PC Storage and Performance: A Guide to Hard Disc Drives
Good old IBM is credited with inventing the first hard drive for data storage way back in 1956. It stored a whopping 3.75 Megabytes of data; roughly the equivalent of a single, four-minute mp3 music track at 128Kbps sound quality. It also took up as much space as two household fridge freezer units. IBM continued to develop the hard drive and gradually made it smaller and more capacious until they started being shipped with most personal computers sold since the 1980s. No major news occurred in the hard drive industry for decades until the tech world encountered a global shortage of HDDs between 2011 and 2013, when violent flooding rocked hard drive factories in Thailand. The shortage marked the first time in years that HDD prices rose. Now, in 2016, shipments of actual hard drive units are declining while sales in terms of total gigabytes are strong.
What is a Hard Disk Drive?
HDDs work by rapidly spinning a column of rigid disks, also known as platters, and using a series of magnetic heads on an actuator arm that moves across the platters to read data from and write data to the platter surfaces. There are other parts that play a vital role in how hard drives work, but the platters and actuator arm are the two most easily understood parts.
HDDs have more in common with CDs and DVDs than they do with SSDs (Solid State Drives). HDDs, like CDs and DVDs, store data in tiny sectors within concentric, circular paths (also known as tracks) arranged on the platters by magnetising or demagnetising certain sectors to store and delete information. This process of magnetisation allows data to remain on the disk even after the computer has been shut down. The operating system keeps track of which sectors hold information in a map so that the drive can seek and return data when you want to open a file or save a new one.
How Do Hard Disk Drives Work?
SSDs are different because they use advanced NAND flash memory chips on an integrated circuit. An intelligent flash memory controller built into the circuit manages all requests from the operating system to find and store data in the most efficient way possible, which optimises speed and enhances longevity. As you can see, it's less likely that SSDs will succumb to impact damage because they don't have all the fragile moving parts found in standard rotating hard drives.
HDDs come in the 3.5-inch or 2.5-inch form factor; 3.5-inch for desktops and 2.5-inch for laptops. This includes HDDs found in USB portable storage drives. The form factor of your drive and its compatibility with other system components and installed software are important to know before choosing a replacement hard drive.
To check the make and model of the hard drive currently installed in your Windows computer:
Click on the Start Menu.
Right-click on Computer and select “Manage” to open the Device Manager.
Click on “Disk Drives” to see the make and model of your hard drive.
Enter the model number on the drive manufacturer's website to view images and full specifications of your HDD.
If you have an older Mac with a hard drive:
Go to “About This Mac” and click on “System Report”.
Note the value next to Model.
How a HDD Works – Explained by Seagate Technology
HDD Performance Specifications
Performance specifications of consumer-grade HDDs are determined by several factors. Firstly, by the number of Revolutions Per Minute (RPMs), which indicates how fast the disks spin inside the drive and allow the read/write head seek and find data. A higher RPM, in other words, means the HDD will be able to transfer data to and from the hard drive quicker than a drive with a lower RPM. Hard drives sold at the consumer level usually run at either 5,400 or 7,200 RPM, which is enough to handle everyday computing tasks.
Secondly, a HDD with a low seek time and low latency will be able to locate a piece of data on the platters milliseconds before a drive with a higher seek and latency time. It might not seem like much, but the time it takes for the computer to make the request for a particularly large file and the time said file is opened in its fully-loaded form could be a noticeable difference. This is especially true in drives that have little free space available, with files split up and spread out over non-sequential sectors of a drive. If a drive has a seek time and latency over 3 ms, you either need a new one or should try carrying out some of the performance improvement suggestions outlined later.
Thirdly, HDDs are usually advertised with its maximum read and write speed in addition to its capacity. The read and write transfer speeds are measured in megabytes per second (MB/s). For example, if you were transferring a 5GB file – the equivalent of a DVD movie – onto an HDD with a write speed of 130 MB/s, it would complete the transfer in about 30 seconds. However, it's not common to see such real-world transfer speeds, even if other factors like the operating system are fully updated and optimised for data transfer.
Pros and Cons of HDDs in a Nutshell
The main advantages of HDDs are:
Storage capacity – HDDs are ideal for storing computer data and for making regular backups thanks to their huge capacities.
Price per Gigabyte – Alright, even if some manufacturers like Samsung have released SSDs with monstrous capacity, they also come with an equally gruesome price tag. HDDs have a lower price per GB compared to SSDs, at around a 1 to 4 cost ratio in recent years. For how long, only time and the ongoing fierce competition between manufacturers and vendors in the SSD industry will tell.
