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New drives could make storage ills disappear


When the PC gained widespread appeal in the mid-80s, hard drives typically held 10 megabytes -- and lightened your wallet by about US$1,200.

That was then. Now hard drives hold well over 1,000 times that amount and are smaller, lighter, quieter, more energy-efficient and cooler as well. But that doesn't mean we're satisfied. Every advance in software, digital cameras, video cameras and MP3 players has us yearning for more storage capacity. Now, 300 gigabyte (GB) drives are almost considered low-end and sell for under US$100. Hard drives of 500 GB are commonly available.

Thankfully, there's more capacity to come. A new data recording method dubbed "perpendicular recording" has allowed data storage engineers to squeeze more data onto the platters that make up a conventional hard drive, resulting in a substantial boost in capacity for both notebook and desktop hard drives. The result: Multi-terabyte hard drives are right around the corner.

It's a good thing, too, because current hard drives were reaching capacity limits imposed by their underlying technology. Today's commonly-used hard drives employ a method called "longitudinal recording" to write data. In longitudinal recording, data is laid down in a single layer underneath the small, magnetized recording heads used in hard drives.

The new perpendicular recording method improves upon the prior technology in two ways. First, the hard drive's recording heads address a narrower area on the hard drive, allowing more data to be written. Second, and more significantly, perpendicular recording hard drives utilize new recording platters that allow data to be written on two layers of each platter, the primary layer and a new layer called the "soft underlayer" (SUL). Essentially, then, these new perpendicular recording hard drives stack data vertically -- hence the term "perpendicular recording."

For hard drive consumers, this data stacking means a big increase in storage capacity. