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Serial ATA Explained - What's the big deal?

By: Thomas Simmons | Editorials in Storage | Posted: Jan 15, 2004 5:00 am

- Why is Serial ATA better?


Alright, so we've now established PATA is no longer a viable option. Why is Serial ATA better?


The two biggest factors to consider when building a computer are price and performance. The builder wonders whether or not the device will perform adequately and if the price is within his or her budget. Basically, everybody wants the most they can get for their money; it's the only way we know how to think. When it comes to SATA, there is no question of whether or not it will perform adequately and if there are drives for every price range. If you want to buy into SATA but think prices will be a lot higher than buying a PATA drive, think again. A quick visit to your favorite computer reseller (website or otherwise) will relieve you of your worries. Looking at the prices you will see comparable drives priced nearly, if not identically, for both PATA and SATA. This fair pricing will help bring SATA mainstream quickly.


If you are wondering about performance, a visit to a few hardware review sites will make clear that there is performance to be gained by switching to SATA. There are tons of reviews of SATA drives out there, the best probably being Storage Review reviews, and all will acknowledge SATA as a good choice for upgrading.


Are there any other benefits? Of course! Like every technology creeping up on us, there are numerous benefits to utilizing SATA now and there will be others further down the line. The primary advantage to SATA besides performance is the fact that it keeps good on one principle: keeping things simple.


- Cables and Connectors



(A clear-cut example of the improvements in SATA cables over PATA (albeit rounded) cables)


Cabling for SATA is probably the most outstanding improvement for enthusiasts and the one which stands out to all. Instead of connecting two devices to a single cable with a maximum length of 0.45 meters, you have a single, point-to-point connection with one of your storage devices that can extend up to one meter. You may think of this as inadequate for the number of devices you use, but SATA makes room on the motherboard for numerous more SATA channels than PATA could ever permit. There is also the worry of having too many cables, but, considering the quarter-inch width and few millimeters of thickness of SATA cables, there is nothing to worry about.



(SATA connectors are easier to connect without all those fragile pins!)


With point-to-point cabling, each channel provides dedicated bandwidth to the device connected and takes away the need for jumpers on drives. There's no sharing with slower, out-of-date devices which influences the way the faster, newer drive operates. For a practical example, it is like buying the car of your dreams and being on a road paved only for you. You can go as fast as the car lets you and there are never any station wagons to get in the way. No more stop lights, speed limits, or grandma drivers to keep you from embracing the performance you paid dearly for.


- Small Form Factor Advantages


With a large shift towards small form factor PCs by enthusiasts, the thin, flexible cable is a warm welcome. Airflow interference from PATA cables is no longer a hassle as the new cables take up much less surface area and manufacturers can take advantage of the lengthier cables to place them more effectively within the SFF cases.


Electrical changes such as differential signals reducing interference from electric noise and the addition of 3.3V power ability will help keep power supplies from getting any bigger in SFF cases and give you a little extra headroom for your overclocking satisfaction. Though these design features were not included for SFF PCs as the SATA 1.0 Specification came out a few years ago, they can definitely be taken advantage of by SFF PC builders.


Laptops will likely be the main benefactors of the aforementioned features and they will also likely be best at taking advantage of the standard placement of connectors, data and power, on SATA drives. This should quickly usher in SATA as a defacto-standard in laptops.


- First Party DMA


DMA stands for Direct Memory Access, and, for as long as it's been in use, PATA has utilized a third party DMA system. Third party DMA forces data transfer to be handled by the System DMA Controller, reducing performance significantly between the device and memory. With SATA, however, first party DMA is the choice for DMA. First party DMA allows a device to bypass the system DMA controller, providing a much faster transfer rate with direct access to the system bus and memory all the while reducing system processor overhead.


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