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When it comes to hard drives, size is everything

June 12, 1998
Web posted at: 11:00 a.m. EDT

by Stan Miastkowski

(IDG) -- Hard drives are getting so big they're almost scary. Who really needs 8 gigabytes of storage, much less one of those gargantuan 14GB drives that are shipping with Pentium II 350- and 400-MHz PCs these days? If you don't use your PC for more than a few basic applications, anything beyond 2GB is overkill. But then again, lots of people can argue that in terms of hard drive space, more is better. Consider, for example, Windows 98. Microsoft's latest operating system could consume 170MB--more than twice the real estate Windows 95 occupies. Also, if you regularly push your storage capacity to the limit by editing photographs or downloading video clips from the Web, it's worth looking into an upgrade. And you might as well make the upgrade a big one: Why buy a new 4GB hard drive for around $150 when you can get a 6.4GB drive for just $50 more?

We installed and performance-tested 13 EIDE hard drives from Fujitsu, IBM, Maxtor, Quantum, Seagate, and Western Digital, ranging in size from 5.2GB to 12GB and costing from $199 to $399. We also tested the performance of (but didn't install) 4 EIDE models currently available only in brand-new PCs: Quantum's 8.4GB Fireball SE 8.4, Seagate's 9.1GB Medalist Pro 9140, and IBM's huge new 14.4GB Deskstar 14GXP and 16.8GB Deskstar 16GP. We didn't include SCSI drives because for most people, the performance boost SCSI provides isn't worth the hassle and expense. They're more difficult to install than EIDE models, and cost 30 to 50 percent more for the drive and $100 to $200 extra for a separate add-in controller.

Our findings? Although our Best Buys--Seagate's 6.4GB Medalist Pro 6451 and Maxtor's 8.4GB DiamondMax 2160--have a slight edge over the pack, just about any hard drive kit we tested is worth buying. Widely available by mail order or from local discount computer stores, upgrade kits typically contain everything you need for a painless upgrade: installation software (either on a disk or downloadable from a Web site), mounting brackets, and instructions. Anyone with some PC experience should be able to install a kit hard drive--even the behemoths--in 2 to 4 hours.

Beginners should probably stay away from the two Fujitsu drives we evaluated--the MPB3064AT and MPB3052AT. They are sold alongside other kits but lack the manuals and mounting hardware that the others have. Bare-bones drives like these can save you money if you're an old hand at hard drive installation and you're buying in volume. But if you've never installed a drive, do yourself a favor and buy a kit. The Fujitsu drives come with only a sliver of the documentation you get with other kits and don't include drive rails.

The Fireball SE 8.4, Medalist Pro 9140, and the two Deskstar drives should be available in kits by year's end. In the meantime, any of these four drives is worth asking for if you're buying a new PC. Dell, Gateway, and Micron offer them on their new systems. These cutting-edge drives consistently outperformed all the other drives in our file copy, file search, and video capture tests, thanks to some clever new technologies: The two IBM drives, endowed with new Giant MagnetoResistive drive heads, cram data more densely than other models. Quantum's Fireball SE and IBM's Deskstar 14GXP drives spin at 7200 rpm, speeding up the rate at which data can be read off the drive platters. The slowest drives we tested were Western Digital's Caviar AC 36400, a 5400-rpm model that captured fewer than 15 frames per second out of a possible 30 fps in our video test, and Quantum's 4000-rpm Bigfoot TX drives, which were slowest at copying and searching for files.

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The Older PC

Worried that your PC won't be compatible with the latest hard drives? Relax. If your system was manufactured after 1993, you shouldn't encounter any problems. But even if you do, you'll probably find the answer easily in your kit's documentation or on your PC maker's Web site. Still, before tackling any hard drive upgrade, you should check the manufacturer's Web site for the most recent information. Some sites, like Seagate's and Western Digital's, offer outstanding support--better than the companies' phone support, which we found to be merely average.

There is, however, one compatibility issue to keep in mind: If you bought your PC before 1996, it may not take full advantage of your new drive's top speed. All the drives we tested except the Fujitsus use the latest high-speed interface, known variously as UltraDMA, UltraATA, or ATA-4. This interface offers a maximum transfer speed (also known as burst rate) of 33 megabits per second--twice that of ATA-3 drives like the Fujitsus. Only the newest PCs--usually those made in the past year--have ATA-4 support, which requires a motherboard with Intel's LX or TX chip set and BIOS.

To find out if your PC supports ATA-4, check the computer manual or open your BIOS setup program, where the type of hard drive support is usually shown in the peripherals section. If your PC doesn't qualify, it's not a big problem. All ATA-4 drives are backward compatible with older motherboards, but you'll be limited to a maximum transfer rate of 16.7 mbps--half the burst rate of optimal ATA-4 but still plenty for all common applications. The burst rate of a drive isn't critical for most real-world applications; you might notice a difference only if your hard drive were perfectly defragmented and you were reading long documents off it (the less fragmentation, the less the drive head has to search to read a file). If you really want that extra speed, though, you can get a PCI add-in ATA-4 card like Promise Technology's Ultra33 card for $60 to $80.

