Today's hard drives spin faster than ever, but that speed is useless if the data gets caught in a bottleneck between the drive and the rest of the PC. To prevent slowdowns as hard drive transfer rates climb, Maxtor has unveiled its new Ultra Advanced Technology Attachment/133 standard. The new standard, dubbed "Fast Drives," builds upon the existing Ultra ATA/100, but offers transfer rates at 133MBps. That's a 33 per cent increase, says Simon Broadbent, technical marketing manager at Maxtor. Best of all, the new standard should represent a relatively painless move, as it is completely backward compatible with the existing ATA/66 and ATA/100 standards, he says. You can even use the same cable. Of course you can't make an ATA/66-based drive run faster by plugging it into an ATA/133 interface, he notes. Need for speed The need for a new ATA interface is driven by the constant improvements vendors are making to hard drives, Broadbent says. Vendors are improving the speed at which a drive can gather data and send it to the system in part by increasing the speed at which the drive rotates. Today value-priced hard drives spin at 5,400 rotations per minute, while the fastest mainstream hard drives spin at 7,200 rpm. On the very high-end, more expensive drives spin at up to 10,000 rpm, Broadbent says. But it's unlikely the mainstream will move to the 10,000 rpm model because it's too expensive and can be hard to cool, he says. That doesn't mean hard drives are topping out; instead drive makers continue to improve transfer speeds by tweaking the hard drive platter and equipment that read them, he says. Improved hard drive platter density means you can store more data in smaller space. So while the rotation of the disk remains a steady 7,200 rpm, the amount of data the drive is reading continues to grow. For example, Seagate recently shipped a hard drive with 40GB platters. The current ATA/100 standard has the headroom to accommodate the best mainstream hard drives, but with platter capacities growing fast soon that headroom will run out, he says. Starts with cards Broadbent says he expects the transition to ATA/133 to be smooth, but he acknowledges it won't happen overnight. Initially, vendors and PC owners who want to use it will have to do so through PCI-adapter cards. He expects the first of these cards to appear later this year. Broadbent won't elaborate on when the first ATA/133 hard drives might appear, but it stands to reason that if the PCI-adaptor cards start appearing later this year, the drives shouldn't be far behind, he says. Broad adoption of the standard should begin by early 2002, when the first chip sets using the standard start shipping. A handful of companies have already signed on to use the technology including Via Technologies, Silicon Integrated Systems, Adaptec, Promise Technology, and Silicon Images. Each must license the technology from Maxtor, but the company doesn't charge a fee for the license, Broadbent says. Noticeably absent from the list is Intel, one of the world's largest chip set makers, an absence Broadbent notes carefully. "Intel is not listed at this time," he says. "Intel is currently strongly focused on USB 2... it's just a question of manpower." Placeholder for Serial ATA Intel spokesperson Manny Vara says Intel indeed passed on the opportunity to sponsor the ATA/133 standard, choosing instead to focus its attention elsewhere. However, it's the Serial ATA standard - another hard drive interface - that Intel is working on. "[Serial ATA] is where we figure we'll get the most headroom for the coming years," he says. While trumpeting the need for ATA/133, Maxtor's Broadbent is careful to point out that the company continues to be a major supporter of the same Serial ATA standard Intel is backing. That standard will offer even better throughput speeds than ATA/133, he notes. Unfortunately, the introduction of Serial ATA standard for the PC is delayed until at least 2003 because the necessary chip set pieces won't be in place before that, he says. Maxtor is one of six companies including APT, Dell, IBM, Intel, and Seagate supporting the next-generation interface. Whereas the ATA/133 interface is an evolutionary step; the Serial ATA interface - with transfer rates starting at 150MBps - is a revolutionary one. Serial ATA is the future, but ATA/133 will fill in nicely until it arrives, he says.