Hardware Tips: Get the Hard Drive That's Right for You and Your PC

I bought my first hard drive--which held an astronomical 20MB of data--back in the early 1980s for more than $400. The 200GB hard drive I purchased last month cost $200. That's 10,000 times the storage for half the price. Wow. But there is a whole lot more than size to consider when shopping for today's hard drives.

Inside or Outside?

The first question to ask when buying a hard drive is: Do I need Windows to boot from the drive? If you don't, consider buying an external hard drive that connects to your PC via FireWire or USB 2.0. Compared with internal drives, they're far easier to install (they just plug into a port in your PC's case). They're also easy to move to another PC, and they keep excessive heat out of your system's innards.

But external drives cost up to twice as much as their internal counterparts. They move data much more slowly than internal ATA drives, too. If you frequently move massive amounts of data between your applications and your hard disk, you probably want to use an internal drive.

An internal model requires space. Before you shop for a new drive, check for a free drive bay inside your PC. Carelessly jamming the drive into your case may restrict airflow and cause overheating.


A quick glance at any computer store's hard-drive shelf reveals another issue: Do you want a drive using the new Serial ATA interface, or a model using the time-honored Parallel ATA, or EIDE, interface? SATA drives offer faster data transfer speeds and vastly easier installation, among other advantages. They're the obvious choice. Right? Not necessarily.

First, you'll pay a 20 to 40 percent premium for a SATA drive. Next, your system's motherboard has to have SATA connectors. If your PC is more than two years old, it most likely doesn't. (Note that most new PCs and motherboards come with both SATA and PATA connectors.) If your system doesn't have SATA connectors, you can add them via a PCI host adapter card such as the $50 SATAConnect 1205SA from Adaptec.

The SATA interface bumps up your drive's maximum data transfer speed to 150 megabits per second from current PATA limits of 100 mbps or 133 mbps, but this won't affect the performance of most PCs. The majority of hard drives have a maximum sustained data transfer rate closer to 80 mbps. Unless you're constantly moving huge files, that slower transfer rate should be more than fast enough for your needs.

On the plus side, SATA installation is a breeze; the 8-wire SATA cables are far narrower than the thick 40- or 80-wire PATA cables that clog the most current PCs' interiors (see FIGURE 1

FIGURE 1: SATA cables help ventilation and are easier to install than PATA cables.
). And because each SATA drive connects exclusively to one SATA connector, you needn't set jumpers to master/slave or struggle with many other PATA configuration hassles.

Scoping the Specs

Like any other PC product, hard drives have various specifications with which you must become familiar. The first number you'll encounter when shopping is the drive's rotation speed. Hard drives rotate at either 5400, 7200, or 10,000 revolutions per minute. Most mainstream hard drives spin at 7200 rpm, but you can save a few dollars (if you don't mind a small drop in data transfer rates) by selecting a 5400-rpm drive.

Like your CPU, your hard drive uses buffer, or cache, memory to speed up data retrieval. Most drives come with either 2MB or 8MB of cache memory. The lower amount should be fine for handling standard PC applications; but if you work with huge spreadsheets or massive image or video files, you'll like the performance increase from 8MB of hard-disk cache.

You'll also see a listing of the drive's access time, which measures how fast the drive locates a given file stored on it. Faster is better, of course, especially if you frequently move many small files--and I mean dozens or hundreds of files at a time. For most PC users, though, a faster access time doesn't have much effect on a system's overall performance.

Another fairly significant variable is the drive's data transfer rate. But comparing the vendor-supplied data transfer rates of different hard drives can be tricky because there are several methods of calculation. Stick to cache size and rotation speed as guides to a disk's performance.

Big Problems

If you try to add an ATA hard drive with a capacity greater than 137GB to a PC that's more than three years old, you may run into some configuration difficulties. Older hardware and operating systems don't recognize more than 137GB. If you've installed such a model and can't get Windows to access the entire capacity, you may need to upgrade your drive controller, your BIOS, your operating system, or possibly all three.

To check your BIOS version, watch for the version number that shows on your monitor as your PC boots. If the number doesn't display, download Belarc Advisor 6.1, which will provide you with this information and many other details about your system. Next, check your PC or motherboard documentation, or the PC/board manufacturer's Web site, to see if your BIOS version supports big hard drives. If it doesn't, look for a BIOS upgrade that adds such support. Don't consult with the BIOS manufacturer's site; PC vendors often customize the BIOS they license, creating a version specific for their models, but not for competitors' systems.

If no upgrade is available for your BIOS, you can avoid the entire BIOS problem by adding an ATA-6 host controller card to an expansion slot of your PC. You can buy the Maxtor Accessory PCI Card UDMA 133, for example, for less than $30 online.

You'll also need Windows XP with Service Pack 1 or Windows 2000 with SP3 to access more than 137GB on a single drive, since the original releases of XP (both Home and Professional editions) and 2000 won't support big drives. You can download Windows XP Service Pack 1a or Windows 2000 Service Pack 3.

Space-Saving KVM Switch

Is there a way to control two or more PCs with one keyboard, one mouse, and one monitor? I currently have two complete systems on my desk--meaning two keyboards, two mice, and two monitors--and I'd like to add another keyboard, mouse, and monitor for use with my notebook when it's in its docking station. But there's just no room on my desk.

--Jennifer Smith, Boston

You have a couple of ways to solve your space crunch. The classic solution is to buy a KVM (keyboard-video-mouse) switch, which connects multiple PCs to a single set of mouse, monitor, and keyboard cables. A dial on the box lets you select which PC you want to control. A two-port KVM switch that supports two PCs costs between $25 and $50. In your case, you'll need a four-port switch, which costs at least twice as much. (Two-port switches frequently come with cables, while their four-port counterparts often do not.)

If your PCs are on a standard ethernet network, however, there's a more elegant solution. Kavoom is a software KVM switch that lets you use one PC to remotely control other machines on the same network, without any cables or switch boxes. Just click a button on your screen to effortlessly switch from one system to the next (see FIGURE 2

FIGURE 2: Control two or more PCs with one mouse, keyboard, and monitor.

Another huge advantage of Kavoom is remote control: As long as the PC is on a network, you can control it from anywhere. So if you're using a wireless network, you can stash your extra computers in a closet (assuming you have adequate ventilation) or another room. By contrast, all of the systems that are connected to a hardware KVM switch have to be located within the cables' length of the switch. Kavoom costs $29 for a two-PC license; add $10 for each additional machine.

Fire-Breathing FireWire

Need an additional FireWire port on your notebook or desktop PC? A FireWire hub will expand your single port to two, four, or more. You can find a four-port FireWire hub for less than $50, but you could also be the envy of every B-movie fan in your office by getting Charismac's $75 FireWire Dino (previously called Hubzilla, but the name was changed for obvious legal reasons). The product is a four-port FireWire hub housed in a menacing Godzilla-like monster (see FIGURE 3

FIGURE 3: Terrorize your desktop with Charismac's FireWire Dino four-port hub.

Be advised, however, that the company's Web site presents this disclaimer: "Charismac claims no responsibility for broken personal or business-related property should FireWire Dino go on a rampage." Oh, no! There goes Tokyo!

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