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How to upgrade your hard disk drive.

YEARS AGO the cost of hardware and software was the dominant factor in computerization decisions. Today, with many technological improvements in computers and software, we find hardware costs far lower and software costs more reasonable. It is labor costs that are higher. We also find that more and better software can easily use up disk space, requiring a faster and larger hard disk drive.

If you purchased a disk drive with 20 to 40 Mb, as most people did in the '80s, and you do graphics, statistical analyses, or other data-intensive tasks, you'll soon find that there's no room left in your drive and that it's time to upgrade. You'll also find that the choice is difficult among your three basic options: doubling your hard drive by using software, getting another hard drive, or getting removable drives.

* Doubling your hard drive. There are several computer programs that can significantly compress files and in effect more than double the size of your hard drive. The programs eliminate or compress redundant information every time you store a file, and decompress every time you retrieve one. This procedure is called "on-the-fly" conversion because it converts while you are using the files and allows you to use other software as though the compression software did not exist. It takes very little time to compress and decompress, so you rarely notice a change in computer performance. Other programs can compress files for permanent storage or for transport, but you have to decompress them before you can use them.

There are at least three major compression software programs that work well with most applications: Stacker (Stac Electronics, Carlsbad, Calif.), SuperStor Pro (Addstor, Inc., Menlo Park, Calif.), and XtraDrive (Integrated Information Technology, Inc., Santa Clara, Calif.). The problems with these programs, although generally not insurmountable, are as follows:

* You need a specially prepared floppy disk in order to boot the computer in the event that your main drive fails.

* The programs require RAM and may conflict with other memory resident programs you have, particularly those for data acquisition.

* You cannot run some of the utilities from PCTools (Central Point Software, Inc., Beaverton, Ore.) and Norton Utilities (Peter Norton Computing, Inc., Santa Monica, Calif.), such as defragmentation and disk repair or file undelete; for those purposes you have to follow the compression software instructions.

* Data compression may not work on some networks.

* Programs will not usually work with old XT computers.

* Programs must be installed carefully. If you don't know how, leave it to the experts.

The Stacker, SuperStor Pro, and XtraDrive programs have similar features and capabilities; whichever is best seems to depend on the latest version. Get their literature and base your decision on price (for multiple installations) and convenience.

The average cost for a single user is less than $90. If you have several, install them in your faster hard drive. SuperStor Pro can also be used with removable media. Warning: Before compressing files that are used for instrument control, ask the manufacturer whether data compression is feasible, or test the programs carefully. Data compression requires further computer processing and may interfere with data acquisition. Also make a complete backup of all your files before you install a compression program.

* Buying a new hard drive. As a general rule, hard drives are sold for either the regular old PC based on the 8088 or 8086 chip, which was an 8-bit machine known as an XT computer, or the 16- and 32-bit chips (80286, 80386, and 80486), usually known as AT computers. (This article is limited to IBM compatible computers.)

You can upgrade an 8088 or 8086 PC and get a larger and faster hard drive, but it will still be too slow for most applications of Windows (Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.), the most frequently used PC graphics interface. The main reason is that the older PCs have a limited memory structure and bus (communications system). The cost of updating and modifying the hardware of this PC (about $200 for the main board) is about the same as the cost of buying a new computer, even without considering installation charges and headaches. So update your old PC with a hard disk drive only if you intend to use it chiefly for simple calculations, spreadsheets, and word processing, but not for Windows.

The best way to upgrade the hard disk drive in an XT is with a drive-in-a-card, which plugs in easily and costs less than $300. These cards are compatible with most other cards you may have in your computer.

If you have an AT-type machine, your choices are far more complex. As a general rule, if you have an older AT with limited memory and a 20 Mb hard disk drive, the cost of upgrading may be greater than the cost of buying a new and faster PC. Perhaps it's time to relegate your old computer to training, preparation of SAT tests for your kids, games, educational software, and word processing. Sophisticated computer programs for the laboratory require large chunks of disk space and a fast computer to operate them--or you run the risk of dying of boredom waiting for things to happen or for the screen to refresh. Computer costs must include personnel time; a slow computer costs you money.

