Consumer’s Guide: How To Buy a Computer Hard Drive

Consumer’s Guide: How To Buy a Computer Hard Drive

Do you need gigabytes or performance? Laptop upgrades or a screaming new gaming PC? We walk you through what you need to know to pick the right storage solution for your PC.

Storage. Always needed, often overlooked.

Often lost in the buzz surrounding the latest DirectX 11 GPUs and hexacore CPUs is the ability to actually store and retrieve your stuff. Your applications, games, photographs, digital music and everything else lives on your hard drive. But that boring old rotating magnetic disk just doesn’t seem exciting or high tech – even though the technology in a hard drive is actually pretty incredible.

One technology that has made storage a little sexier is SSDs – solid state drives based on flash memory technology. But SSDs aren’t a perfect solution, as we’ll see shortly. We’ll cover the gamut of storage options for your OS and apps to help you better understand what storage solution is best for your needs. (Note that we’re not going to talk about optical storage, which really is secondary these days.)

We’ll first touch briefly on technology and jargon, then look at several different scenarios, and try to focus on what storage options might be appropriate and cost effective. But first, let’s talk tech. We’ll first briefly discuss hard drives, then take a quick look at SSDs.

Good Old Fashioned Hard Drives

Hard drives consist of small platters coated with magnetically sensitive material. These platters are designed to be stacked up to five high, and run at spin rates up to 15,000RPM. Some high end desktop hard drives max out at 10,000RPM, but most performance hard drives for desktop PCs run at 7,200RPM. The 15K RPM drives are mostly used in servers.

Consumer's Guide: How To Buy a Computer Hard Drive
10,000RPM. That’s really fast rotational speed. It’s about as fast as you can get for a desktop hard drive.

One of the key aspects of hard drives is areal density – how many bits you can cram onto a square inch. Despite the relative maturity of the technology, hard drive makers continue to improve on areal density. Seagate and Samsung have both announced hard drives that will ship in late 2011 that offer one terabyte per platter, or 625 gigabits per square inch.

Magnetic heads, mounted on arms that are moved with an electric motor called an actuator is how the data gets written to and read from the disc. Head technology is as critical as areal density, because the heads have to be extremely sensitive to read individual bits when there are 625 billion of them in a square inch of disk space.

There are several key aspects to hard drive performance: Areal density. The more bits you can cram onto a platter, the faster the drive, all other things equal. At the same spin rate, higher bit densities means that the more data is read off the drive per linear inch as it spins. Spin rate. As you spin a drive faster, more bits travel under the head, and more data read each second. Cache. Most hard drives have some DRAM cache. More cache is generally better. The highest performance hard drives have as much as 64MB of fast DRAM cache. Head technology. The robustness and responsiveness of the motors that move the head (the head actuator) determines how quickly the head can be moved to different areas of the drive. This affects random access performance.

One thing that doesn’t really affect hard drive performance these days is the interface. Even 10,000RPM drives can’t fully saturate a 3gbps SATA I port. Seagate has suggested that the data coming off the 64MB cache of their latest second generation SATA 6gbps drive can saturate the bust, but this would be with brief bursts at best, and with no practical effect on performance.

Consumer's Guide: How To Buy a Computer Hard Drive

Seagate was first to market with a 7,200RPM, 3TB hard drive, but your system BIOS needs to recognize it properly if you want to configure it as one large partition.

Western Digital and Seagate also make a line of “green” (low power consumption) drives. The WD GreenPower drives typically spin at 5,400RPM, while Seagate’s Barracuda Green drives usually run at 5,900RPM. Note that power usage while actually under heavy load isn’t that much lower, but these drives also typically offer sophisticated sleep modes which use very little power at idle. This type of technology is gradually being migrated to higher performance drives as well.

SSD Tech

Solid State Drives are still in their infancy as a technology. Products continue to evolve, and performance increases over time. This is particularly true of random write performance. First generation SSDs were hobbled by extremely slow random write times – often much slower than old fashioned rotating platters. That’s changed with newer generation of controllers, better garbage collection (which reorganizes the data to minimize the number of small, empty blocks) and trim command support with modern operating systems, in which the OS tells the SSD which blocks of data are considered deleted.

