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Choose a Fast Hard Drive

Though we live in an age of cheap, readily available storage, the sheer number of choices available can make selecting the right drive a tricky proposition. But choosing a fast drive--whether internal or external--can have a massive impact on your PC's performance, as well as on that of your network. Here are some things to consider when selecting a new drive.

Decide Between Internal and External

Seagate FreeAgent XTreme
The roomy Seagate FreeAgent XTreme offers high transfer speeds.
The big advantage to external storage is obvious: You can hide it for safekeeping or take it with you on the road. Most home users choose external storage for backups. With an external drive, though, you'll probably sacrifice speed. External attachment technologies such as USB, FireWire 400/800, and ethernet are slower than the connections for internal storage; only eSATA can match the data-transfer speeds of internal drives. New USB 3.0 drives look like they'll be able to push data at comparable (and possibly even faster) speeds, but right now there aren't that many PCs with built-in USB 3.0 support on the market yet.

If you're faced with a choice and you want maximum compatibility, choose USB. A much better option is a triple- or quad-interface box (USB/FireWire 400/eSATA, or USB/FireWire 400-800/eSATA) that allows you the fastest possible connection under any circumstance.

Use Fast Connections

For internal storage, SATA connections are the best, fastest choice--and these days, SATA is most likely the primary (or only) drive connector in your PC. Drives with the older PATA connector are still available in up to 750GB capacities, so you can replace the PATA drive in an older system. If your older system has a SATA bus, however, use it instead.

SATA drives also have the unique ability to work externally, in eSATA enclosures. eSATA is far speedier than USB or FireWire, though your PC may require an add-on card to support this type of connector.

Examine Drive Specs

Outside of a laptop or netbook, it's rare these days to find a drive that runs at less than 7200 rpm; you shouldn't even consider anything slower for a desktop PC. Windows performance will improve noticeably as the speed of the hard drive increases.

You'll find 10,000-rpm and 15,000-rpm hard drives, but they carry a premium, and you might not notice much of a performance gain. Unless you have an eSATA connection, don't bother with such drives for external use--slower buses would merely throttle the drive's speed, negating any potential for extra performance.

The amount of cache on a drive affects performance, as well, but not usually significantly. You'll also see some ecofriendly drives with as much as 32MB of cache, and high-performance drives with only 8MB. Be sure to get 8MB or more; beyond that, however, don't worry about it.

Consider an SSD

Solid-state drives are all the rage these days, but the NAND flash memory used in the majority of SSDs varies wildly in speed. Most serve up data quickly, but some will bog down when writing data. Still, newer SSDs scream past disk-based rivals in performance tests, and faster models are rapidly becoming affordable.

When speed is paramount, study the fine print and opt for an SSD based on SLC (Single Level Cell) technology over an MLC (Multi Level Cell) model. Not only is SLC faster, but it should also last longer: SLC is rated for 100,000 writes as opposed to 10,000 for MLC. That said, 10,000 is actually a lot of writes for a data cell, so don't forgo MLC if you don't need ultrahigh speed or if you mostly want a laptop drive that can withstand a shock.

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