Benchmarks: Western Digital Scorpio Black

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With concerns for battery life and operating temperature, manufacturers often saddle laptops with hard drives than don’t run as fast or as hot as their desktop brethren. But with a 7,200 rotational speed usually found in a desktop drive, a 16MB cache, and capacities up to 320GB, Western Digital’s Scorpio Black internal laptop hard drive promises speed comparable to that of a desktop mechanism. Quiet, efficient, and only marginally hotter than your standard laptop hard drive, the Scorpio Black is an attractive drive for any high-performance seeking user.

But first, the bad news. If you install the Scorpio Black into your Mac laptop, your warranty will be void. It’s not an easy installation and requires at least two types of screwdrivers and at least five minutes of your time. I also advise a clean workspace so you don’t lose track of all the tiny screws. If you’ve installed a laptop or desktop hard drive before, you should not have difficulty installing the Scorpio Black. However, if even a relatively simple task like installing RAM seems intimidating, you may want to find a professional to install the hard drive for you.

Test results

To test the Scorpio Black, we tested it in a 2.4GHz MacBook Pro with 2GB of RAM; we also tested the MacBook Pro with its stock 160GB, 5,400 RPM (rotations per minute) Fujitsu MHW2160BHPL hard drive. As a point of comparison, we also ran the same tests on a 2.4GHz iMac with 2GB of RAM, and a 250GB, 7,200 RPM Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 drive with an 8MB cache.

Based on our test results, the Scorpio Black’s performance falls between a desktop drive and a stock laptop drive, though surprisingly it did challenge the desktop drive in key areas. To the Scorpio Black’s credit, the folder compression test results were within 6 seconds of the iMac’s results and even bested the iMac consistently in our file duplication tests. The Scorpio Black-equipped MacBook Pro was 9 seconds slower than the iMac in our Photoshop test, but it was 12 seconds faster than the MacBook Pro with its stock 5,400 RPM drive.

The usual baggage that comes with a faster laptop hard drive—increased noise and heat—is surprisingly minimized with the Scorpio Black, which uses Western Digital’s WhisperDrive acoustics. In our tests, the Scorpio Black drive was pleasantly quiet; it certainly didn’t sound any louder than the stock MacBook Pro hard drive during our tests.

Timed trials

Computer File Duplication Folder Compression Adobe Photoshop
15-inch Macbook Pro 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
with 320GB Western Digital Scorpio Black hard drive
0:40 2:16 0:21
15-inch MacBook Pro 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
with stock 160GB hard drive
1:23 2:26 0:33
20-inch iMac 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
with stock 300GB
0:43 2:10 0:12

Best results in red. Reference systems in italics.

How we tested: We ran all tests with Mac OS X 10.5.4 installed and 2GB of RAM. We duplicated a 1GB file on the internal drive to test both read and write speeds. We then compressed the files. We also used the drive as a scratch disk when running our low-memory Adobe Photoshop CS3 Suite test. This test is a set of four tasks performed on a 150MB file, with Photoshop’s memory set to 25 percent.—Macworld Lab testing by Chris Holt

According to Western Digital, the Scorpio Black offers 5,400 RPM-equivalent power consumption in a 7,200 RPM drive. The drive also has SecurePark, which parks the recording heads during low power idle mode, thereby reducing head wear and improving shock tolerance.

While sound and power comsumption are obvious concerns, a laptop hard drive is in many ways limited because of heat output. Overheating can negatively affect a drive’s performance, damage other internal components, and often cause the laptop to be uncomfortable to hold. Drives with a 7,200 rotational speeds are usually used in desktop Macs. But in our tests, the heat differences between the Scorpio Black and other drives were minimal. We used Marcel Breslink’s Temperature Monitor (free), as well as an IR thermometer to check the temperature differences in different spots while performing a variety of tasks. The Scorpio Black ran a bit hotter than the MacBook Pro’s stock drive during periods of low use, around 30 degrees Celsius for the Scorpio Black versus 29 degrees Celsius for the stock drive. However, during our heavy workload test, the two drives registered about the same temperature. We ripped a DVD to the hard drive using HandBrake and looped a QuickTime movie, and both the MacBook Pro with its stock drive and the MacBook Pro with the Scorpio Black recorded temperatures around 35 degrees Celsius. Both the stock MacBook Pro drive and the Scorpio Black heated the bottom of the laptop to over 49 degrees Celsius after continual use, a temperature that most users will find uncomfortable to hold.

While the Scorpio Black doesn't quite perform like a desktop drive, it’s still a major improvement over the stock MacBook Pro drive. Apple offers several build-to-order hard drives for the MacBook Pro, but you’d either have to go for a slower hard drive with nearly as much capacity as the Scorpio Black, or a comparably fast hard drive with a smaller capacity-the Scorpio Black has both in a nice package. If you can get over voiding your warranty and a time-consuming installation, this could be the kick your laptop needs.

EDITOR’S NOTE: 8/26/2008 - Corrected the hard drive sizes on reference machines.

[Chris Holt is a Macworld assistant editor.]

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