The cost per bit of SSDs is much higher than hard drives, and given the limitations of the manufacturing processes, the cost per bit will remain high, albeit declining gradually. Currently, 25nm flash memory parts are pretty much the order of the day, with 20nm on the near horizon. As Anand Shimpi noted in a recent article, the costs of flash chips prevent prices from getting lower. And the cutthroat competition means products get shipped that aren’t fully baked.

Still, we’ve been using an SSD RAID array in our primary system for both everyday use and gaming, and it would be tough to go back. The incredibly short boot times and fast application loading are seductive, and the thought of waiting for stuff to load is painful. Most users can’t afford large capacity SSDs or SSD RAID arrays, so modest size drives are pretty much the rule of the day. That’s one reason you see so many 120GB drives – it’s right in the sweet spot for pricing.

As with hard drives, there are a number of factors that drive performance:

The type of flash. Drives using SLC (single-level cell) flash are faster than those built with MLC (multi-level cell), but lower density, so drives built with SLC flash memory are pricier. However, SLC based drives are not only higher performing, but last longer and consume less power. That’s why SLC drives are often used in server applications.

The interface. Unlike rotating platter drives, newer SSDs can saturate a 3gbps interface. That’s why many are moving to the newer 6gbps SATA spec.

The controller. The controller built into the drive itself is the real secret sauce. Note that legacy hard drives also have controllers, but controllers in SSDs have a far larger impact on performance. The current darling in the SSD controller space is Sandforce, with its SF-2281. But Intel controllers are pretty good. It’s also worth noting that OCZ bought Indilinx, a relatively new controller company. So the controller wars will likely go on.

The firmware. The real issue with SSDs is that they’re pretty new technology. What does that mean in practical term? Bugs. If you cruise various online forums, you’ll find that SSDs often have oddball issues, like blue-screens, sudden loss of capacity and more.

Before you get too mired in all the details of controllers and flash memory types, remember that any good, current generation SSD will offer performance that’s nothing short of amazing, if you’re coming from a rotating platter drive. After using your PC with your shiny new SSD installed, you’ll find yourself expecting PCs to be that responsive – and wondering why that shiny new laptop your spouse just bought seems so damned slow. Hint: it’s not the CPU or memory.

Consumer's Guide: How To Buy a Solid State Drive SSD

A 120GB SSD like this Patriot Wildfire is an great performance boost for a laptop up to a couple of years old and running Windows 7.

The other important consideration to weigh when thinking about SSDs is capacity. As noted, the sweet spot right now is 120GB drives, which range in price from $170 to $300 for drives built in standard, 2.5-inch form factors. Newer 240GB drives cost well north of $300 to over $500. Want a 500GB SSD? Be prepared to shell out nearly $800 or more. So consider your budget and applications before taking the expensive step to SSDs. We’ll discuss some scenarios shortly.

Now that we have some basic understanding of hard drives and SSDs, let’s look at a few typical user scenarios.

The Basic Office PC

This might also be called the shared living room PC. It’s usually light on performance, often with integrated graphics. The applications aren’t demanding, either – office apps and internet browsing are the mainstays, with some occasional digital photo or media transcoding. The entire price of the system might be under $500.

Consumer's Guide: How To Buy a Hard Drive
“Green” hard drives use less power mostly by slower rotation speeds, but also offer added sleep modes to help reduce power consumption.

This is the perfect PC for one of those low power green hard drives. If you’re upgrading an existing, older system, cloning the boot drive to a 1TB Western Digital GreenPower or Seagate Barracuda Green will improve responsiveness and substantially increase capacity.

The Laptop Upgrade

Your laptop is several years old, but you can’t really justify refreshing the entire unit just yet. If the HDD in the laptop is 250GB or less, definitely consider replacing it with a 120GB SSD. Sure, you’ll give up some capacity, but you’ll gain some immediate benefits:

• Boot times will be much faster. Waiting for laptops to boot off slow, 5,400RPM 2.5-inch drives is like watching grass grow.

• You can use hibernate rather than sleep mode. Sleep consumes more power than hibernate, but a system with an SSD will come back from hibernate nearly as fast as a system waking up from sleep.

• SSDs are rugged, since there are no moving parts. So the shocks and jolts experienced by most mobile PCs will have little effect on an SSD.