Upgrade Wisdom

Basic hard drive installation steps are the same whether you're installing a slim 5.2GB model or a 12GB titan. Set the jumpers on the new drive to master, install it in the place occupied by the old drive, adjust your PC's BIOS settings, partition and format the new drive, change the jumper settings on your old drive to slave and connect it to the same ribbon cable as the new one, and copy the complete contents of the old drive to the new one. Now, wasn't that a cinch?

It's easier than it sounds. To install a hard drive successfully, think like a Boy Scout: Be prepared. Follow the steps in the checklist "Things to Do Before and During Your Hard Disk Upgrade," and your installation should have a happy ending.

All hard drive kits use software that simplifies the process of copying your current drive's contents onto your new drive. Forget reinstalling Windows and all your applications. In most cases, reinstalling Windows opens a whole different can of worms. For the fastest, easiest upgrade, just use the software bundled with your new hard drive to copy everything over from the old one. Only a few circumstances warrant a fresh start. PC World columnist Steve Bass wrote about his experience reinstalling everything last February in his column. If you're considering this option, give it a read.

Jumping Through Jumpers

The first step in any hard drive upgrade is to physically remove the old drive and put in the new one (in the same drive bay if possible). Most PCs made since 1995 have two EIDE connectors on the motherboard, called the primary and secondary channels. They may each have a cable with two connectors. Your old drive is most likely attached to the first connector on the primary channel's cable, with its jumpers set to master--the only configuration that allows that hard drive to start your PC. Your goal: Use the same settings for your new drive.

Eventually, after you've formatted and partitioned the new drive, you'll add the old one back to the same ribbon, with its jumpers set to slave. But that comes later. For now, just remember that if any of the connectors or jumper settings for either drive is wrong, your PC may not start.

Fortunately, most drive manufacturers make jumpers easy to figure out. The settings for most of the models we tested are printed right on the drive as well as in the manual (Quantum's settings are only in the manual). The Seagate and Western Digital drives are the most clearly marked; IBM's and Maxtor's take a bit of study. Nearly all the drives came set as masters.

The only drives we installed that deviated from the new-driveŠmaster, old-driveŠslave configuration were Seagate's Medalist Pro 6451 and 8641. Because Seagate's easy-to-use DiscWizard software formats and partitions the drives in Windows 95, it needs to run off your old hard drive. This process adds a step to the installation. To set up a Seagate drive, you must temporarily jumper it as a slave, hook it up to the other connector on the same cable as the old hard drive, and change it later to be the master. Fortunately, the procedure is explained thoroughly in Seagate's manual.

Plugging In

Next, you'll have to hook up your new drive to your PC's power. You can usually find an inch-wide, rectangular plastic connector hanging off the bundle of cables emerging from your PC's power supply. If you can't find a free power connector anywhere, you'll need a Y-adapter. This device, available for a few bucks at most computer stores, splits a single power connector into two.

Mounting your new drive in your PC is the easiest part of the installation, but you must still be extremely careful. Even a bump can damage the drive's delicate internal components. Most PC cases have free drive bays. With the exception of Quantum's aptly named Bigfoot drives (which require a 5.25-inch drive bay), all the drives we installed are 3.5 inches high. If you can't find a place to mount the drive (such as the bay where the old one sat), check your PC's manual.

Nearly all the kits we tested come with mounting brackets to make 3.5-inch drives fit in 5.25-inch drive bays. (The 5.25 inch Bigfoot drives don't need brackets.) One caveat: Some name-brand PCs require proprietary brackets that are available only from the manufacturers. In particular, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM are notorious for this arrangement. Check your system to make sure you don't need these special brackets before you begin. In addition, you'll have to buy your own brackets for the Fujitsu (or any other bare-bones) drives if your system doesn't have any 3.5-inch drive bays open. But regardless of whether you use brackets, you should always use the screws that come with the drives. Screws that are too long can damage a drive.

The Secret Life of BIOS

Once your new hard drive is in place, it's time to adjust your PC's setup program. This program resides in the BIOS chip on your motherboard and sets up all the peripherals when you start a PC. Every PC's BIOS setup program is slightly different. Fortunately, new "smart" BIOSes and installation utilities make some of the complexity associated with BIOS setup a thing of the past.

In pre-Pentium days, people had to manually enter such esoterica as the number of cylinders, heads, and sectors per track (also known as CHS settings) into the setup program. Today, if you can set the program's hard drive detection to Auto, the BIOS will automatically send a "Who are you?" message to everything connected to the EIDE cables. Each device responds with coded information, and all the necessary data is retrieved--without your involvement.

