Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 168 / SEPTEMBER 1994 / PAGE 56

How to upgrade your hard drive. (Compute's Getting Started With: Upgrading Your PC)
by Richard O. Mann

"This is a great time to buy hard drives," says Salt Lake City mail-order dealer Boyd Peterson of DeskTop Media. "Prices are less than a dollar a megabyte - way down from even a year ago."

If your hard drive is getting crowded, now is the time to act. (Mann's First Law of Hard Drives: All hard drives, no matter how big, have less than 2MB of empty space.)

Although the industry is settling in with 200MB to 250MB for the basic hard drive in new computers, many lower-priced systems come with 170MB drives. Even two years ago, that sounded like a lot. In today's Windows-dominated world, 200MB will fill up so fast that you'll be looking for Stacker in no time.

With DOS itself taking over 6MB, Windows taking upwards of 20MB, and any self-respecting application at all running to 5MB or more, hard drive real estate becomes scarce amazingly fast. If you do Windows (and who doesn't, these days?), serious applications routinely run over 20MB. CorelDRAW!, fully installed, is the biggest I've run across, at 62MB. Trust me: If you're any kind of a software junkie, your hard drives are perennially full. And heaven help you if you're a game player - the graphics and sound files fill hard drives like tribbles filling the Enterprise.

Upgrade Options

The average person can simply buy a new drive and install it alongside the old drive inside the computer case, but there are a few complications to bedevil owners of older computers.

Hard drives come in just a few basic types. Older drives are RLL or MFM types (never mind what the letters stand for - it's not important). Neither type will work in tandem with a new drive, so if you have one of these drives, you'll have to replace it and its hard drive controller card. (If you're not sure what type your old drive is, open the computer case and look at the drive. The type will almost always be on a label on the drive. If not, check the number of data cables per drive. RLL and MFM drives have two, while a newer drive has only one.)

Most drives sold in the last few years are IDE drives, which work fine in tandem with other drives, including the other current drive type, SCSI (pronounced "scuzzy").

SCSI drives cost a little more, so unless their particular talents are needed, most people stick with IDE. Because IDE drives are presently limited in size, buy SCSI if you need a really large drive (though there's nothing wrong with buying multiple IDE drives to get the same capacity). If you need heavy throughput, you should be aware that SCSI drives can deliver up to ten megabits per second of data transfer, while IDE drives max out at four megabits per second. A newer generation of higher-capacity and faster IDE drives will be available soon, so be sure to shop around.

Older drives are slow by today's standards, but the new drives you can buy are all fast enough to keep you happy. Consider a 13-ms access time as your slowest acceptable speed.



A new hard drive fits in a 3 1/2-inch drive bay - if it's bigger than that, it's old technology, and you don't want it. Drive bays are cagelike affairs in your computer's case. You'll need a bay to hold each drive, unless you get a half-height drive to share a bay with another half-height floppy or hard drive. Most computer cases have enough drive bays for two or more hard drives. Unfortunately, many Packard Bell and Tandy computers (among others) come with only three bays, which can really cramp your style if you want more than one hard drive and both sizes of floppy drives, to say nothing of a CD-ROM drive or tape backup unit. Half-height drives and external units may be the solution here.

You can also buy an internal hard drive, known as a hard card, which plugs into an expansion slot on the motherboard rather than fitting into a drive bay. Hard cards are fast and reliable, but they cost more than traditional drives. If you're fresh out of drive bays, a hard card can be the answer.

If all else fails, you can also buy a new computer case and transfer all the innards of your present machine into a roomier new case.




Multimedia computing is a fairly recent development. While an increasing number of computers sold for home use today are equipped for multimedia, millions of computers await the happy day when they get a multimedia upgrade.

What Is Multimedia?

Multimedia refers to using more than one medium to present a message. In the PC context, that means adding sound and video to the usual text and graphics. Multimedia software is everywhere these days, usually in the form of CD-ROM programs filled with glorious music, sound effects, and voices along with full-motion color video. Spend a few minutes in the multimedia section of this magazine for a taste of what's going on in this exciting field.

