Hard drive upgrade: what to buy and how to fit it
7th May 2011 | 11:00
All you need to know about upgrading your hard drive
Hard drive upgrade guide
Hard drives - or non-volatile storage devices, to give them their proper name - have long been essential for computing, but you could be forgiven for thinking that the HDD's days are numbered.
If you believe the cloud computing fundamentalists, we'll be living and working in a browser soon, accessing applications on a North American server farm and maybe storing data elsewhere. This style of computing has its advantages, but we're great fans of owning our own applications and controlling our own data.
Given this philosophical position, we're going to need somewhere to store all our data and - despite technology's constant evolution - there's little better than a humble hard disk.
The current market is split roughly in two. On one hand are the traditional mechanical hard disks, with spinning platters and flicking heads. On the other are solid state hard disks. These have forgone magnetism and mechanics in favour of flash memory.
Once the stuff of fantasy, SSDs are now a financial reality if your pockets are a bit deeper than average. The question is, which do you choose?
The answer, as we'll see, isn't quite as straightforward as it might seem. If you're after a silent PC that goes like the clappers then an SSD might seem like the natural choice, but there's more to it than that. Sure, SSDs have come down in price lately, but even so, traditional hard disks still offer a cost per gigabyte that's enough to make an SSD blush.
There are also certain situations in which mechanical hard disks will outperform their more technically advanced brethren. We'll explore these later.
Don't get disheartened, though - there's a smart middle ground that lets you enjoy the inherent benefits of both technologies: why not fit both types of drive into your PC?
It's perfectly feasible to install a small SSD as your main boot drive. This should ensure that your OS and a few key applications boot quickly. Alongside this, you can then install a cheap yet capacious mechanical drive for your games, MP3s and videos. This might seem like an overly complicated procedure, but if you want to create a well balanced system then it may be the perfect compromise.
However you choose to upgrade your machine, the following pages should prove invaluable when you're considering how to store your data.
What's the best form of storage right now, and what will it be in a year?
Storage is currently in a state of flux. Given technology's relentless march, it might seem as though disk manufacturers are always changing this and upgrading that, but some fundamental shifts really are taking place at the moment.
Mechanical hard drives, and to a lesser extent SSDs, are now undergoing significant alterations that are changing the capacity and speed the technologies can offer. The most immediate of these shifts is happening in the hard drive space, and it's another instance of hard drives smashing through a capacity limitation that only serves to highlight the legacy protocols modern computers are built on.
The 2.19TB limit of the 32-bit Master Boot Record (MBR) is compounded by the standard PC BIOS limitation of not being able to boot from a drive that's larger than 2.19TB. Solutions to both limitations already exist, but you'll need a modern machine if you want to use new, larger drives without having to rely on an expansion card.
Windows 7, and indeed Windows Vista, offer support for the replacement for the MBR, namely the GUID Partition Table (GPT). The replacement for the BIOS has been a long time coming, but the Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) has finally made an appearance with the release of Sandy Bridge. It's supported by motherboards that boast P67, H67 and H61 chipsets.
Before Sandy Bridge landed, Western Digital launched its first drives to have broken through this limit. The 2.5TB and 3TB Caviar Green models might not have set the world alight with their relatively slow 5,400rpm spin speeds, but the capacity on offer is a hint at what's coming.
Importantly, when these drives were released, Western Digital included an AHCI daughter card that provided full access to their capacities on machines hobbled by the ageing BIOS.
Now that Sandy Bridge is out there in the wild, we can expect other hard drive manufacturers to follow WD's lead and release models larger than 2TB. With these limits smashed, the focus will return once again to increasing the density of the data packed into a magnetic platter.
The areal density, as it's called, has turned into something of a point of obsession among disk makers. Two technologies are currently in development that will further increase the storage capacity of hard drives - heat assisted magnetic recording (HAMR) and patterned media.
The differences for the SSD market may seem less profound, but we could see both costs and speeds improving within a few months. On the price side of things, the relatively high margins to be had from SSDs are now starting to attract more manufacturers, and we can expect to come across plenty more companies selling drives this year.
SSD transfer speeds are expected to jump yet again as well, spearheaded by the new SF-2000 controller chip from SandForce, with the other brands no doubt following suit. SandForce is a key player in the SSD market, having shipped a million controller chips in 2010. Intel is still a company to watch when it comes to SSDs too.
Hard drive reviews and fitting guide
OCZ 240GB IBIS
It's fashionable among the technologistas to grumble about the quality and performance of solid-state drive controller chipsets. But controllers aren't the only problem with SSD performance; increasingly, storage interfaces are creating a bottleneck.
Enter the OCZ IBIS HSDL 240GB, an ultra-high performance SSD designed to sidestep performance issues related to the SATA I/O interface.
The OCZ IBIS HSDL 240GB does this courtesy of its own unique storage connection. Out goes SATA, in comes OCZ's proprietary High-Speed Data Link or HSDL for short. In simple terms, HSDL is a four-lane PCI Express link. PCI Express 2.0, of course, supports 500MB/s per lane.
