New Hard Drives May Force XP Users to Upgrade to 7

Maximum PC Staff

As a warning, it’s not all that dire, but it is a wake-up call for Windows XP users--newer hardware just might make your XP life a bit less comfortable. In this case, hard drives coming out starting January 2011 will have a new formatting standard that will make them less compatible with XP , and will result in performance slowdowns.

It’s a change that makes sense, and is probably long overdue. The current formatting standard for hard drives is a legacy from floppy disks--formatting in blocks of 512 bytes. This makes for a lot of wasted hard drive space, when error correction and block gaps are tallied in. Given the amount of space that can be wasted on a 1TB drive with 512 byte blocks, it’s time for a change.

The new standard, promulgated by the International Disk Drive Equipment and Materials Association (Idema), which all hard drive makers have committed to adopting, is a 4K block. Besides an eight-fold reduction of the amount of unused space, this standard doubles the amount of error correction per block. Hard drive makers can squeeze out more storage capacity on the same size hardware. Steve Perkins, a technical consultant for Western Digital, estimates the format to be about 7 percent to 11 percent more efficient.

Windows 7 (and Vista), along with Apple’s Tiger, Leopard, and Snow Leopard versions of OS X, and all builds of Linux released after September 2009 are 4K aware--they can handle the new formatting standard, no problem. But XP can’t. It’s stuck, permanently, in the 512 byte block world. Hard drive manufacturers know this, so they have built in emulation for the 512 byte block size. The emulation, however, can result in slower performance. David Burks of Seagate anticipates a 10% drop in performance for XP users.

It’s not a big hit, to be sure, but it is a start. With hardware development on-going, and XP frozen in time, it’s not a matter of if XP will become obsolete, but when. That day, to the possible chagrin of some XP users, may be sooner than they'd like.

Image Credit: Microsoft

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