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Magneto-resistive (MR) heads are the latest technology. Invented and pioneered by IBM, MR heads currently are the superior head design, offering the highest performance available. Most 3 1/2-inch drives with capacities in excess of 1GB currently use MR heads. As areal densities continue to increase, the MR head eventually will become the head of choice for nearly all hard drives, displacing the popular MIG and TF head designs.

MR heads rely on the fact that the resistance of a conductor changes slightly when an external magnetic field is present. Rather than put out a voltage by passing through a magnetic-field flux reversal, as a normal head would, the MR head senses the flux reversal and changes resistance. A small current flows through the heads, and the change in resistance is measured by this sense current. This design enables the output to be three or more times more powerful than a TF head during a read. In effect, MR heads are power-read heads, acting more like sensors than generators.

MR heads are more costly and complex to manufacture than other types of heads because several special features or steps must be added. Among them are

  Additional wires must be run to and from the head to carry the sense current.
  Four to six more masking steps are required.
  Because MR heads are so sensitive, they are very susceptible to stray magnetic fields and must be shielded.

Because the MR principle can only read data and is not used for writing, MR heads really are two heads in one. A standard inductive TF head is used for writing, and an MR head is used for reading. Because two separate heads are built into one assembly, each head can be optimized for its task. Ferrite, MIG, and TF heads are known as single-gap heads because the same gap is used for both reading and writing, whereas the MR head uses a separate gap for each operation.

The problem with single-gap heads is that the gap length is always a compromise between what is best for reading and what is best for writing. The read function needs a thin gap for higher resolution; the write function needs a thicker gap for deeper flux penetration to switch the media. In a dual-gap MR head, the read and write gaps can be optimized for both functions independently. The write (TF) gap writes a wider track than the read (MR) gap does. The read head then is less likely to pick up stray magnetic information from adjacent tracks.

Drives with MR heads require better shielding from stray magnetic fields, which can affect these heads more easily than they do the other head designs. All in all, however, the drawback is minor compared with the advantages that the MR heads offer.

Head Sliders

The term slider is used to describe the body of material that supports the actual drive head itself. The slider is what actually floats or slides over the surface of the disk, carrying the head at the correct distance from the media for reading and writing. Most sliders resemble a catamaran, with two outboard pods that float along the surface of the disk media and a central “rudder” portion that actually carries the head and read/write gap.

The trend toward smaller and smaller form-factor drives has forced a requirement for smaller and smaller sliders as well. The typical mini-Winchester slider design is about .160×.126×.034 inch in size. Most head manufacturers now are shifting to 50 percent smaller nanosliders, which have dimensions of about .08×.063×.017 inch. The nanoslider is being used in both high-capacity and small–form-factor drives. Smaller sliders reduce the mass carried at the end of the head actuator arms, allowing for increased acceleration and deceleration and leading to faster seek times. The smaller sliders also require less area for a landing zone, thus increasing the usable area of the disk platters. Further, the smaller slider contact area reduces the slight wear on the media surface that occurs during normal startup and spindown of the drive platters.

The newer nanoslider designs also have specially modified surface patterns that are designed to maintain the same floating height above the disk surface, whether the slider is above the inner or outer cylinders. Conventional sliders increase or decrease their floating height considerably, according to the velocity of the disk surface traveling below them. Above the outer cylinders, the velocity and floating height are higher. This arrangement is undesirable in newer drives that use zoned recording, in which the same bit density is achieved on all the cylinders. Because the same bit density is maintained throughout the drive, the head floating height should be relatively constant as well for maximum performance. Special textured surface patterns and manufacturing techniques allow the nanosliders to float at a much more consistent height, making them ideal for zoned recording drives.

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