hard drive history

size matters: especially when you can't get it


Photo: Red Hill.


An uncommon drive, from an all but forgotten drive maker. In amongst the many things the company was better known for, NEC had been making desktop hard drives since very early on. If you are reading these pages in sequence, you will remember NEC's excellent 20MB and 40MB MFM drives.

We sold a handful of the NEC DSE 1700s back in late 1996 after the superb IBM Deskstar 2 went end of life, and another handful of the 2.5GB model when the Seagate Medalist Pro proved troublesome and before we switched to the Quantum Fireball TM. The unusual brand aside, they were hardly memorable. The master-slave strapping was done by a small four-position DIP switch instead of the usual jumper block (which was nice), they were solidly built in traditional NEC style, and and as reassuringly heavy as the old NEC MFM drives had been. Call it prejudice, but we have always liked heavy drives.

Trusting to memory now, the NECs were a little slower than the leading drives of the day, though not disgraced, and came with a shorter warranty — only twelve months rather than the usual three years.

It's not sensible to quote a reliability rating on such a small sample. (Was it a half-dozen drives? A dozen, perhaps?) Still, they seemed to be in the ballpark. If memory serves we returned just one of them for warranty replacement, and would have returned one more if it had had the usual three year cover. By current standards that would be a little alarming. By the standards of 1996 it was fair to reasonable. For all the complaints you will read around the traps, drives really are much more reliable than they used to be.

Not long after the 1700A was around, NEC signed an agreement to make IBM designed drives under license instead of their in-house designs, and invested 10 billion Yen in a major expansion of a plant in the Philippines. The new factory came on stream in early 1999 with a capacity of five million drives a year. I have no idea where all these drives went — certainly we didn't see any of them. Just two and a half years later the plant was closed and NEC was out of the hard drive business.

Sometimes I wonder if the demise of NEC as a hard drive maker wasn't so much about lack of quality or even lack of technology as lack of marketing. Certainly here in Australia NEC drives never seemed to be readily available in the way that, say, Conner drives or Seagates were. Australia is a small market and tends to be overlooked in many firms' global distribution strategies; just the same, the only NEC drives we ever bought new were not sourced through a major drive distributor but through more generalised odds-and-ends wholesalers.

Performance0.92Reliabilityno data
Estimated data rate75 Mbit/secSpin rate5200 RPM
Seek time12.5msBuffer128k
Platter capacity850MBEncodingRLL
Form3½" half-heightInterfaceIDE mode 4
DSE 1700A1.7GB4 TF heads*
DSE 2550A2.56GB6 TF heads*