atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

Hard Drives

Yesterday I decided to buy a new hard drive.

Up until I finally got DSL in here, I was doing a pretty good job of keeping around 2-3 GB of free space on both my hard drives. Out of a total of 60 GB, yeah.

Downloading all these fansubs, though, did for that notion; the 40 GB D drive was bursting at the seams--time to replace it. I looked through the Sunday ads and saw that Best Buy had a 160 GB Western Digital drive for $80, so I decided to go with that.

Well, after I got to the store, and looked over the packaging, I learned that my system probably didn't support any drive larger than 137 GB--the limit for the 36-bit addressing used by Windows ME. (Yeah, I use Windows ME on my system. It's what came with the computer.) I could have bought the drive, but in order to use all of it I'd have to buy a new IDE card as well.

I wasn't going to spend $80 on a drive and $20+ on an IDE card. So I looked over the shelf and saw a perfectly acceptable Seagate 120 for $10 more.

I know it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to spend $10 more on a smaller hard drive; but having worked as a computer technician for 7 years of my life, I have had enough of trying to make stuff work. My machine can't handle a 160 GB drive? Then the hell with it, I'll spend the extra $10 and buy the drive which it can handle rather than screw with it.

So, $90 plus tax later, I happily walked out of Best Buy with a new Seagate--the first Seagate drive I've owned since the early 1990s. This hasn't been from any sort of defect on Seagate's part; I just haven't had occasion to buy one.

Maxtor, on the other hand...

Maxtor seriously pissed me off. For a while, I used to buy only Maxtor drives. Then I bought a 40 GB drive which had a rebate on it; I sent the rebate in and it was denied because they got it after the due date. One day after the due date. It had been mailed in plenty of time to get there and it was postmarked several days before the due date; they should have accepted it. But they didn't, because the rebate was something like $40 or so--denying rebates let them make money on the drive.

Anyway, I decided that would be the last Maxtor drive I bought. I hope that extra $40 serves them well, because it's the last of my money they'll get...and I will advise others against buying their brand.

The last Seagate drive I bought weighed in at a whopping 800 MB. It had a feature which allowed it to appear to be two hard drives to the motherboard--set the jumpers just so and the drive would pretend it was two drives. It had to be like this, because at the time (the mid-1990s) many motherboards couldn't handle a drive bigger than 400-odd megabytes. I bought it specifically for that feature, because my system's motherboard was just such a motherboard.

Moore's Law being what it is ( hard drives have virtually exploded in capacity since then.

Hard drive manufacturers have done some very clever things with the science of storing information by using a thin magnetic coating on a spinning disk. About every two or three years--slower, admittedly, than the advancement of integrated circuits--they come up with something else which doubles or quadruples the storage capacity of a hard drive. In the late 1990s it was thin magnetoresistive heads; typical capacities went from around 1 GB to over 4. In the early 2000s they exploded again and hit 20 GB. And incremental gains over the past four years or so have resulted in typical hard drive capacities of around 80 GB for most system configurations.

80 GB is a lot of data. I mean, it's a LOT. A single 650 MB CD-ROM can hold an encyclopedia--a BIG encyclopedia, with multimedia features, and have room left over for a bunch of other reference books like a dictionary, a thesaurus, a grammar manual, and whatever else. And 80 GB is 124 CD-ROMs. If you can type 60 words per minute, assuming an average word length of around 7 letters, it would take you over 362 YEARS to fill that hard drive with text--assuming that you never stopped to do anything else.

When I first started as a computer technician, Seagate was still making their venerable ST-251. That drive is an old favorite of mine, for many reasons. For one thing, they were virtually indestructible. For another, they were so common I knew the drive specs by heart. They were the Model T of hard drives. "ST" stood for "Seagate Technologies", the manufacturer. "2" was the form factor--half-height and 5 1/4 inches wide--and "51" was the unformatted capacity of the drive in megabytes.


...what good is that??

Hard drives were not just made for personal computers. Companies were making hard drives for a bunch of other applications. Because the companies did not know (or care) what the actual end use of the drive would be, they couldn't predict the capacity of the drive after it had been set up for use. All drives have to be formatted before they can be used, but actual usable capacity depends on how much of the actual space is used for sector headers, directory space, and so on. In the case of the ST-251, after it was low-level and high-level formatted, it lost around 9 MB to that sort of "overhead".