Consumer's Guide: How To Buy a Hard Drive

If you need capacity in a laptop, this 7,200RPM, 750GB drive from Western Digital fits the bill.

If you really need capacity in your laptop – you travel a lot with your camera, for example, and are frequently copying and editing photos – get a high capacity, 7,200RPM drive, like Western Digital’s Scorpio Black 750GB drive. An interesting alternative would be Seagate’s 500GB Momentus XT Hybrid, which combines a 4GB flash memory cache with a 7,200 RPM hard drive. Performance is somewhat better than a standard hard drive, though the gains aren’t nearly what they would be with a true SSD.

A Digital Media Studio

You edit a lot of photos – particularly raw DSLR photos. Or you shoot video and need a fast system with lots of capacity to edit your digital movies. You need both capacity and performance, because waiting around for large media files to load is painful. But what you get depends on your budget. There’s also the issue of data security – backups are critical, but we won’t discuss those here.

Let’s look at some possible storage configurations.

• If your budget is tight, consider a 7,200RPM, 2TB drive with 64MB of cache. These typically cost $150 or less.

• If you’ve got a few bucks more, build the system with a fast 1TB drive for the applications and a secondary, 2TB drive for data and scratch files.

• If your budget can spare several hundred dollars for storage, add a third, 2TB drive and combine it in a RAID 1 (that’s right, RAID 1) array for data redundancy. Write performance will be a tad slower, but read performance with RAID 1 is actually a little better than a single drive.

• If you have a boatload of money, get a 240-256GB SSD as the boot drive. Use that for the apps and for the scratch files. Put all the data on a second, 2TB RAID 0 array. (You can use 3TB drives, too, but you may encounter technical issues with some motherboard BIOSes, as well as the need to configure them as GPT partitions if you’re using Windows.)

Unless you’re filthy rich, you won’t build an all SSD digital media editing system – capacity is often king here. If you are filthy rich, it may be worth exploring dedicated hardware RAID cards and RAID 10 arrays or something similar.

Killer Gaming Rig

Games really benefit from the speed of SSDs – but games take up a vast amount of space. If all you can afford is a modest gaming system – under $1,000 – SSDs are probably out of the picture.

Or are they?

For under a hundred bucks, you can pick up a 60GB SSD. But don’t use it as a boot drive. Instead, build your gaming system using a motherboard with an Intel Z68 chipset and use the small SSD as a cache for a larger (1TB or so) hard drive. (Intel brands this as “Smart Response Technology.”) You’ll see substantially improved storage throughput. All you need to do is first install Windows on the rotating media drive (making sure that RAID mode is enabled in the system BIOS), then add the SSD and configure it as a cache in the RAID BIOS or through Intel’s software utilities.

Intel’s Z68 chipset plus Smart Response adds a whole new wrinkle to modestly priced systems, and may be a bigger speed improvement with minimal cost than buying a faster CPU – though for a gaming rig, we’d choose a faster graphics card and sacrifice the SSD if we were on a really tight budget. Right now, Smart Response is only on the Z68, so AMD users or gamers running Intel X58 triple channel rigs don’t have that option.

How to Buy a Hard Drive: An Essential Guide

This 250GB Intel 510 SSD is an excellent solution for a high end gaming rig, if you can afford it.

If you have a generous budget for a gaming system, a 250GB drive will handle your main apps plus a number of games; you can still add a second drive for other types of data, if you need it. And if you happen to have a lot of spare cash on hand, a second 250GB SSD in RAID 0 mode is actually more affordable than a single 500GB SSD in today’s market.

Everyone’s storage needs differ, but it used to be simpler: find a hard drive with the right combination of price, capacity and speed for your needs. Today, though, SSDs have upended the equation, and the right mix for your own need may be the right mix of SSD and HDD. What that combination is depends on your needs, budget and technical inclination. by MaximumPc

How-To: Set up your own home file server using FreeNAS

How-To: Set up a home file server using FreeNAS

In today’s digital world we’ve all got data, and lots of it. Our libraries are also growing rapidly: where you used to get by setting aside a few bookshelves for your books, CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes, we now require untold server space to preserve our beloved media in digitized form. We also want our data to be itinerant, or at least seem that way. That is, if you want to take a book or disc to another room of your abode, you pull it from the bookshelf and take it with you. Similarly, if you’re working on a document upstairs on your desktop and you want to move to the den with your laptop, you’ll need the proper infrastructure working in the background to enable that kind of wizardry. So, how can we create this “digital bookshelf?” Can you go out and buy it now? Can you build it in your garage? As it turns out, the answer is “yes” on all counts. You could go out and buy a Drobo device but in this case, we’re going to assemble our own. And we’re going to do that with the help of an open source storage platform called FreeNAS. So how involved a process is that? Meet us after the break to find out.

