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The Identify Drive data can tell you many things about your drive, including the following:

  Number of cylinders in the recommended (default) translation mode
  Number of heads in the recommended (default) translation mode
  Number of sectors per track in the recommended (default) translation mode
  Number of cylinders in the current translation mode
  Number of heads in the current translation mode
  Number of sectors per track in the current translation mode
  Manufacturer and model number
  Firmware revision
  Serial number
  Buffer type, indicating sector buffering or caching capabilities

Two other very important commands are the Read Multiple and Write Multiple commands. These commands permit multiple-sector data transfers and, when combined with block-mode Programmed I/O (PIO) capabilities in the system, can result in incredible data-transfer rates many times faster than single-sector PIO transfers.

If you want the ultimate in IDE performance and installation ease, make sure that your motherboard BIOS and IDE adapter supports ATA-2 or EIDE. This support allows your BIOS to execute data transfers to and from the IDE drive several times faster than normal, and also makes installation and configuration easier because the BIOS will be able to detect the drive-parameter information automatically. High-speed PIO and automatic detection of the drive type are included in the latest versions of most PC BIOSs.

There are many other enhanced commands, including room for a given drive manufacturer to implement what are called vendor-unique commands. These commands often are used by a particular vendor for features unique to that vendor. Often, features such as low-level formatting and defect management are controlled by vendor-unique commands. This is why low-level format programs can be so specific to a particular manufacturer's IDE drives and why many manufacturers make their own LLF programs available.

ATA IDE Drive Categories

ATA-IDE drives can be divided into three main categories. These categories separate the drives by function (such as translation capabilities) and design (which can affect features such as low-level formatting):

  Non-Intelligent ATA-IDE drives
  Intelligent ATA-IDE drives
  Intelligent zoned recording ATA-IDE drives

Non-Intelligent IDE

The ATA standard requires that the built-in controller respond exactly as though it were a Western Digital WD1003 controller. This controller responds to a command set of eight commands. Early IDE drives supported these commands and had few, if any, other options. These early drives actually were more like regular ST-506/412 or ESDI controllers bolted directly into the drive than the more intelligent drives that we consider today to be IDE. These drives were not considered to be intelligent IDE drives.

These drives could be low-level formatted in the same manner as any normal ST-506/412 or ESDI drive. They were universally low-level formatted at the factory, with factory-calculated optimum interleave (usually, 1:1) and head- and cylinder-skew factors. Also, factory defects were recorded in a special area on the drive; they no longer were written on a sticker pasted to the exterior. Unfortunately, this arrangement means that if you low-level format these drives in the field, you most likely will alter these settings (especially the skew factors) from what the factory set as optimum, as well as wipe out the factory-written defect table.

Some manufacturers released special low-level format routines that would reformat the drives while preserving these settings, but others did not make such programs available. Because they did not want you to overwrite the defect list or potentially slow the drive, most manufacturers stated that you should never low-level format their IDE drives.

This statement started a myth that the drives could somehow be damaged or rendered inoperable by such a format, which truly is not the case. One rumor was that the servo information could be overwritten, which would mean that you would have to send the drive back to the manufacturer for reservoing. This also is not true; the servo information is protected and cannot be overwritten. The only consequence of an improper low-level format of these drives is the possible alteration of the skew factors and the potential loss of the factory defect maps.

Intelligent IDE

Later IDE drives became known as intelligent IDE drives. These drives support enhanced ATA commands, such as the Identify Drive command, and sector-translation capabilities.

These drives can be configured in two ways: in raw physical mode or in translation mode. To configure the drive in raw physical mode, you simply enter the CMOS drive parameters during setup so that they match the true physical parameters of the drive. For example, if the drive physically has 800 cylinders, 6 heads, and 50 sectors per track, you enter these figures during setup. To configure the drive in translation mode, you simply enter any combination of cylinders, heads, and sectors that adds up to equal or less than the true number of sectors on the drive.

In the example I just used, the drive has a total of 240,000 sectors (800×6×50). All I have to do is figure out another set of parameters that adds up to equal or less than 240,000 sectors. The simplest way to do this is to cut the number of cylinders in half and double the number of heads. Thus, the new drive parameters become 400 cylinders, 12 heads, and 50 sectors per track. This method adds up to 240,000 sectors and enables the drive to work in translation mode.

When these drives are in translation mode, a low-level format cannot alter the interleave and skew factors, nor can it overwrite the factory defect-mapping information. A low-level format program can, however, perform additional defect mapping or sector sparing while in this mode.

If the drive is in true physical mode, a low-level format rewrites the sector headers and modifies the head and cylinder skewing. If performed incorrectly, the format can be repaired by a proper low-level format program that allows you to set the correct head and cylinder skew. This task can be accomplished automatically by the drive manufacturer's recommended low-level format program. To obtain the correct skew values, it is best to contact the drive manufacturer's technical support department. You can calculate the skew values if the manufacturer cannot provide them.

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