Hard drives have remained largely unchanged in design for many years now. Despite this, there have been many advancements that have seen big jumps in their performance. A hard drive is an airtight case, the inside is a dirt free environment, essential for avoiding damage to the internal parts. A number of discs, called platters, spin around on a spindle. There can be from one to five platters in a single drive, although most drives just have one.
For each platter there is a little arm with a read/write head on the end. There is one arm for each platter, and they reach out over the platter, much like a record player and the head changes the data on the surface. These heads never touch the platter, but float ever so slightly above them. All drives have this basic design, but utilize other technologies to get the most from the drives. Notably there is often very little difference between competitors when using comparable systems. Drives with the same specifications, from two different manufacturers, will not very much in performance.
Drives come in a few different sizes. The standard desktop hard drive is one inch in height, while models for laptops are 9.5mm or 12.5mm, with the latter becoming too big for current laptop designs. There are also proprietary sizes available.
The number of platter depends on the use of the drive. Most drives only have one platter, which reduces the number of moving parts, namely the arms and heads, resulting in less chance of drive failure. Multiple platters allow for larger storage capacity. Laptop drives can have up to two platters. Desktop drives have 3.
5 inch platters, enterprise hard drives look like 3.5 inch drives, but have 2.5 inch platters inside. Mobile drives have 2.
5 and 1.8 inch platters, while some micro-drives use 1 or 0.8 inch platters. Spindle speed, which is how fast the platters spin in the drive, makes a huge difference to the performance of the drive. Think about it, the faster it can spin, the faster the information that is being looked for will pass beneath the read/write heads, it's just quicker. Server and workstation drives usually spin at 15,000 or 10,000 RPM.
The WD Raptor is the exception for desktop computers, also spinning at 10,000 RPM, but usually they spin at 7,200 RPM. However the price of a Raptor is very high and you pay more for its 150 GB model than for a 500 GB drive. Notebook drives spin at 4,200 RPM, which is slowly being replaced by 5,400 RPM models. Smaller mobile drives operate at 4,200 RPM, while the micro-drives operate even slower.
The cache stores frequently used data so that it can send data straight from there, rather than needing a read from the surface of the platters. This gives great speed improvements for frequently accessed data. Drives with a cache will give faster performance. Up to 16 MB is offered on some drives, but 8 MB has been found to be the most worthwhile, as 16 MB provides little extra performance over 8 MB. The performance difference within a family of hard drives is very little.
The biggest differences are found by moving up to 10,000 RPM, but with an obvious price penalty. To get the most value per GB, divide the total price by the hard drive's size in GB and start there.
All the other things you could possibly need to know about hard drives can be found at our hard drive guide.