At the time the ST-251 was being designed, DOS machines (MS-DOS, PC-DOS...the operating system for the PC-compatible computers which were the forebears of the modern Windows machine) were not the only viable alternative other than Apple hardware. When the ST-251 was first introduced, you could go to a retail store and buy software for:

* Commodore 64 and Amiga
* Apple ][ series and Macintosh
* Atari 800 and ST series
* IBM PC and compatibles

...and none of those machines used the same operating system, even across manufacturers. (The Atari ST series could read 3.5" diskettes from IBM computers, though, since the filesystem structures were identical.)

80 GB is 2,000 times more storage than the venerable ST-251 had; and it's 4,000 times more storage than my first hard drive, an evil Computer Memory Systems 20 MB drive which was about as reliable as a $50 car. Those drives were utter junk even from the factory. I had to back up my data, wipe that drive, and totally re-format it every two weeks...and in those days, that meant using a BIOS routine to low-level format it before performing the DOS format that installed the DOS filesystem. (And I had to walk uphill to the computer store both ways to buy 5.25" diskettes which only held 360k.)

So here I am with a brand-new 120 GB hard drive. In terms of capacity it's the largest hard drive I've ever handled, much less owned. I read the instructions to make sure there were no stupid foibles to trip me up, then dove in and installed the drive, utterly ignoring the "set up CD" that came with the drive.

I have never liked the software which came with hard drives. I had to struggle a lot with "overlay" software--software meant to coax a computer into using a drive it really couldn't handle--and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Overlay software was always just pure trouble, and whenever I could, I would convince people to upgrade their hardware (ie install a newer controller card) rather than just upgrade the hard drive itself. It cost a bit more but everyone was happier in the end: the customer was happy because his computer worked right every time; the boss was happy because he made some more money on the service call; and I was happy because I didn't have to spend an entire morning fucking around with junk.

And so I hooked the new drive up, temporarily disabling my DVD drives to do so. I ran good old FDISK.EXE in a DOS window and partitioned the drive, and rebooted the computer; after formatting the thing I set up a read-write verify test (checked the "Thorough Disk Scan" box in the Windows ScanDisk applet).

The partitioning took a while. You tell FDISK you want to set up a partition, it "verifies" the disk. You set up the partition, it "verifies" the disk again. For a 120 GB hard drive, these two "verifications" take about half an hour, all told.

Formatting took twelve seconds. But Scandisk??

Scandisk took five freaking hours

It was well after 1 AM when it was finally done. I'd gotten up at 9:30 AM and had been going ever since--shopping, trying to fix a balky lawn mower, etc--and even a DVD of Cardcaptor Sakura stopped helping after a while. An approximate eternity later I started to copy the data from the old 40 GB drive (vintage 2003) to the new drive. Then I went to bed. Sometime during the intervening time I woke up, saw that the copy was done, and shut down the computer, but I don't recall exactly when. Anyway, after about four hours of sleep, I pulled out the Maxtor, installed the Seagate, and buttoned the system up.

I'm hoping this will hold me for a while. With a nearly-full 40 GB drive copied to the new one, I have around 75% of the drive still free. That is a lot of episodes of Creamy Mami.

The latest development in hard drives is "perpendicular recording". It's not as cool as it sounds; it sounds like they've found a way to layer magnetic domains on the disks--but that's not it. It just means that they've managed to make the magnetic domains on the actual disks smaller, by orienting them perpendicular to the surface of the disk, rather than parallel. So far it's resulted in about a 30% increase in drive capacity, but this technology is relatively new stuff--it was announced late last year. And anyway, 30% of 120 GB is 40 GB--so drives which used to store only 120 GB (listen to me, "ONLY 120 GB") can now store 160 GB...and as the technology matures the information density will go higher.

Richard Feynman was pretty certain that there's no lower limit to the power required for computation. Ultimately this may mean we'll be storing bits in electron orbits. It's kind of like the question, "How high is up?" Bits are mathematical points; there must be a practical limit below which it's too costly to bother, but we're nowhere near that point yet.

In 1991 the semiconductor industry was atwitter: IC fabrication processes were down to the 70 micron level--the smallest circuit feature they could make was 70 microns across--and there were all kinds of problems with going any smaller. What, o what, will Silicon Valley do?

15 years later, circuit features are 1,000 times smaller than they were in 1991, and they're still shrinking according to Moore's Law. And hard drives are keeping pace nicely.

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