BOOT CAMP 550 (11/11/08)

Make Do and Mend, part 2


Hard disc drives are incredibly reliable but they are one of the few components in your PC that is sure to fail one day. If your computer is more than 4 or 5 years old and it has been well used then the disc drive could well be on borrowed time.


Of course, it could soldier for another ten years, but it’s probably quite full by now, and if Windows is taking longer to load, freezing or crashing then you may be thinking about buying a new PC. There is an alternative, though, and that’s to replace the drive. Apart from anything else it’s a lot cheaper than a new computer and the extra capacity should buy you a few more years of use.


It’s really not that difficult and if you can wield a screwdriver and have half an hour to spare you can do it. What’s more you can recycle your old drive and use it as a storage or backup device. Needless to say there are a few complications, not least the palaver involved in re-installing Windows, your programs and copying data files from the old drive. It might not even be possible to reload Windows if your PC didn’t come with an installation disc, though there are ways around that, as we shall see.


We’ll be looking at the nuts and bolts of hard drive replacement next week but the first thing to do is find out what sort of drive you have in your PC so you can order a replacement. If it is more than four or five years old it is probably an IDE type, more recent PCs use Serial ATA (SATA) drives. Physically they look very similar in fact the only significant difference is the way they connect to your PC’s motherboard. IDE drives use a 5cm wide flat ribbon cable to carry the data, and they have a chunky white power connector with four thick wires whereas SATA drives use much smaller connectors and narrower cables, around 1cm wide, for both data and power. One glance inside your machine should tell you which type you have and to help you remember here’s a little rhyme that I just made up, ‘if the plug’s wide, it’s IDE’.


Unless you use your PC for unusually demanding applications, like high-end graphics, video editing or very large databases then there’s no need to get too hung up on performance figures. Concentrate on size, and as usual, the bigger the better. There’s no need to skimp and if you shop around online you can find very respectable 500 – 650Gb IDE and SATA drives from major manufacturers (i.e. Hitachi, Maxtor, Samsung, Seagate, Toshiba and Western Digital) selling for less than £70.


There are two ways you can proceed, so let’s start with the quickest and simplest option, which is to clone or ‘mirror’ your existing drive. This is the best method if your current system is behaving itself. The obvious advantages are that there’s no need to reinstall the operating system, software or your data files and all of your settings and preferences are preserved. It also gets around the problem of not having a Windows installation disc. The downside is that any software problems, viruses and infections will be copied along with everything else, and you will need some specialist software to do the cloning (see this week’s Top Tip) as parts of the disc drive, like the Boot Sector and Master Boot Record (MBR), cannot be copied by conventional means, or whilst Windows is running.


Option two is to start with a clean slate, reinstall Windows and all of your programs. It takes much longer and you will need a Windows installation disc but it avoids carrying over problems and infections from the old system and for a while at least, it will feel like a new PC. If you don’t have an installation disc it’s not necessarily a problem. If you are happy to stay with Windows XP then there are plenty of second-hand discs on the market. Prices start at around £30 to £50 (make sure it’s not a pirate copy and comes with the Product key) and since XP has reached the end of its product life cycle, ‘new’ copies are coming down in price. Transferring data from your old system is easy, simply ‘slave’ the old drive to the new one and copy the folders across or use the Windows Transfer Wizard to copy data files, settings and preferences.


Whichever method you choose you’ll make your life a lot easier by preparing the ground. If you are going to clone your drive get it into shape first by uninstalling unused applications, run a complete anti-virus and malware scan, use the Disk Cleaner in System Tools (Start > Programs Accessories) to clear out the clutter and finish off by defragging. If you are starting afresh make sure that you have you have the utilities and drivers disc that came with your PC, plus all of the installation CDs for the programs that you want to use, not forgetting any usernames, passwords and settings that you might need to configure your programs. Both methods are reasonably safe but accidents can happen so backup any irreplaceable data before you start.


Next Week – Make-do and Mend. Part 3





Programs and code on a hard disc drive responsible for initialising hardware and loading the computer operating system



Integrated Drive Electronics – hard drive technical standards governing data transfer and power supply connections between hard drives and PC motherboards



Serial Advanced Technology Attachment – improved data and power supply interface used to connect hard disc drives to PC motherboards



Disc cloning is a fairly complex operation and whilst there are several freeware applications available that can do the job, they’re best left to expert users. The best-known free utility is HD Clone ( and it is fairly easy to use but it has a number of limitations. It can only copy to a drive that is larger than the original, and there’s no facility to create or resize partitions. The commercial offerings are generally safer for novices and the most popular applications are Acronis True Image, Paragon Drive Backup and Symantec Ghost. They can be all be found selling online for less than £20.00


Don't forget, there's a full archive of previous Boot Camp Top Tips at



© R. Maybury 2008, 2210


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