If the hard drive is larger than 8.4GB, though, it may present complications. Occasionally, you may be unable to manually enter into the setup program CHS settings that are big enough to handle the largest drives. Older setup programs in particular have this built-in limitation. If your PC is of an older vintage--especially if it's a 486-based system made before 1994--you're more likely to run into these problems, though it can happen on a newer computer, too.

In these rare cases, you'll have to rely on the setup software that comes with the drive. (With Fujitsu, IBM, and Quantum drives, you must download Ontrack Disk Manager from the vendor's Web site.) This program installs an overlay that does an end run around the limitations of the BIOS setup program to enable your PC to use the full capacity of the drive. But in a weird catch-22, you need to start up the drive before you can install the overlay. The software works around this problem by temporarily "fooling" your PC into thinking the drive is installed (usually by entering bogus values into the setup) so that the overlay can be installed.

The only upgrade kit drive with which we needed to install the overlay was Quantum's 12GB Bigfoot TX, the biggest kit drive we tested. The drive instructions told us the temporary values to enter. Once we did that, the drive worked fine.

If all this business sounds confusing and complicated, don't panic. The documentation that comes with the hard drive kits (again, except the Fujitsus) explains these steps clearly.

Formatting: The Final Frontier

Congratulations. You've made it to formatting and partitioning your new hard drive and copying your files over. Now you're ready to start your PC with that DOS boot floppy you made beforehand. The Seagate drives are the exceptions: You run DiscWizard from Windows 95.

In the past, to partition and format you needed to use FDISK, a DOS program with one of the worst user interfaces in history. (In addition to being difficult to use, FDISK was dangerous, capable of instantly and irreversibly wiping out all the data on a hard drive.) But you don't need to wrestle with FDISK anymore. All the upgrade kits we tested come with software that guides you step-by-step through the formatting process.

The Micro House EZ-Drive DOS application bundled with the Maxtor and Western Digital drives is nearly identical to the Ontrack Disk Manager DOS software available for download when you buy a Fujitsu, IBM, or Quantum drive kit. The easiest of the software packages to use, however, is DiscWizard from Seagate. DiscWizard provides a little extra hand-holding for the technophobe, and even estimates the time each step will take.

The included software formats your hard drive in one of two ways. In the latest version of Windows 95 (also known as OSR2) and Windows 98, you can format the drive into a single FAT32 partition, which means the drive's entire capacity will be on the C: partition. If you have an earlier version of Windows 95 or are using Windows 3.x, you must format the drive using FAT16; your system won't be able to read a drive formatted with FAT32 and will force you to reformat it. (You can check which version of Windows 95 you have by right-clicking on My Computer, and choosing Properties from the menu. If you see the notation 'Microsoft Windows 95 4.00.950 B', you have the latest version.) FAT16 partitions can be no larger than 2GB, so for an 8GB drive, a minimum of four drive letters would be assigned. On the other hand, a FAT16-formatted drive finds information more quickly than a FAT32 drive, though the nuisance of keeping multiple drive letters straight is hardly worth the wee 3 to 4 percent boost in drive performance.

Each formatting program offers both a quick setup option (which automatically sets multiple partitions of equal size) and customizing options for creating partitions of varying sizes. Then the program formats the drive with those partitions.

Now, you're ready to reinstall your old drive, assuming you want to keep it (and there's no reason not to). Although you can do this after installing the new drive, if you reinstall it before you've formatted the new disk, you risk accidentally formatting your original drive and erasing all your data. Ouch! (Fortunately, you have that backup we told you to make, right?)

All the software packages can copy all the data from your original drive onto your new drive. Afterward, simply restart your PC, and you'll be up and running. (With the Seagate drives, because you must first set the new drive as the slave, your last step will be to swap the new and old drives and jumpers to make Seagate's drive the master.)

Crossing the Finish Line

Don't be scared of Godzilla-size drives because they're huge. Drive makers have always struggled to keep up with users' storage demands, which are believed to double each year. But thanks to recent technological innovations such as Giant MagnetoResistive drives and faster revolutions per minute, drive makers are finally getting ahead of users' needs. This year's hard drives are more than four times the size of last year's models, at close to the same price.

If you're overdue for an upgrade, these drives are a colossal bargain. They're easier than ever to install and they should gratify the needs of even the most unrepentant digital pack rat for years to come.

Best Buys: Seagate and Maxtor Take Top Honors

Seagate's $225 6.4GB Medalist Pro 6451 is an outstanding general-purpose drive for novices. It comes with complete installation instructions, a great manual, a protective cover over the circuitry that prevents static damage (removed in the photo), and good Web support. Seagate's user-friendly DiscWizard installation software runs from Windows, so installation involves an additional step.

At $279, the Maxtor 8.4GB DiamondMax 2160 gives you two more gigabytes of space for $54 more than the Seagate. It's an average performer, but the upgrade kit includes an easy-to-read foldout poster that steers you through the installation process. Maxtor's stellar reputation for support is highlighted by its "No Quibble" replacement policy, which guarantees you a new drive in days.

Stan Miastkowski is a PC World contributing editor.


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