Re: how much earlier?
"But then Seagate assimilated Maxtor and the word on the street was their drives got crappy all of a sudden. So I quit buying Seagate. Did that change in the meantime?"
Seagate bought up connor, quantum and maxtor over time. ALL makers have good and bad periods (and particularly good or bad models), but Seagate have been reliably rotten for the last 7-8 years.
If this has changed it's a good thing, but the whole reaction to the Thai floods(*) leaves a bad taste.
(*) Both WD and Segate set about Increasing prices, slashing warranty periods whilst decreasing build quality. It took about 6 years for drive prices to recover to pre-flood levels but five-year consumer drive warranties are a distant memory.