Driving Miss Daisy (or at least all her pictures)

“Digital Content”… it’s a phrase that’s used a lot these days.  What does it mean?  Pictures, songs, movies, books… you name it.  Remember the good old days when you would go to your bookshelf to grab a book to read it?  Or when you pulled an album out and played it on your record player?  Or when you kept all your pictures in various shoeboxes all over the house? Those days are gone.  Now days, all those things have been “digitized” and are stored on our computers.  The convenience of having last years vacation available in a few clicks is wonderful. But, it comes at a price.  Namely… storage.

So as our digital shoe boxes start to get bigger, most of us find that the hard drives in our computers are getting fuller and fuller and we need a place to put all these things.  Too bad you can’t just buy another pair of shoes and have immediate storage space with the old box.  Besides, we don’t want to just file these treasures away to gather dust.  We want to be able to access these files quickly.  So here are my solutions.  I start with the simplest and as usual will take it to the geek extreme (where I usually land).  It’s your choice to find the happy medium.

Note: I refer to pictures a lot in this post since the original question that was posed to me concerned storing photos. But, extra storage space applies to all your digital media.

Burn it, Baby

The quickest solution is to burn all your pictures and files to CD or DVD. It’s a fast familiar way to clear them off your hard drive.  Of course this works fine if you have a great filing method and label your discs and know exactly where you put them.  But, this doesn’t satisfy our requirement for immediate access.  Besides, what happens if they get scratched or lost?  The memories are gone.

Another draw-back is it’s not really feasible to store your music or digital movies to CD’s. Most movies are bigger than one CD.  And you want to have your music more easily available.

Expand the drive

The most feasible solution is to purchase an external hard drive.  With this, you can just plug it into your computer and toss all your stuff on it.  But, of course there are several options:

Standard External Drive: By this, I’m talking about the larger ones that use a power adapter and typically connect using USB.  The upside to this is you can get the most bang for your buck when it come to external drives.  The downside is it’s a pain to lug around with you if you use a laptop. If you have a desktop computer at home, this is likely your best choice.

Portable External Drive: These are quickly becoming quite popular.  These are small form factor drives that use a portable (2.5”) drive instead of a standard desktop (3.5”) drive inside.  The upside of these is it can actually power itself over the USB connection and it’s easy to toss it into your bag with your laptop.  The downside is you pay more for that convenience.  If you do a direct comparison with the larger drives, you pay a lot more per byte. If you use a laptop, this is likely your best choice.

Hold the Bus

On a side note, I feel obligated to give a quick overview of the different bus connections currently available.

USB 2.0: This is the most popular connection method and is available on most external drives.  One cool aspect of this is USB supplies a small amount of power to a device if it needs it.  In the case of the portable drives, it’s enough to power it, so you don’t need to lug a wall-wart (power supply) with you.  Keep in mind you should be careful with this.  If you plug too many devices that need power from the same USB port, power will start to drop out.  In the case of hard drives, it’s best to plug it directly into it’s own port and not use a splitter.

eSATA: This the same thing as plugging an internal drive to your computer SATA ports except it’s external (hence the “e”).  This option allows for higher transfer speeds (usually about double what you get with USB 2.0).  But, your drive will need to use a wall-wart since power isn’t supplied over the eSATA connection.  Some laptops have an eSATA port.  Mine does and the speeds that come from it are pretty good.  You can even “hot plug” a drive, meaning you don’t have to turn your computer off to plug it in.

USB 3.0: This is a BRAND NEW standard coming out and is starting to show up on new computers.  This is supposed to be 10 times faster than USB 2.0. But in real world testing, 2 to 3 times speed increases are normal.  The problem isn’t the bus speed, but the hard drive supplying the data.  They can only go so fast.  For the next couple of years, this is going to be the most expensive option and will only be used by the true techies.

Ethernet: An external drive that connects directly to your network can also be called a network drive.  These don’t come cheap.  But, in the case of a home network where several people have computers in different rooms, they can be a good answer.  Setting one up isn’t very hard as long as you follow the instructions and software that come bundled with it. Surprisingly enough, performance on these are usually pretty good.

