Adding hard disk space can add to a computer's life

Your computer

March 08, 1998|By Michael Himowitz

WHEN MY WIFE and I moved into our first house 22 years ago, I couldn't imagine how we'd ever fill up all the closets. When we moved to a bigger home, 10 years and two kids later, we had to build new closets to hold the stuff that was overflowing from the old ones.

People who bought their computers a couple of years ago are starting to have the same experience.

That's because disk drives are like closets. No matter how big they seem when you buy them, you'll manage to fill them up soon enough.

There are a variety of reasons for this sorry state of affairs.

First, software publishers are writing programs that stake out enormous chunks of hard drive territory. A full installation of Microsoft Office 97 occupies 200 megabytes of space -- and that's before you write your first letter to Aunt Rhoda. A state-of-the-art game, with its enormous libraries of graphics and sound files, can occupy almost as much real estate.

Second, graphics have become an everyday part of life, thanks to desktop publishing software and the surging popularity of digital photography and inexpensive color printers.

Graphics files devour hard disk space. Browsing the Web can also fill up your disk with all kinds of detritus. So it's no wonder that those one-gigabyte disk drives that seemed so huge a few years ago are filling up.

If you've tried to install a new program and received an "insufficient disk space" message, you know how inconvenient a full disk drive can be.

Even if you're not adding new software every week, a drive that's near capacity can produce strange errors in programs that have worked well for years. That's because most Windows programs create temporary "scratch files" that you never see.

If you don't have enough room for them, your programs can start behaving very strangely, or crash for no discernible reason.

Luckily, it's relatively cheap and easy to add disk space today. Thanks to competition and improved technology, you can pick up a 5 gigabyte hard drive for as little as $200 if you're willing to install it yourself, and only $50 to $75 more if you have the store do the work. Of course, there's a catch, particularly if you're running Windows 95.

Unlike earlier versions of Windows and DOS, Win 95 tracks the hardware it's running on very carefully. It also creates lots of hidden files that many backup programs won't catch. So it's difficult to replace your primary hard drive by dumping the contents of your old drive to tape and copying it back to the new drive.

In fact, that kind of transfer is best left to an expert.

An easier solution is to add a second hard drive.

Most PCs produced over the last five or six years use so-called IDE drives. This is an acronym for Integrated Drive Electronics -- a scheme that mounts the drive controller on the drive itself and allows manufacturers to use a cheap and simple adapter to transfer information from the disk to your computer's processor and memory.

Older IDE adapters can handle two devices, and the chances are good that you're using only one. Newer IDE adapters can handle up to four devices -- including standard hard drives, and CD-ROMs.

If your IDE adapter isn't fully occupied, you should be able to add a second drive without too much trouble -- as long as there's a free bay for the drive inside your computer.

Today's popular mini-tower computers have plenty of extra slots for drives, but older, compact desktop units may not. They were designed to save space, not for expandability.

Installing a second hard drive can be a do-it-yourself proposition. But then, so can brain surgery. I've replaced or added many drives myself over the years, and I've never had an installation go completely without a hitch. One reason is that, even if you hook up everything the right way, you'll still have to be familiar with some Stone Age DOS utilities to prepare it for use.

I don't know why Microsoft forgot to build automatic drive recognition into its Windows 95 operating system -- it sure would have made life easier. Unless you're close to qualifying as a hacker, it's a good idea to have your dealer install the drive for you.

Once that's done, it's a good idea to move as many programs as possible onto the new drive. This will free up critical space on your primary drive -- space that you'll need for your programs' scratch files.

But be careful here, particularly under Windows 95. Often, it's hard to figure out just where a particular piece of software begins and ends. You have two choices here. You can uninstall the programs you want to use (using Windows' installation routine) and then reinstall them on your new drive. Or you can buy a utility program such as Quarterdeck's Clean Sweep or Cybermedia's Uninstaller to move everything safely from one drive to another. These utilities are handy to have in any case, because they'll remove unwanted programs without deleting important stuff and help you clean out junk files that no programs use.

In any case, a new hard drive can extend the useful life of an old computer. And, unlike my closets, these new drives are big enough to last for quite a while.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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