December 19, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Faster external drives arriving--slowly

Brace yourself: there are good odds another port will start popping up on PCs soon.

This one is for eSATA, an external version of the technology that's used to connect hard drives inside the PC chassis. Unlike USB and FireWire, eSATA (external Serial ATA) lets external drives communicate at the same speed as internal drives, so the technology would be welcome for those trying to back up digital photo archives or who need added capacity for storing digital music or recording video.

The big question for eSATA now is how widely and quickly it will catch on. But even cautious people in the industry are optimistic that, at a minimum, it will be built into higher-end PCs starting next year.

"Definitely in 2007, you'll see this populated as a standard feature on high-end PCs. In 2008, you'll see that populated further into mainstream products," said John Gleason, manager of worldwide consumer PC marketing for Hewlett-Packard, currently the top-ranked PC seller.

The higher speeds of eSATA compared with USB could grow more obvious as consumers try to wrestle with ever-larger quantities of videos, photos, music and other data. "Backing up a terabyte across a USB port would be incredibly painful. That's going to drive demand for a high-speed port like eSATA, said Roger Bradford, who leads storage work for Intel's chipset and graphics marketing group.

However, the challenges of eSATA are as considerable as its advantages.

First off is the usual chicken-and-egg problem of technology that requires backing from multiple companies. It's not worthwhile for PC makers to add eSATA ports if there aren't eSATA drives, while eSATA drive sales are gated by mainstream availability of built-in eSATA ports.

eSATA photos

Second, most folks just don't know what eSATA is. "There's a level of education needed, and I don't see that happening," said Krishna Chander, storage analyst for market researcher iSuppli. "The penetration is going to take awhile."

And there's a price premium for eSATA drives, which cost about $50 more than USB drives right now, said Ashley Domis, general manager of consumer products at Iomega. For example, 320GB drives from Iomega cost $149 for USB and $199 for eSATA, while the 500GB models are $249 and $299, respectively--though the eSATA drives include a PCI card and backup software.

The nuts and bolts
SATA is a revamp of the earlier parallel ATA (now called PATA) technology that long has prevailed as a way to link hard drives to the motherboards that house a PC's processor, memory and other primary electronics. SATA uses thinner cables with higher-speed data transfer rates.

eSATA is an extroverted version of SATA. It uses slightly different connectors that withstand wear and tear and static electricity, and the electrical signals are a bit stronger so that cables can extend to 2 meters, rather than 1 meter for SATA.

"eSATA is basically the extension to the outside of the box of the interface we are already using inside the box," said Jon van Bronkhorst, executive vice president of Seagate's branded product line, which includes external drives.

External drives today typically use Universal Serial Bus (USB) connections that transfer data at a theoretical maximum of 480 megabits per second or IEEE 1394 "FireWire" connections running at 400Mbps or 800Mbps. In comparison, eSATA transfers data at 3 gigabits per second.

Selling external drives is a small market compared with PCs, Chander said, but it's growing faster. iSuppli expects external drive sales to increase from about 2.2 million in 2006 to 3.2 million in 2007. PC and notebook shipments, in contrast, are forecast to increase from 232 million to 255 million.

Up next: Built-in eSATA
Seagate Technology, along with Iomega, LaCie and others, sells eSATA drives today. However, customers using them typically must install an add-in PCI card to get the eSATA ports. The card often is included with the drive itself, but everyone in the industry recognizes that installing it poses a major barrier.

"People who want performance are usually comfortable opening the box and putting a card into the computer. But the mass market is not comfortable doing that and not capable of doing that," van Bronkhorst said. "We don't want to sell products (just) to customers who are box-crackers."

Serial killer app
In PCs, Serial ATA has largely replaced its predecessor, parallel ATA. Here's why.

Serial data transfer technology is generally faster than parallel. That's why serial data links are sprouting up everywhere in computers, from PCI Express expansion slots to FB-DIMM memory.

Parallel data pathways transfer 1s and 0s, in lockstep, down a number of parallel wires in a cable or traces on an electronics board. To bump up the bandwidth, more lines can be added, or the bit rate for each line can be increased. But doing one tends to complicate the other because the more lines a parallel interface has, the harder it is to keep signals synchronized.

Serial interfaces transfer data at much higher speeds because the signals in each line don't have to be synchronized. Instead, chips at either end take care of spreading data across different lines and reassembling it at the receiving end. Serial communication links also can reach farther than parallel links, which is why eSATA cables can be as long as 2 meters.

SATA ports are common inside computer chassis now. iSuppli said just this quarter the shipments of SATA hard drives will begin exceeding those of PATA models, so support is mandatory these days. Built-in eSATA ports, though, are only just becoming a reality on a few high-end motherboards.

Adding eSATA is becoming easier for computer manufacturers. For example, Intel is enabling broader use of eSATA for those who want it. Its ICH8 "southbridge" chip--one of the major electronics components necessary to link a processor to everything else in a computer--has six eSATA channels built in.

