports Native Command Queuing (NCQ) with a queue depth of 32 (as noted) for the last listed benchmark score. This can skew some results in favor of controllers that also do not support NCQ.

CrystalDiskMark 3.0.2 x64 - Intel Z77 Platform

 CrystalDiskMark

Benchmark Results: More of the same here but the 4k writes actually hold their own with the SSD crowd, even besting a few.

CDM Grid

Anvil Storage Utilities 1.050 RC6- Intel Z77 Platform

Along with the move to a new platform, we decided to make a change in one of the benchmarks. There's a relatively new benchmark called Anvil Storage Utilities that is in beta but close to production. It's a very powerful tool that measures performance through a variety of tests which can be customized. Since some of the tests more or less duplicate what we get from other benchmarks we use already, we decided to use the IOPS (Input/Output Operations Per Second) testing on 4kb file sizes at a queue depth of 32. IOPS performance is something SSD makers tout quite a bit but we generally don't do a lot of IOPS testing because frankly a lot of users can't relate to IOPS metrics as well and it tends to be more meaningful to the enterprise/server crowd. Still, it is another performance indicator with relevance and while some drives post good MB/s numbers, their IOPS scores aren't always commensurate which this test will prove out.

 

IOPS Reads IOPS Writes

Benchmark Results: Not super strong results for IOPS, especially in the writes department but this is not really a drive that's focused on IOPS performance but rather increased performance with ample storage.

IOPS Chart

Real World Copy & Boot Tests

File Copy Times Via Teracopy 2.27:

One of the most common operations performed on a PC is moving/copying files. Using a free application called Teracopy, we copied large numbers of two file types from one folder to another on the same drive. Teracopy allows us to objectively measure the time of transfer and using the same drive prevents other devices from tainting the outcome. The operation requires the drive to perform both sustained read and writes simultaneously. The first set of files is a 5GB collection of JPG's of variable size and compression levels with a few movie (.MOV) files thrown in for good measure since most cameras now take video as well as stills. The second is a collection of MP3 files of various sizes which totals 5GB collectively. These file types were chosen due to their wide use and mixture of file sizes and compression levels.

JPG Copy

Benchmark Results: Unsurprisingly, the real world result trends with the synthetic benchmarks showing it's not the speediest drive on the block but still not too shabby as you wouldn't see performance anywhere near this with a normal 5400 RPM HDD.

Filecopy Chart

Windows Boot Times Via BootRacer:

Windows start up/shutdown time is always something people are interested in and we haven't done it in a while because there was little variation with the majority of the SSDs. We recently began using an application called BootRacer to objectively measure the startup times of the drives. All of the instances of Windows were identical and freshly installed with only the video driver installed.

Windows Boot

Benchmark Results: Boot times were only slightly off that of pure SSDs which is great to see as it's one place where people really feel the difference in performance.

Boot Chart

Final Thoughts & Conclusions

We actually have two looks at capacities for the Black² drive as the SSD and HDD are reported separately. The HDD portion of the drive yields 931GB addressable by the user and the SSD offers up 111GB. Each is the expected capacity when moving from the reported 120GB/1TB (1GB byte = 1,000,000,000 bytes) to the logical GiB (1Gib = 1,073,741,824 bytes).

HDD Properties SS Properties

We've maintained for quite awhile that hybrid drives are simply a stopgap solution until such time that large capacity (500GB+) SSD pricing nears pricing found on their HDD counterparts. When that time comes (and it will), we'll look back on hybrid drives like we do with cell phones that only have voice and simple text capability - a bridge from pagers to the modern smart phone. Still, that doesn't mean that in the here and now hybrid drives don't have a very valid and useful purpose. Those needing voluminous capacity and upgraded performance but have a limited budget have some real options to choose from.

Black2 Logo

Our comparisons to the pure SSD drives is a bit unfair as far as performance is concerned; however, they are direct competitors that just lack the capacity and cost savings the Black² offers so there's a bit of a tradeoff. While the current asking price of $299.99 is not what many would call 'budget friendly' at first blush, it actually is if you think about the cost of a 1TB pure SSD that will run two to three times more than that amount. The real beauty comes with machines limited to only one drive because you essentially get two for one slot. This makes it a very compelling and robust choice.

Black2 Front

Performance is bit of mixed bag with reads being way beyond a traditional HDD but trailing the better SSDs of today topping out at a little over 400MB/s per our tests. Writes still beat most spinning platter drives (10k RPM drives excluded) but can't come close to matching just about any pure SSD on the market today with a max write speed of 140MB/s. As we mentioned previously, the reads are where you can feel the speed difference anyway on things like booting the OS, opening apps, files and loading game levels. The real difference between this and other hybrid drives is it lets you control the data that's stored on the faster SSD portion of the drive instead of relying on a faceless algorithm to make those decisions for you.

innovation award

Legit Bottom Line: When you only have space for one drive but really need a lot of storage space plus hat extra performance, this is probably the best hybrid drive solution on the market today - especially if you want to control what data is important to you for fast access.