Demystifying Internal Hard Drives

In the first few days of owning a new computer, running out of storage space is one of the last things on your mind. The sad truth is that once you begin to load it up with programs, all your backup files, and folders with all sorts of media, all that copious storage space seems to vanish right before your eyes. Filling up the hard drive on your computer could take any amount of time, but despite the amount of storage that you start out with, you’re eventually going to want or need to expand.

Internal hard drives seem like a relatively easy thing to purchase; just buy the biggest capacity that you can pay for, and you’re ready to go. However, there are a lot of factors that come into play when purchasing a new internal hard drive: Is the storage space on a multi-terabyte hard drive worth paying for? How fast should my hard drive spin for optimal performance? Do I need more than one drive for the amount of data I have? In this article, we’re going to demystify the complexity of internal hard drives, and hopefully point you in the right direction of the right one for you to purchase.

Capacity—how much is too much?

When looking for a new internal hard drive, the most critical quality is the capacity. Capacity affects every other choice in purchasing your new drive—especially how much you’re going to pay. It’s no surprise that you’re going to have to shell out more dough for a larger capacity drives; different capacities are ideal depending on the type of work that you usually do. If you shoot a lot of video or work with larger files, go for the largest capacity possible: greater than 1 TB, maybe even 2 TB. Photographers, Music lovers (and makers!), and serious gamers will also want to invest in larger capacity drives. Casual computer users and business people can usually go for a smaller capacity drive; it doesn’t take a lot of storage space to store word documents, Photoshop documents, spreadsheets, and personal family photos. Although larger capacity drives have appeared on the market recently (Western Digital offers a 6TB drive; Seagate has started shipping out 8 and 10TB drives to enterprise customers), some systems may have a difficult time recognizing drives with capacities upwards of 2 TB. However, Western Digital and Seagate have developed both hardware and software workarounds for this issue. If you just have to have the largest drive on the market, be prepared to do a small amount of extra work to get your new drive up and running.

Do I need more than one drive?

Most computers on the market today only come with one hard drive—it’s the most common configuration out there. Most people choose to expand their space with external storage solutions, but some manufacturers have started developing multiple-drive systems. There are a number of benefits to having a multi-drive system, especially speed and value. Another added benefit is knowing that a sudden system crash or power supply failure will not destroy all your precious memories or important school or business documents. If you’re thinking of springing for a multi-drive system, having one drive strictly for programs and the other for documents and other files is the wisest way to split your data. If you don’t need all the extra space, a single high-performance drive is your best bet.

How fast should my drive spin?

Hard drives all spin at different rates. The faster the drive spins, the faster your computer will run—this added speed will cost you a pretty penny, of course. The most common speed for an internal hard drive is 7,200 revolutions per minute (rpm), and drives with capacities up to 4TB usually spin at this rate. There are drives that spin at 10,000rpm, but are restricted to drives with capacities 1TB and below. The added speed will also up the cost, despite the smaller capacity. In the current age where a lot of us are trying to be more eco-friendly, “low power” or “green” drives are available as well; these drives spin at 5,400rpm and have a lower price tag than drives with higher speeds.

Transfer Speeds + Interface

The way that your drive will connect to your computer can have a radical impact on how your drive will perform. Most internal drives on the market today use Serial ATA (also known as SATA) with speeds of either 3Gbps or 6Gbps. If your computer has a 6Gbs (SATA III) port, you should definitely take advantage of it. SATA III drives work at double the speed of the older 3Gbps SATA drives. There are other interfaces out there (Parallel ATA [PATA, or IDE], Serial Attached SCSI [SAS]) but rarely show up in modern computers anymore.

Size Matters—3.5 or 2.5 inches?

               Most internal desktop drives usually come in the 3.5-inch form factor, which allows them to easily fit into the bays and caddies found in almost all desktop towers. Newer drives use an even smaller 2.5-inch form factor, but their small size does not compromise the amount of power that a drive can put out. One of the fastest drives on the market, Western Digital’s VelociRaptor, is a 2.5-inch drive in a 3.5 inch frame. Not all computer cases can accommodate the 2.5-inch form factor like they can with the 3.5-inch; many require special trays, caddies, or brackets to mount them. Before purchasing a drive with a 2.5-inch form factor, be sure to check if computer will be able to hold it.

The Bottom Line

Whichever hard drive (or drives) that you choose to purchase should depend on how you’re going to use it and the amount of money you feel comfortable spending on it. Optimally, a mid-range capacity (750GB-1.5TB) SATA III drive is the best bet for both sufficient storage space and speedy performance. If you don’t feel comfortable working with the inside of your computer or need a portable storage solution, check out our guide on buying an External Hard Drive.

Good luck on finding your new internal hard drive!