WHEN YOU bought that new computer a couple of years ago, you probably thought its 500-megabyte hard disk would last forever.
Of course, that's what I thought when I bought my first 20-megabyte hard disk back in 1984.
But I quickly found out that hard drives obey the Law of Closets: the stuff you accumulate will expand to fill the space available -- and then some.
Millions of otherwise serviceable computers today are suffering from space crunch. Their owners learn about it the hard way, when they try to install a new program and get a message that says there isn't enough room on the hard drive.
That means they have to delete something else to install the new software.
And, after that, every new program becomes a matter of triage -- what do I kill to make room for the new stuff?
Who's to blame? Software publishers are major culprits. A full business suite such as Microsoft Office can eat up 120 megabytes of space or more. Those cute little programs that make party invitations for the kids can chew up 40 or 50 megs. Want to experiment with digital images? Every photograph you scan can occupy a megabyte or two.
Games and multimedia titles are among the worst offenders -- and don't be fooled because they come on CD-ROMS. While CDs can hold a lot of data, they're slow compared with hard disks.
To boost performance, a software publisher will try to load as much of his package onto your hard drive as he can get away with. One game I recently opened requested an outrageous 450 megabytes of space for "optimum performance."
Software publishers can get away with this because jumbo hard drives have become incredibly cheap.
My first 20-megabyte drive cost $450 in 1985. Today, drives that store 2 to 3 gigabytes of data cost as little as $250 (a gigabyte is the equivalent of a billion characters of text).
So what can you do when your older, nonjumbo drive is full and you can't bear to part with anything on it?
The first alternative -- and least attractive -- is using a software compression utility. These programs, which run in the background, compress the files on your disk and decompress them on the fly when you need them. They can make your hard disk appear up to twice as large as it really is.
If you're using DOS version 6.2 or later, you already have a disk compression utility called DoubleSpace. Windows 95 users have newer and more reliable program called DriveSpace.
When they work, compression schemes provide a lot more usable space for almost no investment. But they can also slow the performance of your machine, and some programs won't work with compressed drives.
When compression software really goes haywire, you can lose everything on your hard disk. I've come to grief with disk compression often enough to be skeptical.
If you're are absolutely flat broke and can't afford new hardware, give it a try.
But don't say I didn't warn you.
A better solution is adding a second disk drive, or replacing your original.
Which you choose depends on the size of your original drive and the configuration of your computer. If your PC is older and has a drive with less than 300 megabytes of storage, you won't even notice it's gone if you replace it with a new, 2.5 gigabyte-drive.
If you have a low-profile computer without a free drive bay, you may have no choice but to replace the original.
Either way, a new hard drive won't break the bank. Two-gigabyte models are available for as little as $200, and I've seen closeouts on 1 gigabyte drives for as little as $150.
Installing the drive is another matter.
Since it requires opening the computer, fooling with mounting hardware and cables, setting a couple of jumpers and then futzing with the operating system, it's not for the faint of heart.
If you're handy with a screwdriver and know a bit about computer hardware, the process can take as little as 45 minutes. If you don't know what you're doing, it can take the rest of your life.
My recommendation: Get an expert to do it for you. Most computer dealers and repair shops will charge $50 to $75 for the operation. It's money well spent.
Also remember that whenever someone -- amateur or professional -- starts poking around your hard drive, disaster can happen. So back up your existing drive before you even think about letting anyone open the case.
If your computer doesn't have room for another hard drive or you'd like more flexibility there's a third option: an external drive with a removable cartridge.
The Iomega Jaz drive stores a gigabyte of information on each cartridge and operates as fast as an internal hard drive. Its new competitor, the SyQuest SyJet, stores up to 1.5 gigabytes of data.
The benefits of these drives are obvious. When you fill up one cartridge, you can buy another for $125 and start over. If the information you're storing is particularly valuable or sensitive, you can lock up the cartridge in a drawer every night. And you can use the drive with more than one computer.
On the down side, these drives require special controller boards inside your PC.
Although installing a controller is a lot less complicated than installing a hard drive, it can still take more than a little fussing. Removable drives are also expensive -- about $600 for the complete package, which includes one cartridge.
lTC But if you need what they have to offer, they're worth the expense.
Pub Date: 4/13/97