That means that PC makers have enough room for two hard drives, two eSATA ports, and two SATA optical drives. Intel introduced the ICH8 chip earlier this year, and all new PC chipsets will also support eSATA, Bradford said. (Optical drives for CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray and HD DVD are just beginning to make the transition from parallel to serial interfaces; Samsung announced an 18X DVD drive using SATA earlier in December.)

Built-in ports will help Western Digital warm to eSATA, said Cathy Scott, vice president of marketing for branded products. The drive maker will begin selling eSATA drives "probably before the end of 2007, maybe sooner," Scott said.

"When motherboards and PCs are shipping with a connector out of the back like a USB port, then the advantage to speed will be apparent to everyone. And eSATA drives are as easy to install as USB drives," she added.

Silicon Image, which each year ships tens of millions of SATA chips used inside PCs and other devices, has been aggressively marketing eSATA for 18 months, and the company is bullish.

"2007 will be the tipping point," said Alex Chervet, manager of storage marketing for Silicon Image. "Two things will make it real," he said: Intel will begin distributing to its customers reference PCs with eSATA built in, and "You will see in early 2007 a mainstream laptop manufacturer with an eSATA port." He declined to name the manufacturer.

A smaller company, Japanese computer manufacturer Sotec, sells a notebook with an eSATA port, he said, and Asustek Computer and other motherboard makers have multiple models. More interesting, potentially, is that Motorola and Scientific Atlanta are building eSATA into new video recorders, Chervet said. TiVo is doing the same with its product, iSuppli's Chander added.

As Intel support cuts into Silicon Image's market, Silicon Image is looking for new eSATA options. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the company expects an external drive maker to announce a product that lets customers expand external drive capacity by linking new drives together, Chervet said. New drives don't appear as separate, but rather as a single drive, he said.

And people do learn about new technology once its advantages become apparent. "It's going to take a while for (eSATA ports) to become standard," Iomega's Domis said, but eSATA conversations today are the same as USB conversations a decade ago. "You have to constantly evolve to keep up with what's happening in the market."

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Iomega Corp., iSuppli Corp., Serial ATA, PC, photograph

30 comments

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Talk 'bytes' not 'bits'
Sigh. I find it aggravating that tech news reports talk about disk performance (speed) in bits, not bytes. When's the last time you copied a file and counted its bits? In most open systems, we care about bytes - kilo, mega, tera or peta - but not bits. "3 gigabits" per second sounds great, but 300MiB/s is more realistic and meaningful.
Posted by network247 (18 comments )
Reply Link Flag
reporter responds: Sorry, industry convention
We use bits per second for data transfer speeds because that's prevailing industry practice for networking and other interfaces. (It's also the standard for memory chip sizes, if not memory module sizes. But yes, we could have translated the number. Dividing by 10, as you did, is a good rough translation, especially when you factor in protocol overhead.
Posted by Shankland (1858 comments )
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This is serial interface
This is SERIAL interface, and its raw data rate is measured in (G)bits/s. Does it surprise you that Ethernet rates are also measured in Mbits/s and Gbits/s?
Posted by alegr (1590 comments )
Link Flag
In reply to both of the bit/byte whiners
Just pull up that nice lil calculator program, and divide the bits by 8 to get bytes - and multiply the bytes by 8 to get bits.

Problem solved! =:oD
Posted by unigamer69 (75 comments )
Link Flag
Not faster
eSATA in actuality will not be faster than USB 2.0, since the interface speeds of both far exceed the ability of hard drives to pump data out (less than 100 MB/sec)
Posted by Hardrada (359 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Perhaps technically not...but..
Perhaps its technically not faster but after using two different esata external drives and comparing the transfer speed versus the many USB 2 drives I have used and supported over time it seems much faster to me.
Posted by pmfjoe (196 comments )
Link Flag
Faster
It will be faster for a number of reason. First, SATA drives are able to transfer data far faster than 100 MB/Sec. Second, even if what you say were so, that is at least twice as fast as the maximum USB 2.0 spec, and in real world situations, more like four times faster. Third, most hard drives now have integreated caches, so if you are requesting data that is in the cache, you can get it close to the theoretical throughput.
All that said, Serial SCSI is still better. ATA always was a dog. You have the low-end PC ilk to thank for that.
Posted by DeusExMachina (516 comments )
Link Flag
MUCH Faster
I use both. The eSATA is several times faster than the USB, especially with large files. MUCH MUCH faster.
Posted by J_Satch (571 comments )
Link Flag
reporter responds: USB vs eSATA speeds
According to Silicon Image, eSATA is considerably faster than of USB 2.0. The actual sustained speed of data transferred is ranges from 27-30 megabytes per second, compared to 220-240 for eSATA. They may be a big eSATA fan, but it's hard for them to sell SATA chips if they can't show an advantage, so you can bet they measure carefully.
Posted by Shankland (1858 comments )
Link Flag
eSATA will become big soon
As others have pointed out eSATA is already faster than USB 2.0. USB doesn't really every reach its' theoretic max, so USB doesn't exceed the ability of many modern hard drives. Therefore, the additional bandwidth of eSATA will benefit transfer speeds. With more and more people using video with their computers, and data files getter larger, USB's monopoly on people's peripherals is coming to an end.

