Here's an easy upgrade for old but adequate PCs: new hard drives

Memory chips are fairly cheap now, and more memory usually boosts performance of
Microsoft Windows applications. But installing memory is a delicate job that
administrators may hesitate to try on an office full of PCs.

If your applications run fast enough, consider upgrading your office's hard drives to
accommodate today's Internet downloads and huge office suites. The disk capacity you
bought a few years ago is probably pretty crowded by now.

Fortunately, hard drive prices continue to fall, and your office's prior investment
needn't be wasted. Old hard drives can be left in place for backup duty or transferred to
stations or servers with unusually large storage needs.

IBM Corp. will release a new generation of drives in a few weeks that uses Ultra direct
memory access (Ultra DMA) technology to raise burst transfer speeds for IDE drives to more
than 30 megabytes/sec. No longer will you have to buy SCSI to get high performance. A move
to Ultra DMA for boot drives will noticeably improve program load times.

Swapping a hard drive isn't a trivial job, but compared with software upgrades and all
their exciting bugs, it really isn't too bad. In fact, if you can open a computer case,
you can probably swap out drives without difficulty. No special tools or fancy grounding
straps are needed, as they are for CPUs or memory chips. Just don't drop anything, and you
should be OK.

The only real "gotcha" comes in trying to install two IDE drives in one PC.
Lots of people try this and discover the PC won't run after they close it up. There is a
jumper near the IDE connector on the drive case that determines whether the drive acts as
a master or a slave. Make your boot drive the master and any additional IDE drive a slave.

Because most PCs have only one drive, you can expect upgrade drives to come preset as
masters, just like your existing C: drives. But the system can't run with two drives
designated as masters.

A performance hint: If you find two IDE connections on the motherboard, figure out
which is the PCI bus connection. It will operate faster than the other, which will be an
ISA connection. This isn't as critical as the master-slave problem, so if you can't tell,
don't worry about it.

Given a choice, don't run a hard drive on the CD-ROM IDE connection. It will slow
performance--better just to chain it off the other hard drive.

And please don't forget to scan all your hard disks routinely for bad files and
defragment occasionally to improve performance.

It helps to clean out cache files, too. Almost all World Wide Web browser cache files
are safe to delete, for example. A dozen megabytes here, a dozen megabytes there, and
pretty soon you're talking enough space to store another Microsoft Word file.

Purchasing hint: Don't be tempted by the performance numbers for those very fast,
7,200-rpm or faster audio-video drives designed for multimedia production. Unless your
office's PCs were designed for them, you may get into trouble because audio-video drives
run hot.

If you do need them, go for the more expensive external audio-video drives, which keep
the extra heat outside the PC cases.

Older PCs with, say, 250M drives probably will need BIOS upgrades if you add more than
2G of drive capacity. To avoid this, buy upgrade drives smaller than 2G.

While we're talking performance, are you squeezing all you can out of your office's
CD-ROM drives?

An earlier column [GCN, Aug. 11, Page 71] explained that the new superfast drives aren't as fast as their names imply. For
example, a 24X drive only reads at 24X speed on the rim of the disk where data is least
likely to be stored. CD-ROMs are written from the inside out, and only a completely full
track uses the outer edge.

But there's something you can do to speed up your CD-ROM drives under Windows 95, and
all it costs is a few minutes of tweaking. If you have enough memory, increase the size of
CD-ROM cache beyond the default setting.

Look under File System, Advanced, CD-ROM. Increase supplemental cache size to max. Now
run your software normally to see if this has hurt overall performance. If not, it should
speed up CD-ROM performance dramatically.

This is an easy tweak. On days when you don't do much CD-ROM work, you can change the
supplemental cache setting back. Or if you don't use the CD-ROM drive at all, try zeroing
out the cache to give other hardware and software more available RAM.

John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at [email protected].


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