What is FreeNAS you say? Put simply, it’s is an operating system based on FreeBSD that brings with it a snazzy web interface for management, and all the protocols you need to share files between Windows, Mac and Linux. In other words, a perfect solution for your digital bookshelf. Let’s get to it.

Here’s what you’ll need, hardware-wise:
  • A 64-bit Intel or AMD processor. (While FreeNAS does support 32-bit environments, you’ll want 64-bit to utilize the ZFS file system to it’s potential. More on that later.)
  • A system board with a decent amount of SATA ports.
  • At least 4GB of RAM. FreeNAS documentation recommends a minimum of 6GB of RAM for best performance with ZFS. We found 4GB worked just fine. A general rule of thumb is 1GB of RAM for every 1TB of storage.
  • At least three SATA hard drives. (As with RAM, the more hard drives you have, the better.)
  • One CAT5 cable. (This thing needs to connect to your home network, obviously.)
  • One USB thumb drive to install the FreeNAS OS image.
  • One blank CD-R / CD-RW for writing the FreeNAS ISO in preparation for the installation.
  • Oh yeah, the 64-bit FreeNAS ISO image itself, which you can snag here. (Version 8.0.3-p1 at the time of this writing.)

However, since the economy is tough and budgets are tight, we wanted to show that you don’t necessarily need the bee’s knees of hardware to get FreeNAS up and running. We had the following components lying around, and they worked stupendously:

  • One AMD Phenom 8650 triple-core CPU
  • 4GB RAM (2x 2GB DIMMS)
  • Gigabyte GMA-MA770-UP3 System Board
  • One 150GB SATA DRIVE
  • One 250GB SATA DRIVE
  • One 8GB SanDisk Cruzer USB thumb drive
  • One CD / DVD-ROM combo drive

Sidenote: Drives are supremely important here. Ideally, you would have at least five 1TB SATA HDDs and a separate SSD for the ZFS Intent Log (ZIL). If you wanted to take it one step further, you could mirror the ZIL with two solid-state drives. This would provide a very redundant and high-performing NAS. However, the scope of this how-to is strictly getting a cheap FreeNAS environment up and running with the most basic of hardware. Especially since flooding in the Asia-Pacific areas have caused HD prices to nearly double in price, 1TB drives do not come cheap compared to a year ago.

If you’re one of those extremely cautious people who has to double check everything, here’s a URL to the FreeNAS hardware requirements. We recommend you at least glance at them if you’re going to go out and hunt down shiny new hardware.

Once you’ve got your hardware squared away we have to get some things out in the open:

  • FreeNAS needs to be installed on a USB drive separate from the disks you intend to use for your storage volumes. Put simply, if you were to install FreeNAS (which only requires 2GB of storage) on a spankin’ new 1TB HD, you’d lose 1022GB of said hard disk. FreeNAS can not utilize the drive on which it’s installed for storage. So, that’s why you need that USB stick.
  • Think about where you want to keep your FreeNAS box. Once you install the OS you can throw the box in a closet with power and a network connection, and let ‘er run. Once the initial setup is complete, you can manage the configuration using the web interface. Just a thought.
  • Forget about WiFi. We know your little wheels are spinning — just forget it. Trust us on this one.

Other than those three items, there’s not much more to worry about — it’s time to install FreeNAS. To make things extra simple, we’ll break this into numbered steps for you.

FreeNAS Installation

1. The very first step is to download the FreeNAS ISO image and burn it to a blank CD-R/CD-RW. You can get the file here.

2. Place the USB stick into a USB port that’s attached directly to your system board. Don’t insert it into one of those front panel sockets; to be safe it should be in the back of the PC. Yours truly had some weird results using front panel USB ports, which included installations crashing and very slow operation.