Years ago people said Firewire would never catch on, but now virtually ever computer has at least one Firewire 400 port. As more and more people use external hard drives, I imagine eSATA will trickle into cheap computers simply because Intel and other motherboard manufacturers include it on their boards. Until Firewire, one could use the same controller for eSATA and regular SATA. That being said I have yet to see eSATA on any new computers. It only shows up on some high end motherboards that aren't common on prefab computers. I imagine the first eSATA port on an HP or an Apple is just around the corner. I am surprised eSATA hasn't been added to the Mac Pro as default, but maybe next year.
Posted by BigGuns149 (790 comments )
Link Flag
External Drives?
Has everyone forgotten SCSI? How about just coming up with a more compact SCSI U160 or 320 plug and you're good to go? Or is that not "cool" enough?
Posted by tocam27 (16 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What about eSAS?
Why bother with eSATA? Why not truly innovate and deploy an eSAS interface (external Serial Attached SCSI). It could support both SATA and SCSCI drives. Many servers already incorporate SAS connections. I'd prefer a working group to come up with a next-gen interface that would provide meaningful performance increases and leave headroom for future expansion. Let's not forget that SCSI is a means to attach a wide array of devices in addition to hard drives. I guess eSATA and other technology rehashes are the price we pay for living in the Digital Dark Ages. <sigh>
Posted by techesq (5 comments )
Link Flag
This is an old topic
eSATA has been out for a long time. I've got an eSATA port on my machine with alot of dust on it. Talk about Serail Attached SCSI (SAS) if you want to talk about something new.
Posted by joshuaguttman (110 comments )
Reply Link Flag
reporter responds: built-in eSATA is new
eSATA may have been around for "a long time" (more than a year but less than three years) for early adopters, though early implementations often were actually SATA connectors outside the PC rather than true eSATA. But built in but built-in eSATA is very new. And although you may be familiar with it, ask 10 random people you encounter who's heard of eSATA.
Posted by Shankland (1858 comments )
Link Flag
Don't forget about external video cards.
Future external video cards will be just handy down the road and this will be needed as they will create much more heat than ever before.
Posted by inachu (963 comments )
Reply Link Flag
finally catching up to SCSI
Gee... I could connect external SCSI drives to my Amiga back in 1986 using a standard SCSI port on my controller card. <sarcasm>I'm pleased to see that PC's today are still cutting edge.</sarcasm>
Posted by herkamur (115 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Yes...
...and we can buy multiple drives for what you paid for one.
Posted by J_Satch (571 comments )
Link Flag
Well.. that's not entirely truthful
The IDE interface is cheap. The controllers are cheap, the drives are cheap. That's the reason IDE became so popular; the cost. Then some really smart people started making it faster, so really IDE (even PATA) is every bit as fast as SCSI, or it was until the last couple years. Of course, this is just raw interface speed. SCSI includes many extra functions which make it more suitable for high I/O and multiple disks.

I do wish that SCSI just became and stayed mainstream. And got cheap. It's a good technology, and Serial SCSI is a very natural transition from "normal" SCSI.

Oh well.
Posted by cbreaker (11 comments )
Link Flag
Bits vs Bytes
There are 8 bits to a byte, so it's an easy conversion. For SATA there is an 8/10 protocol built in so you just divide by 10. It is like miles and kilometers, just different ways of expressing the same thing.
Posted by bergmike (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
USB Speed
The theoretical maximum for USB is 480Mbps (60MB/s), but most IDE/PATA to USB bridge chips run closer to 280Mbps(35MB/s). There are many drives that have sustained data transfer rates above this value, so you will see a benefit with SATA.
Posted by bergmike (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Available Now at your local Computer Store!
I just bought a 500GB internal SATA drive from Fry's for $160 and an Azio external enclosure for $30. The enclosure included a five dollar adapter to convert my PC's SATA to an eSATA. Who needs the manufacturers to do this for us? It is much cheaper to do it ourselves!
Posted by jchord (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
eSATA cards are cheap
Most SATA controller cards have one or more eSATA ports. For about $30-$50 at any good electronics store on can add an eSATA port or two. Heck Fry's has been selling eSATA expresscard controllers for months now. They are expensive, but they allow even laptop users to have eSATA. In addition, Seagate sells eSATA drives with a controller card. The author of the story evens mentions this. Hence, nobody comes home to discover that they forgot something. Nobody needs to wait for eSATA ports to appear on a new computer. As eSATA drive sales grow motherboard manufacturers will add the ports to give new value to their customers.
Posted by BigGuns149 (790 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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