How to boost your hard drive speed

29th Oct 2011 | 09:00

How to boost your hard drive speed

Intel Smart Response vs Windows Ready Boost

Speed up your hard drive: Intel Smart Response

We're living in the 21st century right? Sure, if you look out of the windows there may be no flying cars or orbiting space hotels, and you're definitely not basking in the heat of a fusion reactor generating endless free power.

But, if you wait several minutes, your Windows PC may just manage to provide a desktop that you can check the date with.

Despite it being a new century and there being an abundance of silicon storage, the world is still plagued by slow-spinning mechanical hard drives.

It seems you're not the only person to notice this dichotomy, as Intel with its latest Z68 chipset has introduced a technology that enables you to break free of those mechanical shackles and unleash the lightning speed of solid state storage.

Its Smart Response Technology (SRT) offers a flexible caching system based on SSD flash storage but it's currently limited, artificially so, to just the Z68 chipset.

The truth is that SRT isn't even a new idea or something that's not available through other means. The old Microsoft ReadyBoost technology still exists inside Windows 7 and new hyper-fast USB 3.0 flash drives can still make use of this. While devices such as the IcyDock Xpander hybrid SSD/HDD offers similar caching abilities, turning a lumbering spinning hard drive into a nimble solid state drive.

But the burning question remains: which is best? Which is going to boost your drive speed the most and for how much?

We've decided to find out by pitching Windows ReadyBoost backed up with a seeringly fast USB 3.0 thumb drive, against the new Intel Smart Response Technology, and all of that against third-party caching options. So we can see which, if any, is worth spending your hard earned cash on or perhaps to see if you're simply better off just getting a basic standalone SSD.

The world is going solid state and it's not so much a matter of when, but of how. Look around yourself, everything is using more and more solid state storage.

From every MP3 player to every phone, as long as storage requirements are limited then it's flash or SD storage all of the way. Not that even here things are that 'limited' with USB thumb drives hitting the 64GB level and ever increasing.

For desktop PCs the situation is far more confused. On the one hand you have gorgeous high-speed SSD drives, but with comparatively limited capacities and potentially astronomical price tags. On the other hand you have these enormous capacity spinning-disk HDDs that cost next to nothing.

Getting SMART

SRT

Enter, then, Intel's latest Sandy Bridge Z68 chipset and its Smart Response Technology. This is an extension of the existing Intel Rapid Response Technology that usually handles standard SATA drives and RAID configurations. In fact, SRT is a software extension of the standard RAID controller but let's not sell it short.

What it also is, is an exceptionally well executed hard drive caching scheme. It can make use of any SSD of any size that's attached to the chipset on either the SATA controller or what we think is hoped for: an internal mini-PCI-e slot using the purpose designed Intel 310 40GB mini-PCI-e SSD.

It promises to combine the speed of an SSD with the large capacity of a spinning HDD, which is attractive. For the cash strapped it's an interesting compromise, ideally most people would opt for a dedicated SSD boot drive with a dedicated HDD for storage.

The problem is that currently affordable SSDs simply don't have the capacity to make them truly usable as a boot drive. Models around the 80GB point are tipping well over the £120 price point. SRT promises to offer a solution to that for around £120 that provides the speed of an SSD with the multi-terabyte capacity of a HDD.

SRT's promises come at a price. That price is that currently it's only available on the Z68 Express chipset and even then the board has to come with the potentially optional Rapid Storage Technology, which is Intel code for RAID controller.

More simply put the motherboard has to use a Sandy Bridge 1155 socketed Core processor, you'll also need Windows 7 or Vista, a SATA-based SSD with at least 19GB of free space, plus a HDD without a recovery volume. Got all that?

Zotac

For testing we've got the latest Zotac Z68 ITX Wi-Fi A mini-ITX motherboard, this comes with a built-in mini-PCI-e slot. Foolishly Zotac envisioned this to be used with the Wi-Fi module, but we're commandeering it and popping in an Intel 310 80GB mini-PCI-e SSD.

As long as you start with the SATA controller set to RAID, you'll be able to happily install Windows and use the system as normal. It's then possible to just drop in the SSD cache at any point. It's also possible to remove it at any point, but we'll come back to that in a little while.

The RAID BIOS will recognise and configure the SSD at boot time, this means once activated the cache acceleration works from the moment you power the PC.

To enable the acceleration Intel provides a new section in its Rapid Storage Technology utility called Accelerate. Use this to enable the system; the default settings will be fine. Just check the acceleration is being applied to the correct HDD, if you have more than one installed.

Intel has taken the decision that the cache used is no larger than 64GB. If you do try to use a larger one it'll still work with the remaining capacity partitioned off.

