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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | Hard Disk Drives | Hard Disk Interfaces and Configuration | Integrated Drive Electronics / AT Attachment (IDE/ATA) Interface | Unofficial IDE/ATA Standards and Marketing Programs ]

Making Sense of IDE/ATA Standards and Compatibility

I hope that in my effort to reduce all the confusion surrounding real and unofficial IDE/ATA standards, that I have not made you even more confused. :^) There are a lot of buzzwords being tossed around, and the marketing people are hard at work introducing new ones every year. ;^)

Fortunately, the technology itself is pretty easy to use, even if the labels given to it often stink. So one useful way of dealing with all the standards and labels is simply to ignore them! Look past the hype, and focus on what the drive's actual capabilities are. If you want to really understand what a drive can do and what it supports, you should look at its specification sheet and see what features and transfer modes it is designed to use. Ignore labels like "EIDE" or "Ultra ATA/whatever" and find out what modes and functions the drive supports. Getting the real scoop on the drive means you don't need to worry about the pretty stickers slapped all over the box, or whatever the manufacturer is trying to claim.

It's also important to realize that despite all of the various names and flavors, to some extent IDE/ATA is IDE/ATA. Especially since the late 1990s, virtually all IDE/ATA drives and controllers will work together with a minimum of fuss. The folks who create the IDE/ATA standards always ensure backwards compatibility. This means that a drive corresponding to a newer standard will still work on an IDE channel in an older PC. Similarly, older drives will work on newer systems, in most cases. When older and newer hardware are mixed, the newer hardware will just run at whatever the maximum speed is of the older hardware.

For example, suppose you want to use an older hard disk that does not support Ultra DMA, on a newer PC with Ultra DMA support. This will work fine, but the drive won't run at Ultra DMA speed. As a second example, suppose you want to install a new hard drive that runs Ultra DMA/100 on an older PC with a hard disk controller only supporting Ultra DMA/33. This will also work, but the drive's throughput will be limited to 33 MB/s.

Note: There can be issues with using some newer drives on some older systems, if they come enabled to run at higher-speed Ultra DMA modes by default. A utility may be needed to change the default transfer mode of the drive. See here for more details. Similarly, using new drives on older systems may cause problems related to the larger sizes of new drives (which isn't an interface issue).

One issue that many people have when upgrading an older system with a newer hard disk is that the older system may not support the highest transfer rate supported by the drive (as in the second example I just gave). This often causes great consternation and anguish, because the hard disk manufacturers hype interface transfer speeds to the high heavens. In fact, running an Ultra DMA/100 drive on an Ultra DMA/66-capable controller will produce no noticeable difference in performance compared to running it on an "Ultra ATA/100 controller". Even a 33 MB/s "regular" Ultra ATA channel will not result in a huge performance hit. For a full explanation of the reasons why, see this page.

Next: IDE/ATA Transfer Modes and Protocols

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