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Read/Write Head Designs

As disk drive technology has evolved so has the design of the read/write head. The earliest heads were simple iron cores with coil windings (electromagnets). By today’s standards, the original head designs were enormous in physical size and operated at very low recording densities. Over the years, many different head designs have evolved from the first simple ferrite core designs into several types and technologies available today. This section discusses the different types of heads found in PC-type hard disk drives, including the applications and relative strengths and weaknesses of each.

Four types of heads have been used in hard disk drives over the years:

  Thin-film (TF)
  Metal-in-gap (MIG)
  Magneto-resistive (MR)


Ferrite heads, the traditional type of magnetic-head design, evolved from the original IBM Winchester drive. These heads have an iron-oxide core wrapped with electromagnetic coils. A magnetic field is produced by energizing the coils. A field also can be induced by passing a magnetic field near the coils. This process gives the heads full read and write capability. Ferrite heads are larger and heavier than thin-film heads and, therefore, require a larger floating height to prevent contact with the disk.

Many refinements have been made in the original (monolithic) ferrite head design. A type of ferrite head called a composite ferrite head has a smaller ferrite core bonded with glass in a ceramic housing. This design permits a smaller head gap, which allows higher track densities. These heads are less susceptible to stray magnetic fields than are heads in the older monolithic design.

During the 1980s, composite ferrite heads were popular in many low-end drives, such as the popular Seagate ST-225. As density demands grew, the competing MIG and TF head designs were used in place of ferrite heads, which are virtually obsolete today. Ferrite heads cannot write to the higher coercivity media needed for high-density designs and have poor frequency response with higher noise levels. The main advantage of ferrite heads is that they are the cheapest type available.


Metal-in-gap (MIG) heads basically are a specially enhanced version of the composite ferrite design. In MIG heads, a metal substance is sputtered into the recording gap on the trailing edge of the head. This material offers increased resistance to magnetic saturation, allowing higher-density recording. MIG heads also produce a sharper gradient in the magnetic field for a better-defined magnetic pulse. These heads permit the use of higher-coercivity thin-film disks and can operate at lower floating heights.

Two versions of MIG heads are available: single-sided and double-sided. Single-sided MIG heads are designed with a layer of magnetic alloy placed along the trailing edge of the gap. Double-sided MIG designs apply the layer to both sides of the gap. The metal alloy is applied through a vacuum-deposition process called sputtering. This alloy has twice the magnetization capability of raw ferrite and allows writing to the higher-coercivity thin-film media needed at the higher densities. Double-sided MIG heads offer even higher coercivity capability than the single-sided designs do.

Because of these increases in capabilities through improved designs, MIG heads for a time were the most popular head used in all but very high-capacity drives. Due to market pressures that have demanded higher and higher densities, however, MIG heads have been largely displaced in favor of TF heads.

Thin Film

Thin-film (TF) heads are produced in much the same manner as a semiconductor chip—that is, through a photolithographic process. In this manner, many thousands of heads can be created on a single circular wafer. This manufacturing process also results in a very small high-quality product.

TF heads offer an extremely narrow and controlled head gap created by sputtering a hard aluminum material. Because this material completely encloses the gap, this area is very well protected, minimizing the chance of damage from contact with the media. The core is a combination of iron and nickel alloy that is two to four times more powerful magnetically than a ferrite head core.

TF heads produce a sharply defined magnetic pulse that allows extremely high densities to be written. Because they do not have a conventional coil, TF heads are more immune to variations in coil impedance. The small, lightweight heads can float at a much lower height than the ferrite and MIG heads; floating height has been reduced to 2 u-in or less in some designs. Because the reduced height enables a much stronger signal to be picked up and transmitted between the head and platters, the signal-to-noise ratio increases, which improves accuracy. At the high track and linear densities of some drives, a standard ferrite head would not be able to pick out the data signal from the background noise. When TF heads are used, their small size enables more platters to be stacked in a drive.

Until the past few years, TF heads were relatively expensive compared with older technologies, such as ferrite and MIG. Better manufacturing techniques and the need for higher densities, however, have driven the market to TF heads. The widespread use of these heads also has made them cost-competitive, if not cheaper, than MIG heads.

TF heads currently are used in most high-capacity drives, especially in the smaller form factors. They have displaced MIG heads as the most popular head design being used in drives today. The industry is working on ways to improve TF head efficiency, so TF heads are likely to remain popular for some time, especially in mainstream drives.

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