Store Anything: Hard Facts on Hard Drives

My hard disks keep shrinking. I swear, it's true. Two years ago I replaced an ailing 60GB IBM DeskStar 75GXP hard drive with an inconceivably huge 120GB drive from Western Digital. With so much space for files and programs, I figured I'd be throwing out my desktop PC before I'd contemplate another hard drive purchase. Twelve months later, I was buying an even larger drive to make room for my files.

I remember what made that old 60GB hard disk seem small: It was my decision to take all my audio CDs and rip them to MP3 format, a project that consumed more than 20GB of disk space. And the new 120GB drive started looking small the day I began scanning old 35mm slides into digital format.

But my case of disk shrinkage hit overdrive when I started transferring to disk those old videos from our dying 8mm camcorder. Within days, I had accumulated more than 60GB of video files, and I had hardly put a dent into my backlog of camcorder tapes. So I bought a monstrous 250GB external hard drive--a quarter of a terabyte of storage--figuring surely this would hold all my videos and leave room to spare for data backups.

Wrong Again

Now my external drive is getting smaller, too, with less than 80GB free after just six months of use. But I've asked around, and it seems I'm not the only one suffering from this problem. The fact is, any drive you buy may quickly fill to the brim with music, photos, videos, and plain old application files. And free or easy-to-use software like Microsoft MovieMaker doesn't help matters, because those programs invite users of all stripes to cram their drives full of media.

So the question isn't will you need a new hard disk, but when. And there's good news: Hard drives are less expensive, more reliable, and larger than they've ever been. Today's most capacious internal drives can hold 300GB of data--three or four times the capacity you could find back in 2000.

And prices are down, too. Saunter over to Amazon.com, and you can find a 160GB hard disk for about $150 or a giant 250GB Maxtor drive for around $260. That's roughly $1 per gigabyte of storage. Dig around at a deep-discount online retailer, like NewEgg.com or ZipZoomFly.com, and that same 160GB drive could cost less than $120. The largest 300GB internal drives can be purchased for as little as $260.

But which hard disk should you buy? I hate to say it, but the answer depends on many factors. Here's what I would be thinking about if I were in the market for a new drive--and soon, I will be.

Drive for Performance

You'll need to attach your new hard disk to your PC, so let's talk about how you'll do it. New drives are commonly classified by the interface they use for connecting to PCs.

There's a relatively new drive connection available in the latest systems. The Serial-ATA (or SATA) interface replaces the notoriously bulky ATA ribbon cable that is a fixture in virtually all PCs built over the past 20 years. If you're buying a new PC, check to see if it has an SATA drive and interface.

SATA-based drives have the potential to move more data quicker than earlier drives, but in reality they can't push enough data to make the difference noticeable to an average user. If you have a PC equipped with a regular ATA drive, you would need to install an SATA add-in card to use one of the new drives. (Read PC World's "Step-By-Step: Boost Your Hard-Drive Speed With Serial ATA" for details on installing an SATA card and drive.) But unless you consider yourself a power user, you probably don't need to bother with an SATA upgrade.

That's because both ATA and SATA drives can deliver ample performance--if you know what to look for. Make sure the drive you buy has a speed of 7200 rotations per minute. Slower spinning 5400-rpm drives cost slightly less, but you may notice that programs load and respond more slowly. The next drive you buy should use either the SATA or the ATA/133 interface; you may also consider the middle-of-the-road ATA/100 interface, which is adequate for most users. But drives that connect using the older ATA/66 interface can really bog down your system.

For performance-minded users, the size of the drive's memory buffer is a factor when deciding which one to buy. Most drives come with at least 2MB of fast RAM for preloading data, but premium drives like the popular Western Digital Caviar WD2500JB (about $240 to $280) come with 8MB buffers. The larger buffer helps the drive get an early start reading and writing data, which translates into quicker system response for your PC. Most good drives today come with an 8MB buffer. For a comparison of the best drives PC World has seen recently, see "Top 10 Hard Drives."

Whatever you do, look for new hard drives that come with installation kits. These kits include cables, interface cards, and other things you'll need to get your new drive up and running. Drives without kits may save you a few bucks, but you'll need to be sure you have the parts you need before proceeding.

For Power Users

If you really want to amp up performance, consider pairing identical drives into an ATA RAID-0 array. RAID-0 refers to the way a system can spread out disk activity across two drives to help speed up everything from program loads and file transfers to game play. Instead of buying a single 120GB drive, for instance, you could install a pair of 60GB drives in a RAID-0 configuration. Just be aware that your computer needs a RAID-enabled controller to manage the combined drives. In many cases, you'll need to purchase a PCI add-in card such as Promise Technology's FastTrack TX2000 (about $90), to handle the work.

It's worth noting that absolute top-of-the-line performance, such as that demanded in servers and workstations, requires drives that employ the Small Computer Systems Interface, better known as SCSI. This type of interface is fast and flexible--and awfully expensive, so it's not very attractive to home PC users. But if you want the most powerful PC on your block, and you've got the cash, SCSI is worth exploring. A fast 36GB SCSI hard drive from Maxtor sells for $186 at Amazon.com, which translates to more than $5 per gigabyte. Ouch!

Reliability You Can Trust

If you're concerned about reliability--and you should be--make a point to compare the warranty provided by each manufacturer. Also, look for a stated service life figure of at least three to five years of operation.

Finally, consider the rated "mean time between failure" (MTBF) value, but take it with a grain of salt. With published MTBF numbers like 500,000 and even 1.2 million hours, these ratings seem to assure you of decades of useful service. In fact, any drive--no matter what its MTBF rating--can fail at any time. You're better off going with a vendor that's willing to put its money on the line in the form of a lengthy warranty.

Buying a New PC

If you're buying a new PC and don't expect to dabble in video and other media, you can save some money on your purchase by opting for a 60GB ATA drive. That's more than enough room for the Microsoft Windows operating system and any number of applications. For an extra $75 or so, you can have a 120GB SATA drive.

Most desktop PCs have plenty of room for adding extra hard disks, so you can always drop in another drive when space gets tight--as it will if you're interested in ripping CDs and encoding video. Digital media hounds can easily fill up a 120GB drive.

Keep in mind that the drive connection you opt for in a new PC may influence your next hard drive purchase. So you'll want to consider your future needs when deciding on which interface (ATA vs. SATA) to go with.

Bottom Line

If you're in the market for an additional drive but can wait a while, you may end up saving money. Storage prices have been dropping for years, and that trend shows no sign of abating. By the time you need to add storage capacity, a new 300GB drive could cost $50 or $100 less than it does today.

But if you're suffering from hard-disk shrinkage right now, there is a cure. For about $300, you can drop a third of a terabyte of data into your PC, and hopefully postpone further storage decisions for a year or two.

Michael Desmond is a freelance writer and author of "Microsoft Office 2003 in 10 Simple Steps or Less." He has more hard drives (5) than children (3).

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