September 25, 2020

Western Digital Caught Misrepresenting HDD RPM Speeds, Too

Image credit: Christaan Colen/Flickr Earlier this year, Western Digital got caught lying by omission when...

Image credit: Christaan Colen/Flickr

Earlier this year, Western Digital got caught lying by omission when it came to disclosing that certain drives used shingled magnetic recording (SMR) instead of conventional magnetic recording (CMR). Now, the company has been caught misrepresenting how fast certain hard drives spin — and trying to weasel out of it with reference to a marketing claim that doesn’t mean what it used to.

Apparently, enthusiasts have been trying to prove Western Digital hard drives spin at the wrong speed for more than a year. While WD Red drives are listed as “5400 RPM class” in Western Digital’s literature, the drives actually spin faster than that, at 7200 RPM. This might seem like a non-issue, given that customers directly benefit from having a 7200 RPM drive. But a 5400 RPM drive and a 7200 RPM drive are not automatically fungible: 7200 RPM drives draw more power and dissipate more heat than a 5400 RPM drive. 7200 RPM drives are also noisier than 5400 RPM products.

How do you tell if a drive is spinning at 7200 RPM? You analyze its acoustic signature. Redditor DataHoarder writes:

The direct way to measure rotational speed is via the acoustic frequency profile. If you have a disk spinning at 7200 RPM (7200/minute = 120/second = 120Hz) then resulting vibrations will be at this base frequency or integer multiples (overtones) of it (120Hz, 240Hz, 360Hz, …). For 5400 RPM this would be multiples of 90Hz instead (180Hz, 270Hz, 360Hz, …).

This has been done and the results confirm that these WD Red drives are spinning at 7200 RPM, not 5400 RPM.

This acoustic plot is from a WD80EMAZ-00WJTA0 drive inside a WD Elements 8TB SSD. The caption from Imgur states: “This drive is marketed as 5400 rpm and even reports as such via SMART, but the frequencies here clearly indicate 7200 rpm!”

Ars Technica contacted WD and asked them about these discrepancies. Here’s the company’s response:

For select products, Western Digital has published RPM speed within a “class” or “performance class” for numerous years rather than publishing specific spindle speeds. We also fine-tune select hard drive platforms and the related HDD characteristics to create several different variations of such platforms to meet different market or application needs. By doing so, we are able to leverage our economies of scale and pass along those savings to our customers. As with every Western Digital product, our product details, which include power, acoustics and performance (data transfer rate), are tested to meet the specifications provided on the product’s data sheet and marketing collateral.

This is disingenuous. I remember when WD started introducing “performance class” drives. It wasn’t a way to secretly ship 7200 RPM drives without telling anybody. These drives actually spun a bit below 5400 RPM if I remember correctly, in the name of conserving power. The WD Green may actually have been the drive to introduce this feature/nomenclature, and it wasn’t something WD used to secretly boost performance. If a drive marketed at 5400 RPM actually spins at 7200 RPM, what’s the difference between 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM drives? I’m fairly certain WD isn’t shipping 10K hard drives in 7200 RPM packaging.

Telling customers you’re selling them a 5400 RPM drive when it’s actually a 7200 RPM drive could cause problems if the hardware that drive is intended for can’t dissipate the additional heat or provide enough power. While this may not be a concern for a majority of users, it’s also not the first time we’ve seen dishonest behavior from Western Digital. This is the second time in a year that the company has misrepresented the hardware that it’s shipping to customers. True, in this case, the situation arguably breaks in the customer’s favor — but that doesn’t make it a good idea for companies to play fast and loose with specifications. The phrase “performance class” used to mean something distinctly different than it apparently does now, and Western Digital never bothered to tell anyone it was changing the meaning of the term.

The big difference between this situation and the SMR incident is that in this case, everyone outside the small group of people who might have hardware problems from running a 7200 RPM drive in a 5400 RPM enclosure/chassis is arguably being helped. Regardless, Western Digital’s position in this matter is anything but exemplary. The tradition of breaking the hard drive market up by spindle speed is literally decades old, and Western Digital helps no one when it plays games like this. Just because something isn’t actively harming customers at the moment doesn’t make it a great idea, and being dishonest on package labeling isn’t helping, either. There are more details on the topic at the Reddit thread above, including a specific list of affected models (all 8TB or higher).

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