Matter of modes

Intel srt 2

The SRT can function in two modes Enhanced and Maximized. With Enhanced a write-through cache is maintained where data is concurrently written to both the SSD and HDD. This has the advantage of data integrity: if the power goes nothing is lost but writes can be no faster than the HDD can function.

The Maximized setting uses a write-back cache, this caches write data on the SSD and will 'write it back' to the HDD when it has to be cleared from the cache. This can greatly speed up disk writes but there is a danger of losing this data if there's a power cut. A recovery mode is available within the BIOS, this synchronises lost data between the two drives.

So the Maximized mode does add an additional risk, but the payoff is that you can see increased write throughput in the benchmarks.

Once fired up you'll initially notice no change, but before running off to flame inflammatory forum posts comparing Intel to genitalia, this is because the SSD cache is empty. On a Maximized strategy writes will be accelerated from the get-go, but for both modes reads require at least a single read of the data from the HDD for the data to be cached.

This is where Intel's smarts pay dividends. The caching strategy works on a block rather than file basis and Intel prioritises data based on a number of criteria: application, boot, user and low-priority data. The first three should be obvious as they're all blocks accessed on a regular basis. The latter category encompasses sequentially accessed data, such as watching a film, running virus scans or copying files. How Intel detects these will be a key part in maximising the cache performance.

What strikes us as odd is that despite the awesomeness of SRT, it's more than likely going to be utterly wasted on owners of Z68 boards. Any early adopter that can afford to splash out on such a bleeding-edge board, processor and memory, can certainly afford a suitably high-capacity SSD. We'd hope that this technology, much like Hyperthreading and money from the rich, trickles down to those that actually need it.

Doing a notional audit of a base Windows 7 install, that's around 16GB of space and with a few software installations on top. We'd suggest that 20GB isn't an awful amount of SSD cache to be using. Shifting to a 40GB SSD would cover far more bases such as games, with the SRT providing the smart caching for access to the most used blocks.

It's more than possible to pick up a good Intel or other 40GB SSD for around £70. Couple that with a 2TB HDD at around the £50 price point and that's going to compete well with the dedicated 80GB SSD for around the same price but with 25 times the capacity.

Speed up your hard drive: Ready for a boost?

Readyboost

So it's great that anyone capable of upgrading to Intel's latest technological offspring can benefit from this cache, but what about the rest of us?

The first obvious answer that springs to mind is that older Microsoft Windows Vista technology called ReadyBoost, it's still in Windows 7 and with the arrival of USB 3.0 and ultra-fast thumb drives surely it can finally make a difference for the rest of us?

ReadyBoost is much maligned and misunderstood, but largely that's the fault of Microsoft. It did a reasonable job of trying to protect ReadyBoost by enforcing a minimum-performance barrier but did very little to explain or demonstrate what ReadyBoost was doing. While end results were hard to quantify or verify.

It is a disk-caching system, which attempts to augment traditional hard drives with parallel, low-latency access to flash storage. It's also highly flexible under Windows 7, supporting up to eight devices storing a total of 256GB of cached data.

There's also a misnomer that somehow ReadyBoost is locked to or connected to system memory or the pagefile. It's not, it's entirely connected to drive caching. The misnomer comes into play from the fact a 1GB system is going to benefit far more than an 8GB system.

In fact ReadyBoost won't touch the pagefile, as it assumes the ReadyBoost drive could be removed or fail at any point, which would be very bad if it was storing pagefile data.

Under Windows 7 and Vista, ReadyBoost is activated in the same way. Plug in the USB drive and by default the Autoplay window opens asking what action should be taken. You're able to activate ReadyBoost here. Otherwise open My Computer > right-click on the drive > select Properties > ReadyBoost and choose to activate it.

If you're using a flash device larger than 4GB for the love of all that's good, make sure you format it as NTFS or exFAT, otherwise this will limit ReadyBoost to a mere 4GB for FAT32 and only 2GB for FAT16.

Part of the problem with ReadyBoost is it can be hard to tell if it's actually doing anything, which really isn't a good thing for a caching technology. We've come up with a way of monitoring its effectiveness through the standard Windows Performance Monitor, read 'Ready, steady, boost' on page 68 for more details on just how.

Generally ReadyBoost caches all writes to the local filesystem and mirrors the Superfetch system, Windows will then opt for taking from the ReadyBoost file if it thinks that's faster than reading it from the standard drive.

On our clean test system with 2GB or 4GB it seemed reluctant to ever use it. However, switch to our work machine with 4GB and it was often in action loading files on a stressed system, though it showed only minor reductions in boot or application load times.

