Prime drive time

SAN FRANCISCO (11/20/2003) - It's a hard-drive industry mantra: Each succeeding generation must be faster and fit more data into less space. But while performance gains have been modest recently, areal density (gigabytes per square inch) continues to grow. The result: roomy desktop drives, tiny portable hard drives that hold truly useful amounts of data, and other new products such as easy-to-install network-attached drives for homes and small businesses. And you can expect to see new functions and greater capacities in 2004.

Less Is More

A couple of years ago, adding an external drive meant choosing between easily portable low-capacity models and bulky high-capacity units. But that has gradually changed as hard-drive makers squeeze additional storage into ever-shrinking forms. Consider the smaller-than-a-floppy Archos Inc. 20GB ARCDisk (US$250; no other capacity currently available). Based on Hitachi Ltd.'s 1.8-inch DK14F1-20 mechanism and weighing only 2.7 ounces, this highly portable USB 2.0 drive sips power so parsimoniously that you usually don't need its AC adapter: It can run off of USB power alone. LaCie Group SA uses Toshiba Corp.'s similar 20GB drive in its nearly-as-small Data Bank ($299), and the company plans to use Toshiba's 40GB model in future Data Banks.

Though both the LaCie and the Archos run a bit warm in constant use, both units make a great higher-capacity alternative to flash memory drives for your sneakernet or commuter net. (See "Little Drives, Big Promises" for more about thumb drives.)

Internal drives remain far more cost-effective, of course. And people who want capacities above today's 300GB maximum won't have long to wait. Drive makers have announced technology (or actual drives) capable of raising areal density to permit drives of 400GB, 500GB, and even 1 terabyte in the next couple of years, say industry experts. Seagate Technology LLC's 200GB Barracuda 7200.7 SATA drive will ship before year's end for about $200. It utilizes a pair of double-sided platters (each holding 100GB on board, up from 80GB); this lowers the number of moving parts, increases reliability, and reduces overall drive costs for makers. Maxtor Corp.'s PMR technology can pack a whopping 175GB maximum per platter, but it is farther from production; the company has not released any specifics on drives using this technology.

NAS for Home

Relatively high costs and complex setup formerly relegated network-attached storage (external storage that you attach to a router or ethernet port instead of to a USB or FireWire port) to a business-only product. No longer. New devices from vendors such as Ximeta and D-Link bring NAS to your home or small office, inviting you to add storage that (unlike your PC's local drive) is accessible by anyone on the network, whether the PC is on or not. And it allows you to increase the storage capacity of every networked system, without so much as a glance at your screwdriver.

As more people put irreplaceable personal data onto their PCs (you can't rebuild, say, a picture of your 5-year-old on a merry-go-round), regularly backing up becomes even more important, says David Reinsel, IDC research manager for hard drives. Consumer NAS fulfills that need.

Such products may also become central data repositories. Instead of buying a complex entertainment server, consumers may opt for simple-to-use drives for storing and sharing video files, music files, and other data everyone at home wants to access, Reinsel adds.

The 20GB D-Link Systems Inc. Central Home Drive ($249) uses Windows XP and Me's Universal Plug and Play to make installation a one-step affair: Connect the drive to a router or network connection using an ethernet cable, turn it on, and--faster than you can say "file sharing"--it's available via the Windows My Network Places icon. You don't have to configure your router or even install a software client to use the D-Link drive; but to create and delete folders and set read/write privileges, you must use a browser. Not to worry: We found the Web interface on our preproduction drive very easy and intuitive to use. Shipping units should be available by the time you read this.

Shipping now, Ximeta Technology Inc.'s NetDisk home NAS drive is less expensive and comes in higher capacities (80GB for $190, and 120GB for $230), but it's also a bit harder to set up. To enable reading and/or writing for every PC you wish to access the drive from, you'll need to install a driver and client software, and then enter codes from a label on the bottom of the drive. Once you've finished that step, however, you won't need to browse the network to access the NetDisk--it appears as a normal local internal or external drive within Windows Explorer.

