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Upgrade Report [Hardware Tips: Get the Right Hard Drive - 05/11/2004]
May 11th, 2004
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Upgrade tips, tricks, and how-to's that will help you get the most
from your existing computer gear.
May 11th, 2004
Hardware Tips: Get the Right Hard Drive
by Contributing Editor Kirk Steers
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
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.
SATA or PATA?
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 Adaptec's $50 SATAConnect 1205SA. For more info,
go to Adaptec's site:
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. 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
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
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
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
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, 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.
Visit Microsoft's site to download Windows XP Service Pack 1a:
Microsoft's site also provides Windows 2000 Service Pack 3:
Read Kirk Steers' regularly published "Hardware Tips" columns:
"You make a living by what you get, you make a life by what you give."
-- Winston Churchill
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