Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Choosing a Hard Disk

How does one choose the hard disk drive (HDD) from all of the available vendors and capacities? First, it's important to recognize that it's not a highly critical decision; I'm not likely to choose a vendor or capacity that is unsuitable, and drives are not a huge expense any more, so I can add or replace drives later (or sooner) if necessary.

My existing system has 23 Gb available out of 100 Gb total capacity, so I'm using about 77 Gb. Disk usage has grown from about 15 Gb in 1999 to 77 this year, which means that it grew by a factor of five in the intervening eight years. That suggests I should buy five times the amount of disk that I am now using, or about 400 Gb, to last the next eight years. Maybe so.
Hard Drive
But maybe not. New technology is on the horizon. It is already possible to buy a 64 Gb flash drive with no moving parts for about $900. How soon will the price/performance curve of flash or some even-better technology approach that of moving-head disk drives? Probably sooner than later.

For now I'm going with 320 Gb drives, a relatively mature technology, available from several manufacturers, with modest power and heat dissipation needs. That's a safe choice.

So whose drives? To simplify things I've narrowed the field to three manufacturers: (1) Samsung, (2) Seagate, and (3) Western Digital, in alphabetical order. Hitachi and Maxtor make appropriate drives too, as do other manufacturers, but I've seen nothing to indicate that any of those would be a better choice than the best of the first three. If you have other information, please comment. The drives will all have:
  • 320 Gb capacity.
  • SATA 3.0 Gb/s interface.
  • 7200 RPM and attending latency.
  • Average seek time less than 10 ms.
  • 16 Mb cache.
The following table shows some additional information about each drive. Prices are all from NewEgg, as is the user comment information. Other data comes from the manufacturers' specification sheets:

Brand Model# Price Warranty Five* Comments
Samsung HD321KJ $74.99 1 yr 80% 20
Seagate ST3320620AS $79.99 5 yr 76% 1887
Western Digital WD3200AAKS $74.99 3 yr 80% 144

The Five* column is the percentage of reviewers who gave the drive five stars out of five, i.e. the best possible rating. I realize that some people rarely give the highest rating to anything, so the system may be biased, but I also saw a comment from a reviewer who gave four stars for a drive which was dandy until it failed after one day's use. So it balances out.

In any case the reviewers' ratings don't give much guidance, all between 76% and 80%. The Seagate drive is by far the most popular, but comments indicate that it has been received dead on arrival in many recent cases. One commenter said that it is made in China. Further, and significantly, many reviewers comment that the Seagate drive is noisy. I don't like that, and I'm leaning a bit toward WD. I wonder where theirs are made?

Suppliers like NewEgg have a 30-day return policy on drives (probably on everything), so I suppose I won't be buying any drives until the rest of the system is nearly assembled and ready to test. By then things may have changed. Perhaps Seagate will correct their quality problem, or prices will change enough to make one drive more attractive on that basis.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Gateway Performance 600

I'm struggling with the original precept of this blog: building a new computer, because my Gateway Performance 600 is working so well now. It's almost eight years old, but it runs a Pentium III processor at 600 MHz and has been upgraded significantly:
    System Properties show 768 Mb
  1. Added another hard disk to increase total disk capacity from 20 Gb to about 100 Gb.
  2. Replaced the original CD RW drive (failed) with a new and better Sony drive.
  3. Upgraded from Windows 98 to Windows XP Professional, now SP2 and fully current.
  4. Maxed out the memory to 768 Mbytes, comparable to brand-new low-end computers.
C drive is pretty fullG drive is more than half fullIt's not a bad computer, and I'm wavering on the decision to replace it. Money ($1000+) and time are the reasons NOT to replace it. Here are some reasons why I might:

  • Quieter. The Performance 600, though not loud, is the loudest thing in the room.
  • Faster. I wonder how much. The processors will be ten or twenty times as fast and the disk(s) at least twice as fast. I'm sure the difference will be noticeable!
  • Upgradable. In theory at least, the memory will be upgradable to 8 Gb.
  • Bigger disk. At least three times as much, upgradable to much more.
  • Windows Vista or Vista compatible. The Gateway 600 is not even slightly compatible with Vista, needing more speed, disk, a DVD drive, and more.
  • More reliable? Only the CD RW drive in the 600 has ever failed, but I've been lucky because hard disks certainly do fail too. I'm thinking about paired disks in the new computer for improved data security, and a better backup system than the zipped CD ROMs I use now.
  • Experience. Mine. I will enjoy the experience and learn a LOT! I've been involved in computers almost all of my adult life (45+ years) and it's time to add some current technology to that knowledge.
I'm almost convinced, but then again the 600 is really working pretty well. I have plenty of time to think about it.

