The Samsung P80 has been our top recommendation for a quiet 3.5″ drive for quite some time, but it’s showing its age. The new P120 series offers higher areal density and capacity, both of which translate to higher performance. Does the P120 retain the acoustic qualities that endeared the last generation of Samsung drives to quiet PC enthusiasts?
July 14, 2005 by Devon
|Samsung SpinPoint P120 SP2004C|
200GB, 7200 RPM SATA
Samsung’s SpinPoint P80 line of hard drives has been an SPCR favorite for some
time now, but of late it has been looking a bit long in tooth. The maximum capacity
of the P80 series â 160 GB â doesn’t compare to the 300, 400, and
even 500 GB models available from other manufacturers. The limited capacity
is a function of platter density; the 80 GB platters that the P80 is based on are
quickly becoming obsolete as the industry embraces higher areal densities.
The P120 series, which pushes the maximum capacity to 250 GB, is
a welcome addition to Samsung’s hard drive offerings.
At present, only the 200GB model appears to be in widespread circulation, but
hopefully the larger model should become more readily available soon. Although the primary model is meant
to be the SATA-II version, a PATA version is also available (and for $20 cheaper).
The real question, though, is not whether the drive can deliver more capacity
but whether it can do so at the same level of noise we have come to expect from
Samsung’s older drives.
From the outside, the P120 looks no different from the older P80 line.
SAMSUNG SPINPOINT P120 SP2004C (from Samsung’s
|FEATURE & BRIEF||COMMENT|
100GB/125GB Formatted Capacity Per Disk
No, that’s not a misprint. “Disk” is a more proper term
Serial ATA 3.0 Gbps Interface Support
|Also known as SATA-II.|
SATA Native Command Queuing Feature Set
|Included in the support|
for SATA 3.0 Gbps.
Device Initiated SATA Power Management
|Sounds interesting, but|
no details are given.
|Another SATA feature;|
for use in RAID.
High Speed Dual Digital Signal Processor (DSP) Based Architecture
|A long-time feature that|
shows up even on Samsung’s 5,400 RPM models.
ATA S.M.A.R.T. Compliant
ATA Automatic Acoustic Management Feature Set
|Crucial for reducing|
|ATA 48-bit Address|
|Required to support high|
|ATA Streaming Feature|
|AKA ATA-7. Most useful|
for use in stand-alone applications, such as DVRs.
|ATA Device Configuration|
Overlay Feature Set
|Used for modifying the|
apparent features supported by the drive, for security or information hiding
|NoiseGuardâ¢||A series of technical|
improvements that Samsung has decided to trademark as being good for drive
from AAM, although from the marketing description it seems to work in the
same way. Samsung claims it does not impact performance.
The specifications below are specific to the model that we examined. Capacity,
cache size, platter number, interface, and even performance vary from model
to model even within a single product line. Acoustics and power dissipation
also vary depending on the number of platters in the drive; smaller capacity
drives tend to have fewer platters, and tend to produce less noise and use less
There was some confusion determining the number of platters. The Samsung USA
web site lists the SP2004C as a single platter, which is implausible given that
current drive technology tops out at around 133 GB / platter. A call to their
customer service served to confuse the matter even further: I was told that
SATA technology had made platters (and read/write heads) obsolete, proving that
my question had not been properly understood.
It is most likely that both the 200 and 250 GB models have two platters apiece.
The formatted capacity per disk is listed (in the features, not
the specifications) as either 100 or 125 GB, which corresponds to exactly half
the capacity of the two models. This means that the difference between the two
drives is not the number of platters or heads, but the data capacity of the platters
Samsung SpinPoint P120 SP2004C
SATA 3.0 Gbps
|Start/Stop cycles (at 40Â°C)|
0 – 60Â°C
|Power Consumption: Idle / Seek|
7.5 / 9.5 W
|Acoustics: Idle / Seek|
2.5 / 2.8 Bels
With the P120 series, Samsung has left the Ultra-ATA interface behind completely.
Although a legacy PATA version is sold in limited quantities, the SATA version
uses a true SATA interface, not the SATA to PATA bridge of the previous design.
This means it can support the latest features of SATA, such as Native Command
Queuing and Staggered Spin-up, but it loses the ability to be powered via the
ubiquitous Molex connectors.
No legacy Molex power connector here: A true SATA logic board controls the drive.
In the past, Hitachi has impressed us with its implementation of drive-based
power management, so the appearance of Device Initiated SATA Power Management
piqued our interest. However, unlike Hitachi’s drives, the P120 requires the
cooperation of a drive controller that supports SATA Link Power Management to
take advantage of its power saving features. Furthermore, the reduction in power
consumption comes from disabling parts of the logic board, not from unloading
the read/write heads or reducing the spindle speed. For this reason, the reduction
in power can be expected to about half a watt â much less than Hitachi’s
four watt improvement. A
discussion of SATA Link Power Management may be found on Intel’s web site.
