Jul 252011
Here Come 4k Advanced Format HDDs

Looks like the 4k sector drives are really starting to hit mainstream. This year marks the first time I’ve received a new laptop that came with a 4k Advanced Format hard drive. The laptop was from Dell and we get in new Dell laptops all the time. The funny thing is that until I tried installing Windows XP on it (came with Windows 7), I would have never even known it was a 4k sector drive. It’s one thing for an industry to move to a new technology or practice but without digging around there is virtually no media or even clear labeling about this change for HDDs. For the most part it should be a non-event for your typical user. If you buy a new computer with such a drive you shouldn’t notice any difference. Though there are a few caveats I think people should keep in mind, hence the “Caution” in the title:

  •  If you use hard drive cloning software it’ll have to support the 4k sectors
  • If you buy a new USB disk that uses 4k sectors, be sure the OS you connect it to supports reading this.
  • If you buy a new computer and think to install an older OS on it, or buy a new HDD for an old computer, thinking to keep the old OS, either don’t get a 4k sector drive or ensure you can get it working –  continue reading…

For the most part you should be able to get everything working with 4k sector drives.  A lot of the drives out now are 4k internally but emulate 512 bytes to the OS to keep with the old standard.  These drives should be labeled or described as 512e drives.  You might see a performance hit when using those so either make sure you get a native 512 sector drive or you explore your options for getting the 4k sector drive working.   Western Digital for example, makes an align utility you can use on their 4k drives that will correctly align the partitions if you use the disk on an OS that doesn’t support the new sector size (like XP).  There seems to also be a jumper option on the WD drives that will get the partition aligned for the non supported OS’s.  From my quick research it seems any Linux kernel from 2.6.31+, Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Mac OSX 10.4+ should all be good reading and writing to the 4k sector drives.  It’ll be your Windows 2000, XP, etc OS’s that you’d have to pay close attention to.

I believe the 512byte sector also hit its size limit at 2TB disks.  So any drive larger than 2TB would have to be a 4k sector drive.  Which means 4k sector drives should hit their storage capacity at 16TB so I guess we’ll be revisiting this topic once manufacturers want to go over 16TB disks.   If you want to learn about why the industry needed to move to 4k sector drives and more details on the low level changes it makes to the disks then one of the best articles I’ve found on it is here: 4K Advanced Format Hard Disks.  Although this change is slipping into the mix very quietly there are clearly situations where you’ll want to know if the drive you are getting uses 4k sectors, take a moment to look into it so you don’t get hit with any unexpected surprises.