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Beginners Guide To Internal Hard Drives

Updated on July 15, 2008

Every common PC has at least one internal hard drive, and many of them are full to bursting. The 80 GB or even 160 GB drives which seemed infinite just a year or so ago may now be straining to contain the ever burgeoning flow of data which seems to come at us from every corner, from videos of your nephews to TV shows that we "just have to keep forever!" One of the best value upgrades you can make to your computer is to either add another hard drive or replace your boot drive with a newer, bigger, faster one.

Here are the basics so any computer user can master the lingo:

Capacity: This is by far the most critical component. I remember way back in the day when every Mac enthusiast like me was aghast by the amazing 20 MB hard drives in the new SE. Wow! No more swapping floppies like a pre-War switchboard operator! And how could we ever fill up all that space? These days 250-320 GB hard drives are the norm and many users are now using 500 GB, 750 GB or even one terabyte drives: That's the storage of 50,000 Mac SE 20 MB drives in one box. If you shop around, you'll find that the difference between a 250 GB and a 500 GB drive may be as little as ten dollars. It's very well worth your while to buy the biggest drive you can afford.

Interface: No question here: The competition is over and SATA has won. Don't even look at IDE drives unless you're upgrading a prehistoric computer which doesn't have a SATA connector on the motherboard. SCSI is a great old standard which has kept up with the times, but generally isn't worth the expensive controller card that you need to use it.

Speed: There are two specifications in the speed of a hard drive. The first is the spinning rotation, which is measured in RPM just like the tachometer in your car. You're better off with a 7200 RPM drive than going with a marginally cheaper 5400 RPM one as it will perform a bit faster. You can avoid the 10,000 RPM or even the 15,000 RPM drives as they are primarily designed for professional-level data processes and are not just expensive, but can be very noisy due to their high speed of rotation. The seek speed is measured in milliseconds and generally lower is better. Keep in mind that anything around 10 ms or less is more than good enough for everyday use. Very low seek speeds only really help when you're habitually transferring huge amounts of data and need to access it quickly, such as in video editing applications.

Buffer: The buffer is a small bit of solid state memory like a USB Flash Key built inside your hard drive. The drive uses this memory chunk to store frequently accessed data. Within reason, the more buffer the better, and many drives these days are arriving on the market with 16 MB or more.

Hybrid: That's just a hard drive with a much bigger solid state buffer, up to 64 GB or more! One of the highly vaunted features of Windows Vista was its ability to use hybrid drives to dramatically speed up data access. It turned out that the hybrid drives on the market so far offer very little value for the dollar over a conventional hard drive. It's a technology whose time may come at some point in the near future, but it's not here yet.

Shun the neighborhood nerd who will charge you big money to swap out or add a hard drive. You can do it yourself in just a few minutes.


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