3. Power up your machine and head directly to your BIOS config. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. We have to be sure to set the boot devices in the proper order. Since BIOS options vary from device to device, here’s the basic the order you want: CD/DVD drive, USB HDD, disable all other devices. Save your settings, place the freshly baked CD in your drive and reboot.

4. If everything went well with the last step you should now be booting to the first bootloader. You’ll see some text scrolling and gibberish like so:

Next you’ll get to the bootloader, which looks like this:
5. At this point you can either press Enter or allow the timer to count down. Whichever you choose, you’ll end up in the actual FreeNAS installer here:

You’ll be selecting the first option:”Install / Upgrade…”

6. Odds are your device will be listed as da0 on this screen as well. Double check the description and size to be sure. As you can see, in our case it plainly reads, “SanDisk Cruzer 8.02 — 7.5GiB,” the name of our USB Stick. Select your device and press Enter.

7. The installer here gives us a nice little warning which states that all data will be wiped from your drive for installation. Hit “Yes” to proceed.

8. As soon as you press Enter you’ll notice the dialogue beginning at the bottom of the screen. Man, that’s flashy. Eventually, you’ll see a message reassuring you the installation is complete and that it’s time to reboot again.

9. It does as it’s told. Hit Enter and remove the CD from your drive so you boot to your newly minted FreeNAS installation. Once your computer reboots, you’ll be inside the FreeNAS OS.

At this point, if you see this screen, go ahead and let out a single “woot!” You deserve it. Congratulations, you’ve now got FreeNAS installed. Okay, now get a hold of yourself, as we’ve still gotta carve out some disk volumes and share ’em.

Create disc volumes

1. Make note of the next-to-last line on the screen (highlighted in green below): That’s telling us the URL through which we can access the FreeNAS management interface.

Sidenote: By default, FreeNAS utilizes DHCP for obtaining IP addresses; your IP is almost certainly going to be different. In most home environments, DHCP is used for serving out IP addresses, so it’s easiest to leave the FreeNAS configuration as is to avoid any IP conflicts on your home network. If a storm knocks out power to your home and everything reboots, you may have to check this screen again if your DHCP client tables gets wiped out, as the address may change. If you happen to be running a network where you statically set IP addresses, good for you. You’ll of course need to set a static address on your FreeNAS system by choosing option one on the Console Setup Screen. We won’t cover configuring static addresses in this how-to, so you’re on your own there.

2. Let’s open up the management interface now. From another computer on your network, open up a web browser and enter the address you see on your FreeNAS machine. You should see this:

3. Notice in the top right you see that red “Alert” light blinking. Click it now.

FreeNAS is warning us there’s no password. Thanks, FreeNAS! Anyway, let’s go ahead and set one. Select “Account” over on the left, then “My Account”, then “Change Password”. Enter a password that’s not “password” and click “Change Admin..” Simple enough, right?
Create a user

Next up, we need to create a regular, non-administrator user. In the left menu, expand “Account”, then “Users” and click “Add User.” Fill in the details required: username, real name and password, with the primary group set to “wheel.” (We complete this step on the off chance you’ll get prompted for credentials when you connect to your share later on.)

With that business out of the way, it’s time to set up our disks and file sharing. But first, we need to make sure you understand two key points. For starters, FreeNAS supports two types of file systems and three sharing protocols. Let’s discuss the two file systems first.

  • UFS. An old stand-by, the Unix File System. Don’t get us wrong, it’s a solid system; we just don’t want to use it here. For one thing, it lacks the volume management, RAID and pooling options we can get with our second option, ZFS.
  • ZFS. The hot new kid on the block. This is the file system we want to use, mostly because of ZFS’ data integrity, which promises safer, more resilient storage. Not an insignificant factor if you’re trying to preserve a lifetime’s worth of photos, or hundreds of tracks that cost you $0.99 apiece. We could spend a great deal of time talking about ZFS, but that’s a topic for another day. For now, let’s get on with it and talk about FreeNAS’ sharing protocols.

As we said, FreeNAS supports three sharing methods:

  • CIFS/SAMBA. Open-source implementation of Microsoft’s SMB (Now mainly referred to as CIFS)
  • AFP. Apple Filing Protocol
  • NFS. Network File System

All three of these have their advantages and trade-offs. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to show you how to set up a CIFS share. This is because Windows, OS X and your favorite GNU/Linux distro all offer support for this protocol out of the box.