Take that Drive for a Spin

The other aspect to hard drives is the spindle speed.  This is a measurement of how fast the discs are spinning inside the drive.  It stands to reason that the faster you spin the disc, the faster the data is read and written to it.

Most low cost drives have a spindle speed of 5,400 RPM (rotations per minute). That might sound fast, but in the hard drive world it’s glacial.  So it makes since that when you are looking at hard drives on the shelf and you see that REALLY good deal that’s way cheaper than all the rest of the same size, take a closer look at the box.  Most likely it’s rated to 5,400 RMP.  If what you’re looking for is the most bytes for your buck and you don’t mind waiting, this is your best answer. Also, if you are using a USB 2.0 connection, you’ll likely never even notice the difference.

A higher spindle rate of 7,200 RPM is standard for better performing hard drives.  This is practically a “must have” for any decent system drive.  If what you’re looking for in an external drive is performance, you’ll only see this improvement if you use the eSATA connection.  When I’m working with large chunks of data (movies and music), I can see a performance speed difference on my external drive. And as is to be expected, there is an increase in cost for this.

Now, if you’re wanting to go all out geek, look for 10,000 RPM drives.  Oh my goodness.  These are typically only found online and you have to look hard for it.  To truly enjoy the speeds that come from these drives, you would HAVE to have an eSATA connection.  This is the most expensive option and should only be considered by professionals or people with more money then sense (pun intended).

What about that thing called RAID?

The last main topic I want to address is redundancy.  Hard drives fail.  It’s not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when”.  In most cases, we trust our data onto a single drive in the hopes that it will be around forever.  As drive sizes have increased, we’re likely to buy a new bigger drive and move all our stuff over before the old drive fails. But that’s not always the case.  So how do we deal with backing up our backup?  Simple, use more than one drive.

There are several models of external drives that actually use two hard drives inside the case.  These are easy to spot since the case is usually huge.  I’ve used a Western Digital drive that had this feature.  When I first plugged it in, I was given the choice of having a 500GB drive or a 1,000GB drive.  Not thinking for the long term, I chose the bigger size.  This configured the two drives in series together.  If I had chosen the smaller size, it would have made them both identical so that if one went bad, all the information was still on the other one.  They also would go faster since it could have their choice of two drives to read from instead of one.  But in my haste and greed, I went for the BIG option.  You can guess where this landed me.  One of the drives went bad and left the other one completely inaccessible since it required both for the drive to work.

Take my little anecdote with a grain of salt.  If you want the peace of mind of having your files safely stored across two discs, then be prepared to pay twice as much for the same amount of storage.

But what about…

There are a couple other aspects I didn’t address that really aren’t things to worry about.  Hard drives use a little bit of memory in their controller cards called cache.  This holds data temporarily while the drive is busy.  Typically, the more cache, the better the performance.  In the case of external drives, it’s not nearly as important since the cases typically have additional caches to help buffer for the bus.

Another kind of hard drive on the market is called a SSD (Solid State Drive).  These don’t use platters or anything mechanical.  They use the same kind of flash memory chips you find in your thumb drives, just a lot more.  They aren’t very common in external drives since the benefit to using one really only comes if you use it as you’re primary internal system drive.  Besides, they cost a fortune and aren’t very big.

There was a day when I used to swear by Seagate.  It seems any drive I got from another manufacturer would die too soon.  I still use my 160GB Seagate drive I bought 4 years ago.  But those days are past.  Because companies try to cut cost, they sub out all the manufacturing to no-name companies. So, quality has now become the same across the board.

Lastly, there are a lot of companies that will sell just the case kits so you can make your own external drive with your own hard drive.  Typically, by the time you buy the kit and drive and put it all together, you can get it just as cheap by buying a complete system off the shelf.

Time to Drive it Home

So now you’re armed with the knowledge you need to go out and get the external drive of your dreams.  For the record, I have a portable 500GB, a standard external 500GB and even an older 160GB. And I use them all for different reasons.  But the real geek solution is to build a Home Server.  With that, I have access to all my files from any computer in the world.  All my computers are backed up every night.  And all the critical personal files are stored across multiple hard drives in case one fails.  Overall, I have 3 terabytes of hard drive space on it (a little more than 4,000 CD’s) But, that’s a story for another day…

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