Easy to replace – HDDs are so easy to replace and upgrade that anyone with a screwdriver and an ounce of computer knowledge can open up a desktop or laptop and swap in a new HDD. And there are plenty of how to videos on the web to walk you through the whole process.
The main disadvantages of HDDs are:
Failure rate –The mechanical parts that make up a hard drive are prone to break, either from years of wear and tear or from a strong bump or jolt.
Hot and noisy –The mechanical parts that make up a hard drive start to get hot the longer you use your computer and they need a system fan to cool down. As the fans spin faster, this increases the noise your computer makes during operation.
Speed –Read and write transfer performance will never be as fast as Solid State Drives despite your best efforts to optimise the drive and upgrade other system components.
HDDs for Gaming
SSDs have been described as the ultimate upgrade solution for gaming enthusiasts. This hero status comes despite a lack of evidence that the storage device of a computer can improve the whole gaming experience if other components such as the memory, processor, and graphics card are not up to scratch.
So, although gamers and gaming system manufacturers are continuously moving towards SSD solutions, thanks to their superior speeds and reliability, there exist high-performance HDDs boasting RPMs between 10,000 and 15,000 to produce faster transfer speeds and drive platters, with smaller diameters to significantly reduce access time.
To get the best results from graphically intense, resource-hungry games like Grand Theft Auto and Battlefield, you would need an HDD running with at least 7,200 RPM (more if you can afford it) and a capacity of 1 TB or more, e. g. from Western Digital. If that's not enough to satisfy your needs for sharp display and uninterrupted game play, you can always set up multiple HDDs in a RAID configuration.
How Do HDDs Work in RAIDs?
RAID storage simply means a bunch of HDDs bundled together to act like a single super drive. There are a number of different RAID configurations, each with their own advantages and disadvantages for using them. For instance, RAID 0 stores segments of data across different drives to improve read and write speeds, but if one drive fails, you’ll end up with files consisting of missing information. This set-up is adopted by any user looking for a performance boost in their machine.
The RAID 1 configuration takes what is written on drive one and copies it to drive two, making an exact replica of the first drive as a backup in case one of them fails. The downside to this setup is the fact that you have two full HDDs but you only really have access to the space of one. RAID 1 is typically used in company servers as a contingency plan against the loss of data in the event of a mechanical fault.
Can the Performance of an HDD Be Improved?
There's little you can do for an HDD that has faulty parts inside, although many parts can be replaced, but there are a few things you can do to make sure your HDD continues to perform as it should, and in some cases, as it did when you first used it. The following are three simple ideas you can use to optimise the performance of your hard drive.
Whenever you delete a file, Windows sends the file to the Recycle Bin (Trash on Mac computers). This is a safety measure to prevent you from accidentally losing precious files forever. The problem with this is that your Recycle Bin will be congested with files taking up valuable space on your drive that could be used for other more important files. The result of filling a hard drive is slower transfer performance and waiting forever for Windows to boot up and applications to launch.
To bypass Windows sending files directly to the Recycle Bin, press and hold the Shift key on your keyboard before hitting the Delete key. Then click “Yes” to confirm that you do want to permanently delete this file. Be careful when using this, though, because you may end up deleting something you really wanted to keep. To recoup any files you lose after permanently deleting them, you will have to invest in special file recovery software or hire an IT professional to help you.
Mac users will employ a similar but slightly different method to achieve the same outcome. Using the following steps will delete all files in the Trash can permanently without having to open and empty the Trash:
Highlight the file you want to delete and press “Command” and “Backspace” on your keyboard.
Now press and hold “Command”, “Option” and “Shift”, then “Backspace” to empty the Trash.
In a similar manner, your computer will keep a record, called browser cache, of the web pages you visit on the internet. This allows your computer browser to load previously viewed pages much quicker than if you were loading them for the first time. But with broadband speeds increasing all the time, and websites being updated with new content regularly, browser cache is not really necessary these days. Therefore, to improve the speed of your drive and free up space, make an effort to delete temporary files you no longer need from the Recycle Bin and browser cache every so often before you notice your computer slowing down.
To delete temporary files on a Windows computer:
Press the “Start”-button and select “Computer”.
Right click on your Local Disk and select “Properties”.
On the General tab, click on “Disk Cleanup”. This will then calculate the amount of disk space you will be able to recover after deleting temporary files.
