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 tech talk hard drives

Tech Talk One Oh One - Hard Drives


This is part one of a multi-part series on hard drives; the different kinds, how to connect them to a computer, and how they’re formatted, etc. This may not sound like the most riveting topic, but by the end of these articles you’ll have a good idea of what you require for your storage needs, and you’ll be able to make an informed decision when shopping for a new computer or a back-up hard drive. (You are backing up your computer, right? What?!? NO?!? Read my other article!)

Inside or out?

Often people ask how much “memory” a computer has, but what they really mean is “how much storage does it have?” This is confusing, because memory is something totally different, and memory actually forgets everything when you turn off your computer, unlike storage which is where you put things you want the computer to remember indefinitely. Confused? I don’t blame you!

The amount of storage a computer has is what determines how many documents, photos, videos, songs, etc. you can keep on your computer. Every computer comes with a certain amount of storage built in internally. If you run out of room you can either replace that internal storage (which involves disassembling the computer or paying someone else to do it) or you can buy an external hard drive which plugs in and can be removed when you don’t need it. Typically, external hard drives are slower to use and have the disadvantage of accidentally coming unplugged and possibly losing data in the process. But they’re super convenient, easy to replace and relatively cheap.

Large external hard drives (usually anything bigger than 1 TB) generally need to be plugged in to a power outlet, but smaller external drives are much more portable and pull power from just the USB cable. I’ll talk more about different cables for external drives in my next post.

Spinning or solid?

Hard drives are a marvel of engineering. A polished metal platter spins hundreds of times a second, and a read/write head (which hovers so close to the platter surface visible light can’t squeeze underneath) magnetizes tiny portions of the surface, which is how your files are stored. Several of these platters are stacked on top of each other and encased to form what we call a hard drive (HDD for short). The downside to a hard drive is all the wear and tear on all those moving parts. Also, the platter can only spin so fast, which limits how quickly you can store or retrieve files.

Recently, a newer method of storage has come down drastically in price. Solid State Disks (SSDs for short) have no moving parts, and are incredibly fast; often 40 or 50 times faster than a traditional spinning drive. Although, they are more expensive than an HDD, putting an SSD in your computer is the best way to dramatically improve performance and make everything noticeably faster. It feels like getting a new computer! Many laptops are shipping with SSDs as standard issue nowadays.

Other storage

Hard drives aren’t the only way to store your files. In fact, you may remember the days of floppy drives and zip drives, which were commonplace on PCs even before they shipped with internal hard drives. These days floppies don’t cut it, considering a single photo from an iPhone would require at least 2 floppies to store.  The two other ways of storing files are broken in to two categories; optical and flash. Optical storage consists of CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs, and many PCs still have optical drives to read and write to these discs. They’re typically slow, prone to scratching, and many you can only write to once. Flash storage, on the other hand, consists of thumb drives and media cards. These are usually pretty fast, VERY portable, and relatively cheap. Digital cameras require media cards, which are measured in speed and capacity. Depending on your budget, you should always go with the biggest and fasted speed. Make sure you get the right type; SD Card, Compact Flash Card or Micro SD (which is the most common). The same rule-of-thumb applies to thumb drives, which you can usually pick up pretty cheaply. It’s a good idea to have at least an 8 GB thumb drive in your laptop bag for transferring files from computer to computer, or for delivering large files.


In my personal MacBook Pro I have both a small SSD (which the operating system sits on) and a larger HDD (for all my documents and music, etc.). I also have an external hard drive to make sure all of that gets backed up regularly. On my Surface Pro 3 I have an internal SSD, but I also keep a Micro SD card permanently installed for storing some music on.

The universal truth is that no matter how big your internal storage, you will always find a way to fill it! All hard drives are susceptible to crashing and data loss, so make sure you have a good backup system in place. Did I mention you should be backing up regularly?

Hopefully, you have a better understanding of the different ways computers and electronic devices store information. As an IT professional it’s my job to stay up to date on the latest breakthroughs in storage technology, and to stay abreast of current market prices.

If all this still sounds confusing you can easily let Bit-Wizards help manage your IT to make sure you always have what you need. When we provide Managed IT Services for your company we monitor your entire network and can let you know when your computers are running out of storage, as well as provide robust backup solutions. Give us a call!


Samuel O. Blowes, Director of IT
Samuel O. Blowes

Director of IT