Basic Hardware

The components you need to add to a basic computer for multimedia compatibility are a CD-ROM drive, a sound card. and stereo speakers.

The Multimedia Marketing Council has defined standards for multimedia PCs. The current version is MPC-2, which calls for a minimum of a 486SX-25 with 4MB of RAM; a 160MB hard drive; a video card capable of 640 x 480 with 65,000 colors; a high-density 3 1/2-inch floppy drive; a 16-bit sound card; and a CD-ROM drive capable of sustained throughput of 300 kilobytes per second. That standard, issued in May 1993, is a little out-of-date. Experience says that a 486DX-25 with 8MB of RAM and a much bigger hard drive is required to run a lot of today's multimedia software successfully.

If you have the basic computing power, all you need to do is add the extra components to turn your humdrum PC into an interactive entertainment center.

Upgrade Components

There are two ways to get the necessary stuff for your upgrade project. One is to buy the components separately and install them. The other is to purchase a prepackaged multimedia upgrade kit. Kits are p together by sound card and CD-ROM drive manufacturers to make your life easier. If you buy the components separately, you run the risk of not getting a fine-tuned compatibility. Kits are almost always less expensive than separate components and usually include a bundle of outstanding CD-ROMs.

Unless you have some overriding reason to buy separately, I recommend buying a kit. I do have some advice on selecting a kit, however, that I'll present component by component. This will be highly summarized information; COMPUTE has covered choosing CD-ROM drives and sound cards at some length in recent months. (The full text of these COMPUTE articles is available on America Online for normal connect charges.)

CD-ROM Drives

The rules here are pretty simple. Get double speed (which means a transfer rate of 300 kilobytes per second), match the interface with your sound board (SCSI, IDE, and proprietary interfaces are available), and choose between a caddy-based system and a drawer-based system. Speed is everything.

Surprisingly, the new triple-speed drives don't seem to give much speed advantage for normal multimedia work, although the speed really shows in pure data transfer work, according to Boyd Peterson of Salt Lake City's DeskTop Media.

The drive needs to match the CD-ROM drive controller interface on your sound card. I would recommend a SCSI interface because it's the industry standard and it allows you to swap the drive or sound card at any time for newer, better hardware. If you get a proprietary interface, your upgrade options will be more limited.

Whether to put your CD-ROMs into a caddy before putting them into the drive is a matter of personal preference. Caddy-based system vendors tell us that while fussing with the caddies is more trouble, the innards of the drive remain out of harm's way. With drawer-based systems, a drawer full of drive mechanism comes out to accept the CD-ROM directly.

Sound Boards

Hundreds of sound boards crowd today's market, confusing things with various proposed standards and different ways of doing things. Be sure your board uses 16-bit technology (virtually all of them do) and is Sound Blaster compatible. The sound board usually has the CD-ROM drive controller hardware built in, so be sure the board you choose has the same interface as the drive you buy.

The newest thing in sound cards is wave-table MIDI sound, which is light years ahead of the previous FM synthesis technology. If you decide to pay a little more for the outstanding quality of wave-table sound, be sure to get a board that's fully backward compatible with Sound Blaster sound - or you won't get sound out of many older programs.


These are usually an afterthought, thought they're important to the overall quality of the multimedia experience. Kits come with adequate basic speakers, with fancier desktop speakers coming as a later upgrade. For late-night work, a personal headset keeps the sound from bothering other family members.

Installing the

Upgrade Kit

Whether you go with a kit or individually purchased components, installing multimedia on your computer is a mixed bag. If you're lucky, it goes without a hitch. However, you will need to do some screwdriver work and spend some time with your software drivers and system files,

Our first multimedia kit took many hours over three days to install; the last one took about 20 minutes (I had the dealer do it). Until the promised Plug and Play standards come to life in the next year or so, any multimedia installation will involve working with IRQs and DMAs to resolve potential conflicts, so be prepared for potential frustration and calls to tech support - just in case. I always recommend installing potentially difficult things at a time when tech support is open.