External hard drive lets many share space


As more home users network their computers, they're realizing they can pool their hard disk space or add storage that's available to everyone.

Shared disks make it possible for all users on the network to enjoy photos, videos and music files. More importantly, they provide each user with a place to back up critical files more conveniently than CDs, DVDs or tape.

I realized how important this was a few weeks ago after reporting that experts have questioned the longevity of the optical disks we burn to back up the data on our hard drives. The e-mail from panicked readers showed that plenty of you see this as a potentially serious issue.

Unfortunately, there's no single backup method that's safe from all threats - or at least nothing convenient enough to convince average folks to use it regularly. But one additional safety net available with minimal hassle is live storage - meaning hard disk space that's not physically part of your computer. The odds of two hard drives failing at once are much smaller than the odds of one giving up the ghost. And a flood of inexpensive external hard drives has made it possible to nudge the odds in your favor.

External hard drives are easy to install - actually, you don't install them, you just plug them in. They also offer extraordinary capacity for the money.

The sweet spot in the market seems to be $160 or thereabouts for 250 gigabytes of storage. Short of keeping an entire movie collection online, it's unlikely that you'll fill one of these. If you do need more space, you'll find 500 gigabyte drives for as little as $400. But I'd recommend using two smaller drives instead of one big one - the better to spread the risk.

Most external drives connect with computers via a high-speed Universal Serial Bus port, often labeled USB 2.0. Newer machines typically have four or more of these slots. Depending on its design, an external USB 2.0 drive can operate as quickly as an internal model - sometimes faster.

Older computers may have ports built to the original USB standard. Although they're fine for printers, scanners and cameras, these ports are slower and less reliable with hard drives than the newer USB 2.0 variety.

I don't recommend using a USB 1 connection, even if you find a drive that's compatible with it. However, if you're willing to open your computer and install an expansion card, you can add a USB 2.0 controller with four to six ports for less than $20.

An alternative, particularly on multimedia PCs and Macs, is a so-called "Firewire" drive. Inside, it's the same as a USB drive, but it uses a different wiring and communication scheme known technically as IEEE 1394. Apple invented Firewire, but many multimedia PCs have Firewire ports because the first generation of digital camcorders used that scheme exclusively.

Techies will probably form lynch mobs when I say this, but for consumer mass storage, there isn't much difference in performance between Firewire and USB 2.0.

The USB standard is more common these days, but many drives have connections for both. Just make sure the drive you buy matches up with the port available for it on your computer.

Out of USB ports? For $25 to $50, pick up a USB hub, a box that plugs into one USB slot on your computer and provides four, six or eight additional ports, depending on how much you want to spend.

If you're using Windows XP or a Mac, all you have to do is plug an external hard drive into a power outlet, attach a cable to a USB port on your computer or hub, and turn everything on. Your computer will recognize the drive and assign it a name or drive letter - you'll see it whenever you click on the My Computer icon on the Windows desktop.

To share a drive on a home network, it's best to organize it by setting up files and folders, and deciding which ones you want to share with other users. To share a folder, right click on its icon in Windows Explorer and select the "sharing" tab. Your main decision with a shared folder is whether to let users on other computers change or delete files.

If they're using the drive to back up their machines, they'll need this permission. To retain control for yourself, make external access read-only, which allows other users to access files but not change or delete them.

If you have Windows XP Professional, you can also assign a password to a folder to keep snoops out - a feature Microsoft deliberately and irresponsibly left out of the Home version.

Once you've set up an external drive for sharing, other users can find it by clicking on the My Network Places icon.

The main problem with sharing an external drive this way is that the computer hosting it must be running for others to have access. If you turn your computer off, others won't be able use the drive, and vice versa.

A more flexible but slightly more expensive alternative is a networked drive, which plugs directly into a switched port on your router and is available to everyone on the network at any time.

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