Disk Read / Write Heads
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Disk read/ write heads are mechanisms that read data from or write data to disk drives. The heads have gone through a number of changes over the years.

In a hard drive, the heads ‘fly’ above the disk surface with clearance of as little as 3 nanometers. The “flying height” is constantly decreasing to enable higher areal density. The flying height of the head is controlled by the design of an air-bearing etched onto the disk-facing surface of the slider. The role of the air bearing is to maintain the flying height constant as the head moves over the surface of the disk. If the head hits the disk’s surface, a catastrophic head crash can result.

The heads themselves started out similar to the heads in tape recorders – simple devices made out of a tiny C-shaped piece of highly magnetizable material called ferrite wrapped in a fine wire coil. When writing, the coil is energized, a strong magnetic field forms in the gap of the C, and the recording surface adjacent to the gap is magnetized. When reading, the magnetized material rotates past the heads, the ferrite core concentrates the field, and a current is generated in the coil. The gap where the field is very strong is quite narrow. The gap is roughly equal to the thickness of the magnetic media on the recording surface. The gap determines the minimum size of a recorded area on the disk. Ferrite heads are large, and write fairly large features. They must be flown fairly far from the surface thus requiring stronger fields and larger heads.

Metal in Gap (MIG) heads are ferrite heads with a small piece of metal in the head gap that concentrates the field. This allows smaller features to be read and written. MIG heads were replaced with thin film heads. Thin film heads were electronically similar to ferrite heads and used the same physics. But they were manufactured using photolithographic processes and thin films of material that allowed fine features to be created. Thin film heads were much smaller than MIG heads and therefore allowed smaller recorded features to be used.

The next head improvement was to optimize the thin film head for writing and to create a separate head for reading. The separate read head uses the magneto resistive (MR) effect which changes the resistance of a material in the presence of magnetic field. These MR heads are able to read very small magnetic features reliably, but cannot be used to create the strong field used for writing. The term AMR (A= anisotropic) is used to distinguish it from the later introduced improvement in MR technology called GMR (giant magneto resistance).

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