Potentially, therefore, HSDL can manage a massive 2GB/s of raw storage bandwidth. This first incantation of HSDL is PCIE 1.1 and thus half that speed, but on paper it's still a fair bit quicker than SATA.
Seagate 1.5TB Barracuda 7200.11
Seagate's 11th generation 1.5TB Barracuda 7200.11 hard disk was the first 1.5TB disk to market, and although it's been around for a while, it's still a very capable and popular drive.
It's easy to see why, with its combination of performance, capacity, price and fairly low power consumption. It's a reflection of just how far storage technology has come in a relatively short space of time that a drive that was state of the art just over a year ago - 7,200RPM spindle speed, Perpendicular Magnetic Recording (PMR) technology, a compact disk density of 375GB, Native Command Queuing (NDQ) - is old hat among the 2.5TB and 3TB monsters available now.
The ST31500341AS uses four platters to get to its 1.5TB capacity, backed by a 7,200rpm spindle speed and a 32MB cache. Despite having been around for a while, the ST31500341AS offers an even better sweet spot for price versus capacity now than when it was launched, especially considering hard drive prices are now as cheap as they've ever been.
Crucial 64GB RealSSD C300
Solid state drives are definitely coming of age. Not only are they increasingly the norm for mid-range laptops and pre-built gaming systems, but we've seen huge leaps in performance lately. From Kingston's SSD Now V+ series to the SandForce-powered Agility 2 and Vertex 2 from OCZ, things are looking good for SSDs.
Crucial's latest realSSD C300 drive is available in three sizes, 64GB, 128GB and 256GB. Inside the drive, the memory chips naturally come from Crucial's parent company Micron, and the controller is by way of Marvell.
There are two things that are really interesting about the realSSD C300, though. First up, it's reasonably priced - a little bit more expensive than Kingston's perhaps, but a lot cheaper than OCZ's offerings.
Secondly, it's one of the first internal drives of any flavour we've seen that make use of the new 6Gbps SATA standard.
SSD read speeds have been getting very close to the limits of the older SATA 3Gbps bandwidth cap. Does changing the interface let them off the leash?
How to install a new drive
Modern hard drives are easy to install. Connect the power cable and the SATA data cable and boot the machine to make sure the drive works. All being fine, screw the drive into place.
If you've gone down the SSD route then you'll need to use a mounting bracket to secure the 2.5-inch drive in a 3.5-inch drive bay. Beyond fighting with the power cabling from your PSU, and the strange way that manufacturers can place the drive connectors in the middle of the cables, that's about as complex as it gets when it comes to physically installing a drive.
Things get a little trickier when it comes to laptops, netbooks and all-in-ones, because there's not generally enough room to have two drives in the machine at the same time. This means that you'll need to replace what's currently there and usually reinstall Windows anew.
It's worth checking the connection standard used by your current hard drive in your laptop before buying an upgrade though, as not only do PATA still pop up from time to time, but manufacturer-specific interfaces are also known to rear their ugly heads.
The Serial ATA standard stipulates that there's only one device per connector, which means the problems of clashing master/slave settings with the old PATA standard are a thing of the past. Indeed, there's little reason to touch a PATA drive these days.
Even if you're looking at upgrading an old machine, we'd recommend getting an affordable SATA expansion card that will bring you up to date. Either that or buy a brand new motherboard.
Realistically, the only thing that can really go wrong with a modern drive installation, other than you having a faulty drive, is a dodgy cable. Even now, SATA cables are still prone to popping out of the connectors, despite there being various clips and springs designed to keep them in place.
Also, the plastic shields on the connectors can perish as you're trying to push them into the socket. The tiny size of the connectors can make slotting them home pretty frustrating as well.
Indeed, the toughest part of installing a new hard drive is working out how to integrate it into your current configuration. Should you install Windows from fresh, or copy your current installation across using the likes of Norton Ghost and Acronis True Image?
We'd generally recommend installing Windows from new, if only for the opportunity to start again and get rid of all of that software you never use anyway.
Troubleshooting drive installation problems
1. Check the BIOS
Your BIOS (or EFI if you have a newer motherboard) should pick up the hard drive without problems. Even so, it's still the first place to check if Windows is refusing to play ball with the new hardware.
It should be listed in the hard drive section of the BIOS. If it isn't, try plugging the drive into a different SATA port, or use a different cable. Put simply, if you can't see it in the BIOS, you won't be able to see it in Windows.
2. Administrative privileges
The next stage in troubleshooting your missing drive is to use the Administrative Tools, which can be found in the Control Panel.
Select 'Computer management | Storage | Disk management' to see a list of all the drives attached to your system. The drive should be here. If it's refusing to cooperate, you may have to remove any existing partitions, create a new one, format it for use and assign a drive letter.
3. Upper management
Windows may still not present the drive in Explorer, though this is generally down to a driver issue or confusion in the device manager.
The easiest fix is to open the Device Manager (hold [Windows]+[Pause/Break] and then click 'Device Manager') and remove the drive entry from the Disk Drives list. Scan for changes and the issue should be sorted. Failing that, check the drive works in another machine before continuing.
Liked this? Then check out Best hard drive: 6 on test between 1.5TB and 3TB
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