The magnetic surface of each platter is divided into small sub-micrometer-sized magnetic regions, each of which is used to represent a single binary unit of information. A typical magnetic region on a hard disk platter (as of 2006) is about 200–250 nanometers wide (in the radial direction of the platter) and extends about 25–30 nanometers in the down-track direction (the circumferential direction on the platter), corresponding to about 100 billion bits (100 gigabits) per square inch of disk area. The material of the main magnetic medium layer is usually a cobalt-based alloy. In today's hard drives each of these magnetic regions is composed of a few hundred magnetic grains, which are the base material that gets magnetized. However, future hard drives may use different systems to create the magnetic regions. As a whole, each magnetic region will have a magnetization.
One reason magnetic grains are used as opposed to a continuous magnetic medium is that they reduce the space needed for a magnetic region. In continuous magnetic materials, formations called Neel spikes tend to appear. These are spikes of opposite magnetization, and form for the same reason that bar magnets will tend to align themselves in opposite directions. These cause problems because the spikes cancel each other's magnetic field out, so that at region boundaries, the transition from one magnetization to the other will happen over the length of the Neel spikes. This is called the transition width.
Grains help solve this problem because each grain is in theory a single magnetic domain (though not always in practice). This means that the magnetic domains cannot grow or shrink to form spikes, and therefore the transition width will be on the order of the diameter of the grains. Thus, much of the development in hard drives has been in reduction ofgrain size.