Like most other modern drives, the P120 supports Automatic Acoustic Management
(AAM). Samsung has also trademarked a feature called “SilentSeek”
whose implementation sounds very similar to AAM, but Samsung claims that, unlike
AAM, there is “virtually no degradation in performance”. It is not
clear whether SilentSeek is implemented in addition to or instead of AAM, as
the only place where the feature is described in detail is Samsung’s
Australian web site, where AAM is not listed as a feature at all.
Another trademarked feature relating to noise is something called NoiseGuard.
The marketing material on NoiseGuard seems to imply that it’s not a single feature
but rather a collective name for several noise-reducing elements of the P120’s
design: “Modification of the spindle motor’s design”, optimized air
flow, and the use of damping material to reduce vibration.
The choice of motor in the Spinpoint series has been a slight issue in the
past because the noise signature of the drive varies depending on the brand
of motor used. Drives with a JVC motor have a reputation for having a high pitched
whine that is not present in drives with a Nidec motor. Our own tests with the
JVC motor version did not show a large difference between the two motors, but
poll suggests that the quality of the JVC motor varies. Only time will tell
whether the same issue will arise with the P120, but so far I have been unable
to find any reports of P120s with JVC motors. Our sample shipped with a Nidec
Our sample shipped with a Nidec branded motor.
Although we are not set up to do performance testing on hard drives, we know
that areal density is one of the most important factors in determining drive
speed. With this in mind, the 250 GB version of the P120 should be quite fast,
while our 200 GB test sample should be roughly on par with most other drives
in the field. This theoretical disparity between the two different capacities
was confirmed by anecdotal
evidence on our forums and on other sites. NCQ may also have a small impact
Our samples were tested according to our standard
hard drive testing methodology. Our methodology focuses specifically on
noise, and great effort is taken to ensure it is comprehensively measured and
described. Performance is not tested, for reasons discussed in detail in the
methodology article. For comprehensive HDD performance testing results, we recommend
who have established a long reputation as the specialist in this field. Unfortunately,
because the P120 is so new to the market, Storage Review has not yet reviewed
the drive at the time of writing. In fact, the only other review that we know
of is this
performance-focused review by Tom’s Hardware Guide.
Our test drives were compared against our reference drives, the Seagate Barracuda
IV and Samsung Spinpoint P80, that are profiled in our methodology article.
To get a good idea of where the drives in this review stand, it is important
to read the methodology article thoroughly.
Two forms of hard drive noise are measured:
These types of noise impact the subjective perception of hard drive noise differently
depending on how and where the drive is mounted.
Both forms of noise are evaluated objectively and subjectively.
Both the subjective and objective analyses are essential to understanding the
acoustics of the drives. Airborne acoustics are measured using a professional
caliber SLM. Measurements are taken at a distance of one meter above the top
of the drive using an A-weighted filter. Vibration noise is rated on a scale
of 1-10 by comparing against our standard reference drives.
A final caveat: As with most reviews, our comments are relevant to the sample we tested. Your sample may not be identical. There are always some sample variances, and manfacturers also make changes without telling everyone.
Ambient noise at the time of testing was 18 dBA. For the record, room temperature was 22~23Â°C.
SAMSUNG SPINPOINT P120 NOISE EVALUATION
Mfg date – firmware
Vibration at idle
June 05 – firmware VM100-33
Seagate Barracuda IV
ST340016A – firmware 3.10
Samsung Spinpoint P80 (Nidec motor)
June 04 – firmware TK100-24
Samsung Spinpoint P80 (JVC motor)
Feb 05 – firmware TK200-04
n / a
|Similar Capacity Drives|
Western Digital Caviar SE WD2500JD (250GB)
Hitachi Deskstar 7K250 (250GB)
The lineage of the P120 is easily heard the first time it is turned on. The
idle noise is smooth, quiet, and predominantly broadband â shhhhhh â although a
faint mid-range hum can also be heard at close range. In comparison to the P80
(Nidec), there is much less low frequency noise around the 120 Hz resonant frequency.
However, there is slightly more wind noise, which can probably be attributed
to the greater number of platters in our P120 sample. The P120 also exhibits
less high frequency noise than any of our reference drives. All of these differences
are minor; I would be hard pressed to distinguish the P120 from either of our
reference drives when they are installed in an actual system.
Seek noise for the P120 is fairly good; in fact, it tied the P80 for the best
measured noise in the 3.5″ form factor. Subjectively, however, the noise
signature is a bit worse than the original P80. Instead of the muted rumble of the
original Spinpoint, seeks are closer in quality to the Barracuda IV without
AAM: sharp and clicky. Enabling AAM does nothing for the harshness of the noise,
although the speed of the seeks seems slightly less. The bulk of the improvement
from AAM seems to come in the form of reduced vibration. In free air, I could
barely tell when AAM was enabled, but the difference is immediately apparent
when the drive was on the vibration box.
