Your Ideal PC

Hard Drives: Two Improve Performance

Western Digital's WD Raptor WD740GD.
Western Digital's WD Raptor WD740GD.
The capacity of hard drives continues to increase: You can now hold 400GB of data on a single drive, which is great news for digital media pack rats and video editors. But though you don't have to compromise on the drive's size, you still have a few choices to make when picking a hard disk.

Is RAID the right choice? This has nothing to do with keeping bugs out of your PC. RAID, which stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks, lets you use multiple hard drives to boost disk speed or to keep a mirrored backup of your data in case a drive fails. Either setup requires multiple identical drives, and configuring them calls for a little mental gymnastics. An increasing number of systems on our Top 15 Desktop PCs chart use a configuration called RAID 0, which can significantly increase system speeds for data reading and writing. If you would like to try it, first select a pair of drives that match the storage capacity you want. With 120GB hard drives available for under $90 and with RAID support included on most new motherboards, RAID can be a great value. The storage company AC&NC offers a guide to RAID setups.

Should I go with Serial ATA? If you're building your own PC from scratch, the answer is simple: Yes. Even bargain-priced motherboards now include SATA support, and going with an SATA drive will make your system easier to set up and your drive simpler to move to a future PC when the time comes.

If you're looking to boost the storage capacity of an older PC, the answer gets more complex: To use a SATA drive, you must add a SATA controller card. Many SATA controller cards, such as the Promise FastTrak S150 TX2plus ($60), give you the option of adding RAID support to your system, too. Is it worth it? Well, if you do a great many tasks that involve a lot of disk access (such as video editing), it can be. But otherwise, just add a second parallel ATA drive.

Transferring Your Data: Move Your Data to a New Drive

When you add a new hard drive to an older PC, it's almost always faster than the drive already in use. But simply installing the new drive on your PC will strand your OS on the slower drive, forfeiting some benefits of upgrading. Make sure you use the new, faster, hard drive as your boot drive.

Retail hard-drive upgrade kits usually come with software that you can use to clone your existing drive to the new one, making the faster drive your boot drive. Alternatively, you can use a program like Spearit Software's MoveMe to move data over a network from an older PC to a new one.

But before you do this, pause and consider whether it may be time to start over. Over time Windows fills up with discarded files, drivers, and other crud. Adding a hard drive can be just the excuse you need to reinstall Windows from the system restore CD that came with your PC.

Upgrade Focus: Break the 137GB Barrier

Many people who have added a large hard drive to an older PC report that it mysteriously failed to show its full capacity. That's because, without a technology update, operating systems older than Service Pack 1 of Windows XP are unable to recognize more than 137GB of available space on a hard drive.

If you use an older OS, you can work around this problem in several ways. Visit your hard-drive manufacturer's Web site for instructions. XP users can check Microsoft's advice on what to do after installing SP1.

Our Picks

  • Power PC: Western Digital WD Raptor WD740GD 74GB hard drives (two; $210 each). We installed a pair of these hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration to provide super-speedy storage.
  • Quiet PC: Samsung SpinPoint P SP1614N 160GB hard drive ($105). Silent PC Review picked this as the quietest 3.5-inch hard drive it tested, and we found it to be extremely quiet in use.
  • Value and Media PCs, and Upgrade: Seagate Barracuda ST3200822A 200GB hard drive ($130). This hard drive balances capacity and value, making it a good choice for various uses.

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