A hard disk drive consists of two main parts: the hard drive itself and the controller. The controller, usually a card or board that you install in your computer, tells the hard drive where and how to write data. There are several types of disk drives and associated controllers. Most people who have one disk drive and one controller will have to purchase another disk drive that matches the old one. Alternatively, you can add another drive and controller, or replace both.

Older hard drives are known as ST506s, and your replacement has to be the same type. They are generally slower, smaller, and more expensive than comparable drives with newer controllers. If your old drive is less than 40 Mb, it may be cheaper to discard your old drive and controller and buy new. The newer types are the ESDI, SCSI, and IDE. As a general rule, the IDE is your best choice when purchasing a new drive and controller. At minimum, purchase a 100 Mb drive; 200 Mb is more cost-effective. Doubling the size costs about 30% more.

For each controller type, you can buy a variety of hard disk drives. More money buys a larger disk drive, faster average access time, and/or greater mean time between failure (MTBF). Modern drives have MTBF of more than 50,000 hours, which means that statistically they should last you at least 50,000 hours (or 5 to 10 years when used about 10 hours a day). With this said, your drive, the one you keep in a dust-free room under controlled temperature in its own cubicle protected by its own power supply and prayer book, could still break down in one year, while your neighbor, the one who pours coffee on the keyboard and drops books on the computer, could have one that lasts 25 years. (More often, it's the other way around.)

If you cannot find the disk you like, you may consider adding another controller. In general, two separate controllers may be incompatible, but most manufacturers tell me that you can run an SCSI controller with almost anything else. That means that you probably should get an SCSI controller if you want to keep your old drive. It may also be usable with a CD drive, but check before you buy. Note that the new motherboards have built-in fast hard-drive controllers, and if you plan to upgrade your motherboard, you will waste any money spent on a new hard-drive controller.

There are a few more facts to consider. Hard disk drives come in thick, standard size (about the height of an old floppy disk), half-height, and 3.50" or 5.25" size. You have to open your computer to determine how much space you have. If you get the 3.50" size and your bays (the places where the drives go) are the usual 5.25" size, you need adaptor rails.

When you buy your hard disk, you can get a bare drive, which sometimes means a drive without cables or anything, or a kit. Most kits contain cables, rails, screws to install the drive, software, and instructions. Some kits also include an additional controller.

Installation is not difficult, but you need several hours, patience, and somebody to assist you. If you've never installed any computer parts, consider sending your computer out for installation. Make sure to back up all your data.

Try to get a good price from a local dealer on a hard drive with installation included. This means at least two trips to a computer store, however--one to leave the computer and the other to pick it up--and time is costly. Alternatively, arrange for on-site installation, at about $50 to $90 an hour (installation should take about one hour). If possible, contract by the job, not by the hour. Some technicians are slow.

You can roughly calculate your hard disk space needs as follows: the new DOS version, DOS 5.0, needs at least 5 to 9 Mb. Windows 3.1 requires at least 5 Mb. Training programs and enhancement utilities require another 10 to 20 Mb. A Windows-based spreadsheet, such as Excel (Microsoft), requires roughly another 6 Mb. You may also need more Mb for fancy fonts for DOS or Windows. If you want several different typefaces, such as gothic, modern, roman, etc., you may need another 5 Mb.

If you plan to draw pictures using a graphics program such as Designer 3.1 (Micrografx Corp., Richardson, Tex.), or plot graphics using scientific graphics software such as SPSS for Windows (SPSS Inc., Chicago, Ill.), Axum (TriMetrix Corp., Seattle, Wash.), or SigmaPlot (Jandel Scientific, San Rafael, Calif.), reserve 5 to 10 Mb for this software, and approximately 100 K to several million bytes for the drawings and art pictures you may want to incorporate. For example, a database of parts of the body may require 5 Mb of disk space. A good statistical program requires about 5 to 10 Mb of disk space. A word processor for Windows uses another 3 to 5 Mb. You can easily see how the numbers add up even before you consider your own data. A tape-back drive is practically essential to make daily backups of your data.