The vibration level of the P120 is much more reasonable than the previous Spinpoint
(Nidec), approaching but not quite matching the level of the Barracuda IV. Its
rating of 5 is about average for a 3.5″ drive, so it could certainly benefit
from suspension, especially if more than one is installed.
Against the 250GB competition from Western Digital and Hitachi, it has a small
but audible lead that’s reflected in the measured SPL. Our sample WD2500JD has
lower vibration and actually has softer sounding seeks when AAM is enabled,
although they measured identically. However, its idle noise is slightly louder
and sounds undamped in comparison to the P120; it’s noise signature is much
“dirtier” in the midrange and high frequencies than the P120, which is almost
free of mechanical noise. Still, Western Digital may be Samsung’s closest competitor.
The Deskstar 7K250 is also quite good when listened to on its own, but a direct
comparison reveals the P120’s obvious advantage. The
main difference is in the amount of noise; both are fairly smooth in character,
but the Deskstar is louder. The Deskstar is also higher vibration than the P120.
Seek noise between the two is comparable, with the Deskstar being louder but
a bit easier to listen to.
Power consumption of the P120 was about a watt higher than the P80 across the board. This
increase comes from two sources: The higher number of platters (two instead
of one), and the SATA interface. The increase from the additional platter is
obvious: Simple physics dictates that spinning a higher mass requires more energy.
The increase from the SATA interface is something we’ve seen in practical testing.
It is also sometimes reflected in the spec. sheets for hard drives in the same
line. Note that our measured power draw does not reflect how the drive would
perform when used with a more recent disk controller that supports SATA Link
An MP3 recording of the Spinpoint P120 was made containing ten
seconds of idle noise followed by ten seconds of seek noise with AAM enabled
and ten more with AAM disabled. Keep in mind that the audio recordings paint
only part of the acoustic picture; vibration noise is not recorded, and drives
often sound different depending on the angle from which they are heard. The fidelity of your sound playback system will definitely affect what you hear.
Similar Capacity Drives:
HOW TO LISTEN & COMPARE
These recordings were made
The fidelity of your sound playback system will definitely affect what you hear.
The Spinpoint P120 continues the legacy of the P80 by increasing
the maximum capacity of Samsung’s offering while keeping the noise
level unchanged: The best in the industry. Although
the lack of a single platter model is a little disappointing, it is understandable
that Samsung doesn’t want to confuse the marketplace by offering a P120 at 100 or 125 GB capacity when the P80 series already offers 80 and 120 GB models. The lack of readily available stock in the 250
GB model is also a little disconcerting, but it is our experience that Samsung HDDs are a bit slower to reach all the retail markets. The simple fact is that retail is just a small fraction of any HDD maker’s OEM market and is thus often the last served.
The updated features supported by the native SATA interface and
the increase in areal density are welcome benefits,
but it is good that the PATA interface hasn’t been abandoned just yet; there
are still plenty of systems out there that will run perfectly fine with PATA,
and its lower price makes it an excellent buy.
About the only criticism that could be made from an acoustic point
of view is that the subjective quality of the seeks has worsened slightly and become
more noticeable, but this is really just picking nits. Inside a case, the sharpness
of the seeks will be dulled and they are not loud enough to be seriously disruptive.
All in all, the P120 should help Samsung maintain its reputation
as the manufacturer of the quietest desktop drives on the market.
Many thanks to Samsung
Canada for the Spinpoint P120 sample.
* * *
POSTSCRIPT, Jan 30, 2006: SP2504C
A product of this importance for silent computing sometimes deserves a second look. Recently, we
got our hands on a sample of the larger 250 GB model, and we threw
it on the test bench to see if there was any difference between the two.
SP2504C looks just about identical to SP2004C
Ambient conditions for the second round of testing were 18 dBA and 22Â°C.
SAMSUNG SPINPOINT P120 NOISE EVALUATION
Mfg date – firmware
Vibration at idle
Septemeber 05 – firmware VT100-33
June 05 – firmware VM100-33
The objective measurements for the two drives were identical, and this pretty
much tells the whole story. The 250 GB sample exhibited the same strengths and
weaknesses as the original 200 GB sample: A smooth, quiet idle, and seeks that
are louder than the original P80 series but still fairly good overall. The level
of vibration was similar, and AAM was equally as ineffective for reducing seek
noise. Even power consumption remained the same, with the exception of AAM seeks,
which consumed about half a watt more.
Of course, there were minor subjective differences, but these can
be attributed to sample variance and the change in firmware, not the difference
in capacity. The main difference was the quality of the seeks, which were sharper
with less rumble than the first sample.
Predictably, our impression of the P120 series has not changed: It’s
still our top pick for a desktop drive with more capacity than the earlier Samsung P80s can deliver.
* * *