In the Works

Thanks to faster maximum transfer rates and more-compact cabling, Serial ATA drives have already made an impact, and they are well on their way to replacing PATA (plain old or parallel ATA). Not content to rest on SATA's laurels, the SATA II spec adds functions that should appear in drives within the next year.

The first new technology you'll see for SATA is Native Command Queuing. (A similar function has been available on SCSI and Fibre Channel products.) With NCQ, SATA drives can execute and prioritize multiple read/write commands on their own, saving CPU cycles and storing or retrieving data faster.

Western Digital and Seagate have each demonstrated SATA drives with NCQ, and Seagate includes NCQ support in its Barracuda 7200.7 units. Still, you won't be able to use the function until next year, when SATA chips and controllers implement it. Once that's done, expect boosts to apps that access smaller files multiple times, like databases or contact managers.

Even better for IT and business types are SATA II's port-selection and port-multiplying functions. With selection, several (in current practice, two) host adapters can attach to and access one drive. A SATA II port multiplier links to a SATA cable (SATA 1.0 is one drive per port/cable) and provides connections for multiple drives. This won't allow you to chain drives ? la USB or FireWire, but vendors like Maxtor have shown four drives running off a single port.

These technologies should debut by mid-2004, says IDC's Reinsel. Increasing SATA's top transfer rate from 150 to 300 MBps will come later.

PATA drives will get boosts during the coming year, too, through ATA/7 (the latest revision of the spec). Copping a page from Maxtor's QuickView technology, which garnered the company a huge share of the drive-based digital video recorder market (TiVo, ReplayTV, and the like), ATA/7's T13 AV commands enable makers to ditch most of the error checking required by PC apps. A bad bit can crash executable programs or ruin data files, but it's rarely perceptible in AV streams, so it makes sense to skip error correction and move on with the show, increasing performance by up to 30 percent. The new command set means more concurrent AV streams and reduced stress on the drive.

This probably won't be a user tweak: Drives will likely ship from makers to industry customers with error correction on or off, Reinsel says.

With vendors packing more bits and functions in, and with prices perpetually falling, hard disks continue to be one of the best values for upgraders.

Little Drives, Big Promises

Flash memory drives in the popular thumb-drive format have moved beyond simple storage and are getting both handier and faster as they add new functions or upgrade to USB 2.0.

Vendor specs suggest many users can benefit by jumping from USB 1.1 to 2.0, which can yield speeds up to 9 megabytes per second for reads and 7 MBps for writes, up from about 1 MBps (read and write). Verbatim Corp.'s Store-n-Go and M-Systems Flash Disk Pioneers Ltd.'s DiskOnKey Classic 2.0 and Pro, among others, offer USB 2.0 drives in capacities up to 1GB (the 1GB models cost over $300).

You may be able to use them to boot up, too, provided that your PC's BIOS supports booting from flash (you should be able to upgrade your BIOS if a version with support is available). We tried unsuccessfully to boot from our DiskOnKey with several systems. The vendor described the program as problematic at this point and is leaving implementation to PC vendors, but M-Systems will furnish the utility to users on request.

Another trick, practiced by M-Systems and by Forward Solutions with its Migo drive ($150 for 128MB and $200 for 256MB), is a utility that transfers some of your desktop or e-mail settings between each PC you work on and (with the M-Systems drive) can also sync some files. We found the Migo's interface funky and a bit unintuitive, although it worked more automatically than the M-Systems unit; the concept may be more trouble than it's worth.

Last but not least: Expect more combination thumb drives. Vendors have been using the drive format to provide wireless 802.11b connectivity, but now Soyo offers both wireless capability and 128MB of storage in its $119 Aerielink Wireless Flash Combo. The unit worked well in our trials and is available now; a $199 256MB model is coming in early 2004.

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