1. First, we have to set up our disk volumes. In the left menu, expand “Storage,” then “Volumes” and select “Create Volume.” You should see this screen:
Before you check any disks, give the volume a name and click “ZFS.” This will show the ZFS Extra section. Notice iyou can select None, Log, Cache or Spare for each disk listed. You would use these options if you wished to host your ZFS Log data or cache on a separate drive, like an SSD, to increase performance. The spare option would allow the drive to operate as a backup in the event one of the other drives failed. For the purpose of this guide, we’ll leave them all set to “None.”

2. Check all of the disks in the “Member disks” section.

  • Notice the “Group Type” there? FreeNAS is asking us what type of volume we want. Since we only have three disks, our available options are: ZFS Mirror, ZFS Stripe or RAID-Z. Remember, we aren’t focusing on UFS file systems here.
  • A ZFS mirrored volume would create a volume of the three drives above limited to the space of the smallest drive. So, we’d get a 71.4GB volume that had a one-to-one copy on our 250GB drive and 160GB drive. In case one of the drives died, we’d still have a backup copy on the other. This would be a poor choice with the combination of drives we’re using, since we’d lose so much available storage. Also not a wise choice with the availability of RAID-Z.
  • A striped volume creates a volume which has an available size of all disks combined. So in this case we’d get 442.5GB of storage available, with no redundancy. Not the best setup for redundancy, because if a drive fails, your volume goes offline and you’ll have possible data loss. Always remember: it’s never a question of if a hard drive will fail, but when. This is, however, the best setup for providing the maximum amount of storage space.
  • A RAID-Z1 Volume, in the most basic of terms, is an advanced mirror. Yours truly could write a whitepaper on RAID-Z, but it’s really beyond the scope of this how-to. However, this is the best option if you’ve got at least three drives of the same size.

In our case, we’ll go with ZFS Stripe. If you have a better disk setup than us — say, three 1TB drives — you’ll want to choose RAID-Z or ZFS Stripe with two drives and configure the third drive as a spare in the ZFS Extra settings.

Finishing up

At last, we click “Add volume” and the volume is created. Next, change the permissions on that volume so that anyone can read and write to it.

1. On the left, under Storage > Volumes, you should now see it listed as /mnt/myvolname, where “myvolname” is the name you gave to your newly minted volume. In our case, it’s /mnt/data. Expand that menu and click “Change Permissions.”

2. Under the “Mode” section, select both unchecked boxes beside “Write” and select “Set permission recursively.”

3. Click the “Change” button to set the permissions.

Now it’s time to share that volume and get on with the exciting business of saving your data.
The very first thing we need to do is enable the services required to share our files. Since we’re using CIFS specifically, we want to enable the service required for that particular protocol. So, click on the “Services” button with the gears icon at the top of the page, and you should see this:

Hit the “OFF” button to enable CIFS. Here, you can also enable any other protocol you’d like, such as SSH, NFS, AFP, et cetera. The slider should be flipped to “ON” when you’re done.

Next, click the wrench icon to bring up the CIFS service options. We want to check the “Allow guest access” checkbox and click OK.

Now, let’s create our CIFS share. On the left menu, expand “Sharing”, then “CIFS Shares” and click “Add CIFS Share.”

Give your CIFS share a name, and select the path to the volume you just created. In our case /mnt/data not /mnt/vol1. Basically prepend “/mnt/” to the name you gave your volume. Make sure to check “Browsable to Network Clients,” “Allow Guest Access.” Scroll down and click “OK.”

Ta-da! you can now access your share from your clients. From a windows host: Type “\\” in either the Start menu search bar or an Explorer bar. Example: “\\\datacifs.” If you’re using a Mac, meanwhile, go to Finder, hit “Go,” click “Connect to server” and type smb://. For example: “smb://” And from a Linux host, simply smbmount // /path/to/mountpoint.

Now you can enjoy your FreeNAS storage. Start copying over your music, pictures and movies. And hey, now you can enable UPnP in FreeNAS and pickup a media player that supports DLNA. There’s really so much you can do with a home NAS. Exploring is half the fun.