4Mark the boxes of the files you want to remove and click “OK”, and then click “Delete Files”.
Mac users will be happy to know that Mac OS X will attempt to remove temporary internet files automatically, but you can download a dedicated hard drive clean-up or analysis tool from the App Store, to scan your Mac's hard drive and let you delete unwanted files that are using up space.
As mentioned earlier, one of the downsides to the way data is stored on HDDs is that files can be spread across different platters; otherwise known as fragmented files. This happens because Windows will attempt to keep the fragments of data files in segments next to or close to each other. When space is at a premium, however, Windows has no choice but to find available space anywhere it can and write data to it. As a result, reading fragmented files can become a painfully slow process and your productivity suffers. This can also be a result of having too many temporary files (see the Disk Clean-Up utility above).
To overcome this issue, Windows has an intelligent defragmenter program, which reads the entire drive and begins sorting all data stored on it so that separated files are stored together and read/write performance is improved. To run the defragmenter:
Press the “Start”-button and select “Computer”.
Right click on your Local Disk and select “Properties”.
On the Tools tab, click on “Defragment Now”.
Either set a schedule for the defragmentation to run or start it immediately (the recommended option). Bear in mind that it can take a few hours to complete the process, depending on how full the drive is and whether you've run the tool before or not.
Thanks to the clever filing system of the Mac OS X, your Mac will defragment files all by itself. There are some defrag apps on the App Store if you still need a boost in drive efficiency.
External Portable HDDs
External HDDs are perfect for backing up all your holiday snaps, favourite tracks, movies, and important documents. No matter where you go, as long as you have access to a computer, you can bring your memories with you and work away from home.
Another advantage of external HDDs in that they come with a USB interface that can be plugged into any compatible device to access its files. This means streaming videos from your portable HDD on your TV and watching movies on a bigger screen, which saves you buying and running an HDMI cable from your laptop to your TV.
External HDDs are also available in the 3.5-inch form factor usually found in desktop PCs, which offers far more storage capacity than their 2.5-inch counterparts. But desktop PCs also come with a system fan to keep the drive from overheating. For this reason, external 3.5-inch drives must come with their own internal cooling system and possibly even an efficient temperature detection and optimisation function built into the software to regulate temperature and ensure the drive continues to run cool and stable.
Wireless External Hard Disk Drives
As technology marches forward, it was only a matter of time before the advent of the wireless HDD. Wireless external drives are the third type of external drive and work by broadcasting their own dedicated wireless network, which your computer then connects to and transmits or receives data. An internet connection isn't required for data transfer and most wireless drives support more than one user to access and stream data at the same time. So if you're sick of cables, and having to plug in and safely remove USB portable drives, Seagate, Corsair, WD, SanDisk, and Transcend all have wireless storage options to give you freedom wherever you go.
5 Things to Look for When Buying a HDD
When choosing a hard drive, be it internal or external, there are several factors that will affect your decision. These include:
Compatibility – The drive must be compatible with your computer. Always check the SATA interface with your drive's manufacturer before buying a new one. And if you're buying a SuperSpeed USB 3.0 external drive, make sure your computer has USB 3.0 ports on it or else transfers will execute at USB 2.0 speeds.
Price per GB – You'll obviously need enough space for all your files and plenty of extra space for future files. But you also don't want to pay too much for it.
Protection –When buying a portable drive, it needs to have sufficient exterior and interior protection. Exterior protection includes a strong outer casing to protect the drive inside from accidental falls. Interior protection should keep the physical drive safe from shock and vibration and also safeguard against attacks of data theft if someone should steal your drive.
Software –Many HDD manufacturers bundle dedicated drive software to make it easier for you to perform backups, set passwords, manage drive partitions, and other disk management functions.
Warranty – Make sure the drive you buy is backed by an extra-long warranty and includes customer service contact details in case anything happens to your drive within the warranty period.
Purchasing a Best Price HDD
There are two final things to keep in mind when you want to make a bargain on HDDs: the best place and time to buy the item. Especially, the big retailers like Amazon, Tesco, Ebuyer and Argos have a large number of HDD sales. Every year, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the two holidays that produce the best offers on technology, with Black Friday showing the biggest bargains. Back to school specials are also a good time for buying cheap hard drives. Students who can flash official student ID can look forward to heavy discounts on gadgets for schoolwork, like portable HDDs.
Hard Drive Offers at HotUKDeals
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