A hard drive's main--and incidentally most expensive--components are the platters, or disks, where information is stored, and the heads, which read the data from the platters.
Western Digital's new WD Caviar 5400 RPM will come in three capacities: 30GB, 40GB and 60GB. The 30GB version will come with one platter and two heads; the 40GB will come with two platters and three heads; and the 60GB will come with two platters and four heads.
Until now, the most capacity on any platter was 20GB.
Irvine, Calif.-based Western Digital, one of the top five hard-drive makers, said the 30GB version will sell at retail for $119 and the 60GB one for $249.
"By putting more capacity on a single platter, a manufacturer uses fewer parts, which means a lower cost," said Jim Porter, president of Disk/Trend, a market researcher that follows the data storage industry.
Cost savings may not appear obvious at first to consumers because about 75 percent of hard drives are sold to PC manufacturers. In that instance, savings will eventually come through on a computer's price tag. The remaining 25 percent of hard drives are sold directly to consumers who already own PCs and want to upgrade their systems.
Only about 5 percent of the market will want this maximum capacity initially, Porter said, but the Caviar 5400 RPM will still help drive down the cost of other, lower-capacity hard drives.
This is good news for consumers looking for new ways to store photos, music and new applications. That's because files created by digital cameras and MP3 players can eat up to a couple of megabytes of storage depending on the quality that the file is recorded in. This means hard drives fill up quickly unless capacity is increased.
"Each photo or music file takes up about a meg, and people generally don't throw them away, so their drives are filling up fast," Porter said.
Despite the initial hoopla, however, Western Digital's 30GB platter could end up being what Porter called a "half step" in the hard-drive business. Capacities have increased 100 percent each year for the last couple of years, and the most recent increase for the industry was last year to 20GB. Porter expects 40GB platters from Western Digital's competitors, such as Seagate Technology, Maxtor and Quantum, this spring.
The question now is whether competitors will suddenly decide to produce hard drives with 30GB platters and diffuse Western Digital's current competitive advantage or will wait a few months and trump Western Digital with 40GB platters.
"Western Digital is basically in a comeback mode after falling behind its competitors," Porter said. "All its competitors know that they will be at 40GB later in the year."