* Getting a removable drive. There are a wide range of removable drives; you will pay more for faster and larger ones. Bernoulli drives (Iomega Corp., Roy, Utah), a mixture of removable floppies and hard drives, are highly reliable and manufactured by a company that has been in business for many years. The largest size available at this writing is 90 Mb/disk. The speed is comparable to most fast hard drives, but each disk costs approximately $140.

Removable hard drives come in many sizes, a common one being about 90 Mb. Price and performance are similar to Bernoulli's, depending on brand and discounts.

Removable 20 Mb floppy drives are faster than conventional floppies, but two to three times slower than hard drives. They cost less than $300 and are excellent for data or software storage but not very good for running disk-intensive software.

Removable 128 Mb optical drives cost about $1,500, twice as much as Bernoulli or removable hard drives. The disks are about half the cost of Bernoulli disks but are slow.

Removable 500 Mb to 700 Mb optical drives cost from $2,000 to $5,000. They are excellent for storage but slow as well.

* Additional considerations. The general rules that follow can help you to get the most for your money:

* A disk read-write cache will significantly increase the performance of a drive.

* It is more economical to purchase more RAM and use it for a software cache than it is to purchase a faster controller.

* Anticipate failure of your hard drive about once a year. Back up your data at least every day.

* Be prepared for failure and have floppy drives to boot your computer.

The usual problem with hard drives is that the configuration established to recognize the hard drive has disappeared and you have to install the drive again. Fortunately, the data written on your drive usually are not lost. Just be sure to keep a copy of your drive and PC configuration, type of disk, etc. Some of this information is on your CMOS (permanent memory reserve to store start-up information) and may be accessed using utilities that are included with Norton or PCTools.

Print all system information, using such software as PCTools or Norton Utilities, every time you make a major change to the system, such as adding cards or changing AUTOEXEC.BAT or CONFIG.SYS files. (If you don't know what these terms mean, you shouldn't be changing the computer or installing software on it.)

Aim to limit data file size to less than 1.4 Mb so you can use floppy disks for backup of individual files.

We collect a lot of data in our laboratory. We keep two or three copies on 120 Mb tapes, which are updated daily. Because it takes time to update data several times a day, we are planning to upgrade to 20 Mb rewritable portable optical drives for data storage.

We also have a great deal of software that we use occasionally and that does not fit in our hard drive, so we are considering purchasing removable drives for permanent storage of software. We have so many different programs that it is not practical to keep them on separate removable drives. After unsuccessfully attempting to upgrade one of the drives myself, I decided to purchase the drives by mail and hire a technician to install them at a time when I needed maintenance work done on other computers.

In one instance, I found it much cheaper to buy a new PC than to upgrade an old XT. In the laboratory, where time is money, it is often less expensive to buy a new PC than to upgrade because of the time it takes to research the subject, write purchase orders, get the parts, and install and test them. Installation of removable drives or a hard drive-in-a-card is simple, however. Often you can do it yourself. It may give your PC another year of life.

Edward N. Siguel is a senior scientist in the Fatty Acid Laboratory, Clinical Nutrition Unit, Boston University Medical Center Hospital, Boston, Mass.

Figure 1

Reasons to get another hard drive

There are several reasons why you may want to consider another hard drive:

* Your PC is dedicated to instrument control, QC, or inventory, and you are happy with its performance. You only need more room for data files and can't delete old files.

* You keep files on line (e.g., for blood donors) and need more room for larger files.

* You have a 386 with 40 Mb and need more room for fonts plus software.

* Your instrument (HPLC, GLC, etc.) generates large graphics files (e.g., chromatograms).

* During weekends you run the instrument unattended and can't copy the files to floppies and delete them to make more room--or you need to keep the files accessible all the time.

* You need to store huge amounts of test results for an indefinite period of time. Although the data are rarely called, you occasionally use them for statistical purposes, QC, or lost records. In this case, buy removable drives.

* You currently back up on tape, but it takes too long to retrieve. Purchase read/write 500+ Mb optical drives ($2,000 to $5,000). You can quickly read data from an optical drive, which is slower than a hard drive but much faster than a tape drive.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Siguel, Edward N.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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