The traditional reason for replacing or installing a new hard disc drive on a PC is to increase the amount of storage space available. However, prices have fallen so much in the past year or so that it's now worth fitting a second hard drive as a high-capacity non-removable backup device or even a standby boot disc, in case Windows blows a gasket or your main C: drive develops a fault. Either way it can be a quick and simple job that should take no more than an hour or so to complete.

Hard disc drives are now incredibly cheap. We managed to find several mail order companies advertising good quality 4.3 gigabyte drives from top-name manufacturers for less than £70, (including VAT), moreover some of them waive post and packing charges if you order direct from their Internet web sites.

There are a few ifs and buts to consider before you order your new drive and the first one is your PC's age and operating system. For the sake of simplicity we're confining ourselves to fairly up to date PCs with later versions of Windows 95 or Windows 98 which have the more efficient FAT 32 filing system. That will almost certainly be the case if your C: drive has a formatted capacity greater than 2 gigabytes. If you are using an earlier version of Windows with the FAT 16 filing system things tend to get a bit more complicated since the operating system can only handle 2 gigabytes or less of storage space at a time. You can fit larger disc drives to such systems but they will have to be split up or partitioned into 2Gb chunks. Each partition becomes a virtual disc drive, with its own drive letter. If you have the option and haven't already done so, it's well worth converting to FAT 32; the utility is included in Accessories, under System Tools.

Point number two is the type of drive you need to buy. There are several different kinds of interface and control system and that determines the type of connection between the drive and the PC motherboard. Fortunately the vast majority of Pentium and Pentium class machines use a system known as EIDE which supports up to four drives. Most of the other systems are either obsolete or designed for demanding applications and lie outside the scope of this article. Incidentally disc drives come in two physical sizes however virtually all desktop PCs are fitted with 3.5-inch drives, which is the width of the mounting bracket or 'bay' inside the case.

Next, decide how much storage capacity you need. In the olden days – three or four years ago – the rule of thumb was to think of a number and double it because no matter what size drive you had, Windows and the never ending stream of bloated applications would quickly fill it up in. Now however we've reached a plateau and a lot of PC users are finding their 4 and 6 gigabyte drives still have room to spare, even after a couple of years intensive use. If that's the case with your machine then there's no need to go mad, the same or the next size up should be more than enough, unless you are planning to use it for space hungry applications like digital video editing.

When you look through the advertisements for disc drives you may see several other bits of information listed alongside storage capacity and interface type. Expensive high performance drives with fast access times, large cache sizes and high spin speeds are important for jobs like video processing and editing. However, if you mostly use your PC for routine home and office applications such as word processing, spreadsheets and accounts, Internet access, playing games, graphics or desktop publishing, then you really don't need to worry too much about fancy specifications. The same applies if you simply want a second drive as a backup.

You should make sure you have the necessary space and cables inside your machine for a second drive (unless you are planning to replace your existing drive), and the only way to do that is to have a peek inside. Observe all of the usual precautions. Switch the PC off at the mains socket but leave the mains plug in so the case is earthed. After you have removed the cover touch the metal chassis before you start poking around inside. This will dissipate any static charges on your clothing or body. (If you are ultra cautious or a highly charged individual then it's worth investing in an anti-static wristband. They only cost a couple of pounds and can be obtained from most PC dealers). Look for an empty drive bay above or below the existing hard drive. Make sure there's a surplus power connector (similar to the ones going into the back of the existing disc drives and a spare connector block on the grey ribbon cable between the plug going into the back of your existing hard disc drive and the motherboard. 

If everything checks out and you are ready to proceed you must now make a System Start-up Disc. Go to Control Panel and click on the Add/Remove Programs icon, select the Start-up tab and follow the instructions. When that's done you can go ahead and buy your new hard disc drive. Next week we'll look at how to install it inside your PC.

Next week – Fitting a hard drive, Part 2




Enhanced Integrated Drive Electronics, disc drive interface and control system used on most recent PCs

FAT 32

32-bit File Allocation Table, a more efficient way of using disc space that also allows large multi-gigabyte disc drives to be treated as a single entity. The older FAT 16 system can only access up to 2Gb at a time so larger drives have to be divided or partitioned


Dividing a large disc drive up into partitions or virtual drives gets around capacity limitations imposed by an operating system or the drive's own control system  



If you have the volume control/sound mute icon on your taskbar (the little yellow speaker) you'll know if that you double-click on it the full Volume Control window with multiple level and balance sliders appears on the screen. It can be quite handy to have it on the screen if you're setting up or working with multimedia applications but it takes up a lot of room. You can reduce its size by around 50% by pressing Ctrl + S when it is displayed; pressing Ctrl + S again restores it to normal size. By the way, if you haven't put the volume control on your taskbar you can do so from Multimedia in Control Panel (Start > Settings), the option check-box is at the bottom of the Volume tab. 

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