Driving the point

IcyDock

The options don't just end there. We shouldn't overlook the Seagate Momentus XT drives, these combine a standard 2.5-inch HDD with a 4GB NAND cache. Available in 500GB, 320GB and 250GB capacities, with the most expensive costing around £80 these remain more suited to laptops, as most 3.5-inch devices will match it for raw sequential read/writes.

Having said that the Momentus still retains an advantage for startup and application load times. It's just not enough in our eyes for what Seagate are charging, perhaps if they ever produced a true 3.5-inch desktop version we'd be more excited.

Finally, there's always the crazy mad-scientist option of creating your own hybrid HDD/SSD drive. IcyBox has its own Xpander Hybrid Adaptor, which is exactly that. It provides some type of hybrid RAID, as it requires storage on the HDD equal to half that of the SSD.

While this does work to a degree, in that it increases many disk operations, it doesn't manage it to the excellence of the Intel SRT. But then the Intel solution is, as you'd expect, somewhat more elegantly implemented and costs a banker's bonus.

One area we've not looked at in this feature are laptops, and the news is the mobile HM67 and QM67 chipsets will also be capable of enabling SSD caching. We're inclined to think the technology is less applicable to the mobile market, as out-and-out capacity isn't such an issue.

The technology is muddied further as the caching policy will differ on AC and DC power, which we read as being switched off under DC power. There's no question if you look at the benchmark results that the Intel Smart Response Technology works superbly. Put simply it accelerates the slow parts of Windows that you want to run faster, these are booting, starting applications and loading games. And it does it faster and better than the other solutions we've tried.

Step-by-step: boosting drive speed

Ready, steady, boost?

Unconvinced by ReadyBoost? Track its caching to see what it's up to

1. Watch the watchers

ready step 1

As we've mentioned part of the issue with ReadyBoost is knowing if the damn thing is providing any boost in speed in the first place. It's possible to monitor through the standard Windows Performance Monitor. To run this select Start, type 'perfmon' into the console. In the Windows that opens click 'Performance Monitor' in the top left.

2. Counting beans

ready step 2

By default the Performance Monitor has a CPU usage counter running. Right-click the graph area and select 'Remove All Counters'. Do the same again but select 'Add Counters', and a huge list of available counters will appear. Track down 'ReadyBoost Cache' and add suitable counters, you can [Ctrl]-click multiple ones.

3. It's doing nothing!

ready step 3

At this point ReadyBoost may or may not be doing something but at least you'll be able to tell if it is or not! It's certainly worth giving ReadyBoost a chance to cache files and open and close items. Keep an eye on the skipped reads measure as this indicates the flash drive is being deemed too slow to be worth using.

Getting a Smart Response

Blast the wax out of your drives with some serious acceleration

1. It's a RAID

SRT 1

The vital thing to do with your Z68-based installation, even if you don't have a suitable solid state drive yet, is to make sure you set the SATA controller to RAID within the BIOS and not IDE or the more usual AHCI. If you don't do this it's highly likely you'll need to reinstall Windows from scratch.

2. Smart'en up

SRT 2

The new Smart Response Technology is part of the longer-standing Intel Rapid Storage Technology, which manages the Intel drive controllers and RAID configuration. When a suitable SSD is installed alongside your existing drive, but not actually confi gured as a RAID, a new Accelerate option appears.

3. Too smart to fail

SRT 3

The Smart Response Technology is a fire and forget tech; once you've activated it just works. However, there's a BIOS section that kicks in; when the PC is first fired up press [Ctrl] + [i] to access it. This provides emergency recovery options, plus a way to safely disable and remove the cache disk if you need to.

Benchmarks

It's an impressive, or rather utterly dominating first outing for the Intel Smart Response Technology. There's no question as to its success, the only question remaining is how long will it remain relevant?

With NAND prices effectively halving every 18 months, as capacity doubles, 80GB SSDs will soon fall to the £50 level. At which point your average Joe is probably going to opt for the straight SSD boot-drive solution.

Having said that, if for another £25 you can turbocharge a 2TB HDD with a drop-in 40GB SSD, that's something people will still probably want to do and by then, hopefully, SRT will be more widely available.

We remain disappointed by ReadyBoost, it's such an obvious technology that should offer – especially when combined with USB 3.0 – a similarly efficient boost. Yet even given all the chances to shine it remains stubbornly mediocre at best.

That's especially true in light of the IcyBox Xpander - while it didn't blow us away, it did deliver measurable and tangible real-world results. But all of these are simple distraction until SSDs, and even further down the line, continuous cloud-based storage become the primary storage mediums for everyone.

tech labs

benchmarks

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First published in PC Format Issue 257

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