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Monday, July 18, 2005

Hard Drives

Posted: Mon, 18 Jul 2005 01:04:08 GMT


Hard Drives


spinning hard disk Your hard drive, or hard disk, is the major storage and access component of your PC. My first PC, an 8088 IBM clone from Packard Bell, had a whopping 20mb of storage space on its hard drive, and I never succeeded in filling it up. Until recently I had just 2GB available - 2000MB - and was constantaly looking for ways to give myself more room on the cramped little thing. (Got 20 gigs to play with now. Ahhh, breathing room, but if I upgrade to XP, my breathing room vanishes.) The PC you buy may have double or triple (or more) the storage space that I had, but no matter how much you get, you'll end up needing more. If you buy a second hard drive, or a monster to replace the wimpy thing that came with your PC, there are a few things to know. First, unless you're more savvy than I am, you don't want to consider installing it yourself. The techies will tell you that installing a hard drive is much easier than many other procedures you can do inside your PC, and I'm sure they're right, but they're engineering types who love the smell of hot solder and working with itty-bitty tools. They also know what they're doing. Second, buy the absolute biggest hard drive you can afford, from a name-brand purveyor: 3GB (gigabytes) is an absolute minimum. You can get disks with up to 18GB; even the heaviest PC user shouldn't fill that puppy up right away. Dozens of reputable hard drive manufacturers are out there, including Seagate, Maxtor, Quantum, Samsung, MegaDisk, and plenty more that don't come to mind at the moment. Read the ads and the articles in the PC magazines, talk to knowledgeable friends, and find out who makes a good, large disk that you can afford. When you make your purchase, make sure that the cables, mounts, installation software, and manual(s) are included. Don't settle for less than a 3-year warranty. There are two types of hard drives, named for their kind of interface: IDE/ATA and SCSI. SCSI drives are considerably more expensive and harder to set up; they used to be faster, but Enhanced IDE drives and the new UIDE (Ultra DMA) disks have closed the gap. Unless you're running a high-end workstation or a PC with multiple drives, an IDE drive is probably right for you. (Note: Don't worry about whether a drive is Serial ATA or ATA/133, ATA-100, or whatever.) Look for drives that cost less than 5 cents per megabyte - an average 4.3MB drive costs about $200, which divides out to about 4.7 cents per MB. You'll also be confronted with decisions about seek time (the time it takes the drive to hunt down and retrieve a particular piece of data) and rotational speed (how fast the drive spins). Average seek times are dipping below 10 milliseconds, and average rotational speeds are somewhere between 4000 and 5500 rpm, though 7200 rpm is the new standard for higher-end drives. As always, the Web is a great place for information: go hunting at PC Guide's Hard Disk Drives site at or PC Mechanic's site at Don't forget that if you're using SCSI hard drive, you need special drivers on your startup and emergency boot disks.

highlight box "Buffer size" is important. This, in simple terms, is the amount of storage space a hard disk allocates itself to store excess data (trying to anticipate your needs). 8 MB of buffer space is preferable to the standard 2 MB.

highlight box The new Ultra DMA drives are capable of burst transfers at more than 33MB per second, double the rate of a standard IDE drive. Unfortunately, Windows may not be taking full advantage of this speed. (In Windows 98, this feature is disabled by default.) To enable the DMA option, first go to the Control Panel and click the Systems Icon. Choose the Device Manager tab and click on the [+] next to Disk Drives. Select the icon for a drive that is UDMA. Click on the Properties button and then on the Settings tab. Click and check the box labeled DMA, close all dialog boxes, and restart your system.

highlight box Speaking of valuable hard drive real estate, you've probably noticed that large apps and big, bloated files such as .MP3s and graphics suck up a lot of space. Win ME allows you to make Compressed Folders; the entire contents of any folder you choose to compress is shrunken in size. The Compressed Folders tool isn't part of the default installation of WinMe, however. To enable it, launch Control Panel and open the Add/Remove Program applet. Click the Windows Setup tab, scroll down to System Tools, click it, and click the Details button. Click the checkbox next to Compressed Folders. You'll be prompted to reboot. When your PC is back up again, right-clicking the Desktop and selecting New shows the new item. To use it, create a new compressed folder, name it with the .zip extension, and drag in your rarely used files. Once they're compressed, you can delete their larger, full-sized incarnations. Voila. More disk space. Remember, Win ME does NOT support the standard DriveSpace compression...but no one uses DriveSpace any more anyway.

highlight box A few apps require you to label your hard disk(s) with a "volume label." This is no biggie: just open My Computer, right-click on the icon that represents your hard drive, and go into Properties. Under the General tab, type in a label in the space provided. Click OK. You can choose any name to use as the label of your drive, but you should only use letters, digits, and the underscore "_" character. The actual name you choose is not important, but due to a bug in Windows you should not use the name WINDOWS. A simple name like DATA or DRIVE_C is fine, as is something a little more, er, creative. If you have more than one drive, use a different name for each one. Warning: Many virus scanners will interrupt your attempt to label your hard drive with a warning about "virus-like activity" occurring. There is NO virus at work here. Your virus utility may give you the option to continue; if it does, do so. If it stops the procedure altogether, disable the virus scanner and try again.

