Photograph by: Marc Simon
The stunning capacity of today's hard drives--which doubles every 12 to
18 months--has made it possible, even economical, to turn a PC into a
multimedia machine holding gobs of audio and video files. And drives of 200GB
or more should be out by the time you read this.
Internal hard drives with Serial ATA connections have thin cables that
make more-compact computer designs possible. The technology won't become common
for at least another year, however. (See "Your Next Hard
Drive" for more information.)
Though our tests show that today's hard drives all perform about the
same when running regular business applications, people who work with large
images and digital video greatly benefit from speedy drives. In our tests with
Adobe Photoshop, for example, a system fitted with the fastest drive completed a complex task (applying filters
and rotating an image multiple times) almost 30 percent quicker than did the
same system with the slowest drive installed.
Top 10 Hard
Capacity: Today's PC hard drives have at least 20GB of
space--about four times the amount you'll need for an operating system,
applications, and several years' worth of e-mail messages and documents. The
remaining 15GB can hold about 12,000 good-quality, 3-megapixel digital photos
or 3750 4-minute MP3 songs encoded at 128 kbps. Capacity really matters for
graphic designers and people who edit (or simply archive) video. For example,
the contents of a 1-hour MiniDV camcorder tape consume 13GB.
If you want high capacity, remember that PCs usually have room for two
hard drives. You may save money by purchasing, say, two 80GB drives instead of
a single 160GB unit that sells for a premium.
Rotational speed: Current ATA hard drives spin their
disks at either 5400 or 7200 revolutions per minute. Usually, but not always,
the 7200-rpm drives retrieve data faster. For example, in our tests, the 80GB,
Maxtor DiamondMax D540X
copied a 1.2GB file 33 percent faster than the 80GB, 7200-rpm
Seagate Barracuda ATA IV.
Sometimes other factors, such as the algorithms drives use to retrieve data,
can affect performance.
Interface: Nearly all desktop PC drives use the parallel
ATA interface, supporting maximum transfer rates of either 100 or 133 megabytes
per second. But hard drives can't sustain transfer rates fast enough to utilize
the extra bandwidth (though they can push out short bursts of data at 100 MBps
or greater). And most motherboards don't support ATA/133, so you'll need an
add-in card to use it. Fortunately, ATA/133 drives also work with ATA/100 and
Buffer: When a system requests data, a hard drive
doesn't simply fetch what is requested; it also loads its buffer memory with
additional information that the processor is likely to ask for next. We've
found that drives with an 8MB buffer tend to perform better on our
disk-intensive Photoshop and file-search tests.