Friday, August 24, 2007


RAID is a computer acronym meaning "Redundant Array of Independent Disks." Wikipedia. In this case we're talking about "mirrored" disks, one of the simplest RAID configurations, where two identical disks contain identical data so that one can continue operating if the other fails. Since they contain the same data the second disk doesn't add any disk capacity, but it does add reliability. Pros:
  • The hard disk is MUCH less apt to crash. Only people who have experienced a crash can fully appreciate this.
  • Perhaps I can get away with less backup, e.g. only back up the most sensitive data.
  • Or, I can buy a THIRD drive and hot-swap it, so the swapped-out drive is the backup.
  • I'd enjoy the experience of setting it up and using it.
  • It's more expensive: I need two drives, not one, and the motherboard (which manages the drives) costs a little more.
  • The drives will make twice as much noise. Hmmm.
  • It doesn't solve ALL backup problems: If I accidentally permanently delete a file, it will be gone on BOTH drives; if lightning hits the computer it could easily take out both drives.
I'm leaning toward RAID, as you may have guessed. But haven't decided yet for sure. Seems like overkill for a simple office computer. But then again there's the experience of it ...

Here are some other features of the computer that's starting to come together:
  • Sonata III 500 case, with 500 W power supply. This is the outer box for the whole thing, and this box is quiet with plenty of power available.
  • Intel E6750 dual-core processor, 2.66 GHz, 1333 front-side bus, with Intel motherboard to match. This is two very fast processors in one. By the time I get going on this, the E6850 may come down in price, even faster.
  • 2 Gb of 2-channel DDR2 memory, 800 MHz. Expandable to 8 Gb they say, but the chips for that don't exist yet; 4 Gb is the max.
  • Seagate 320 Gb SATA-300 drive(s). Big enough for me.
  • Sony AWG170S-B2 18x DVD read/write.
But everything is still in pencil. Absolutely everything. Meantime, though, I did a little pricing of the materials lists for WITH RAID and withOUT RAID. Here are very preliminary materials lists: I'm totally new at this, a complete novice. If there is anyone out there reading this blog with an idea or a word of caution, I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

I think I'll Build My Own Computer

I do need a new computer in the office; mine is a slow eight-year-old Gateway 600 MHz, with upgraded memory, disk, and operating system. It's time for a new one that can grow with the times. Here are some specifications:
  • Quieter than my old Gateway tower, which itself really isn't too bad but is the noisiest thing in the room when the TV is off.
  • Speedy (modern) but not "extreme". The idea is to have a computer that will last a while and be upgradable for a while. We're talking dual processor for sure, but maybe not quad.
  • It doesn't have to be small - it sits on the floor next to the desk.
  • At least 2 Gb RAM, 800 MHz or more.
  • At least 250 Gb hard disk, 3 Gb/sec.
  • Windows XP Professional (preferred), Windows Vista Business otherwise.
  • Vista Business compatible for sure. I don't even know what that means yet.
  • CD/DVD read and write dual layer.
  • Floppy (yes, I really do want a floppy, even if I never use it).
  • PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports (I like my existing keyboard & mouse).
  • Vanilla audio and graphics. This machine means business, not games or entertainment.
  • Modem. Occasionally we need dialup when DSL fails.
  • Serial port.
  • Lifetime warranty. By me.
There are plenty of companies offering to build computers to specification, so why would a person build a more-or-less-ordinary computer himself?
  • Price: Probably not a good reason. I've done some internet pricing of parts already, and I doubt there will be much of a cost saving.
  • Quality: Might be a reason. For example, I'm thinking of the Antec Sonata III case, because it is supposed to be very quiet. It's a little expensive, but certainly worth the difference if it really is quieter.
  • Experience: I've been putting together computers for over 30 years now, but not modern ones. The experience will be invaluable.
  • Serviceability: If I build it, I can fix it!
  • Entertainment: It's fun to learn and do.
  • Bragging rights.
More later. I hope.