highlight box If you've got a big hard disk (multiple GB) and your PC won't recognize it, you probably need to update your BIOS. Alternately, you may be able to buy an IDE controller that has the required BIOS extensions on-board. Some hard drives come with special driver software that allows older PCs (and their equally old BIOS) to handle the bigger drives. Win 95 has a known glitch that pops up when a large hard disk has more than 2 GB of free space. The best solution is to cram your hard drive with crap until you get below 2 GB -- or to update to Win 98/ME/XP/whatever.

highlight box Windows users with large hard disks may be running into an extremely annoying problem. Seems that some folks are contending with a glitch in Win 98/ME that randomly blows away their entire operating system, and marks sector after sector of their hard drive as "bad." Turns out this is a known fault that Microsoft has addressed with a patch. It can be downloaded through Windows Update or directly from

highlight box Win ME has a program called Low Disk Notification that appears if your hard disk gets too full. It also has a utility called Disk Cleanup, which can be accessed through My Computer -- right-click the drive in question, choose Properties, and there it is. This utility gets rid of temp files, your browser cache, recently downloaded program files (not downloads you've performed, but Java applets and other programs automatically downloaded as part of your Internet surfing), goodies in the Recycle Bin, even more esoteric items such as temporary PC Health files, Windows uninstall information, and whatever else Windows doesn't think it needs (warning: it does not delete cookies). Disk Cleanup is also accessible from the Start Menu, by going through System Tools.

highlight box Here's some troubleshooting tips cribbed (and slightly cleaned up for grammar and structure) from a LangaList reader who brings 20 years of computer repair experience to the discussion: "Problems: The most common problems originate from corruption of the master boot record, FAT, or directory. Those are soft problems which can usually be taken care of with a combination of tools like Fdisk /mbr to refresh the master boot record followed by a reboot and Norton disk doctor or Spinneret. The most common hardware problems are a bad controller, a bad drive motor, or a bad head mechanism. Can the BIOS see and identify the hard drive correctly? If it can't, then the hard drives onboard controller is bad. Does the drive spin and maintain a constant velocity? If it does, that's good news. The motor is functioning. If the drive surges and dies, the most likely cause is a bad controller (assuming the drive is cool). A gate allowing the current to drive the motor may not be staying open. The drive needs a new controller. Do you hear a lot of head clatter when the machine is turned on and initialized (but before the system attempts to access the hard drive). Head clatter would indicate that the spindle bearings are sloppy or worn badly. Maybe even loose and flopping around inside. There is always the possibility that the controller you are using in the machine has gone south.

"Solutions: If the drive spins, try booting to the A> prompt, run Fdisk and check to see if Fdisk can see a partition on the hard drive. If Fdisk can see the partition, that means that it can access the drive and that the controller electronics are functioning correctly. If there is no head clatter, it may be just a matter of disk corruption which commonly occurs when a surge hits you machine and overwhelms the power supply voltage regulator. It commonly over whelms the system electronics allowing an EM pulse to wipe out the master boot record, file allocations table, and primary directory. Fdisk can fix the master boot record and Norton Disk Doctor can restore the FAT and Directory from the secondaries. If the drive spins but Fdisk can't see it, try the drive in another system and repeat the test to confirm that Fdisk can't read through the drives onboard controller. If it sees it in another system, then your machines hard drive interface is bad. You can try an upgraded or replacement controller card like a Promise or CMD Technologies (there are others) in your machine after disabling the integrated controller in the BIOS, but if the integrated controller went south, it may just be symptomatic of further failures and you'd be wise to replace the motherboard. Trying the drive in another machine also eliminates the variable that your machine's 12 volt power output being bad. If you get head clatter but a constant velocity on the drive motor (no surging), you might try sticking the hard drive in the freezer for about 12 hours. This is an old trick from back in the days of the MFM/ESDI driver era. This can cause the drive components to shrink enough to make the track marker align with the tracks. We don't see that kind of platter spindle wear much anymore, but back in the old days, the balancing and bearings weren't as good. Still, under the right circumstances, it might help. It would depend on how old the drive is and how many hours of wear have occurred. You have to be quick to get your info off the drive when it works. Back then, the drives were much smaller, so there wasn't so much to copy. So, go after the important data first. If the drive doesn't spin, either the onboard controller is bad or the motor is bad (assuming you did try the drive in another machine). It's time to hit the Internet and local independent shops to see if you can locate another drive of the same make and model that's good. Since the drive is probably an older drive and no longer in distribution, your best bet is to find an identical used drive. If you know someone with the same make and model, you might be wise to try and persuade them to sell you their drive with an offer of providing them with a free upgraded drive. If you can locate an identical drive, start with the controller replacement. This is the simplest and least invasive. If swapping the controller doesn't produce the desire result, you can tear into the drive and swap the motors. While you have both drive opened up to accomplish this, scrutinize the platters, heads and armatures. You might even hook the drive up and power it from a system with both drives attached. This way, you could see anything that deviates between the actions of both drives when they are initialized. Swapping patters is unlikely to produce any positive result. They are a balanced system like the tires on your car and I suspect that the balance will be different for each drive as will other variables. And, there's always Ontrack Corp. who will attempt to recoup your info starting at $500 and going up from there. They don't fix and return the drive either."


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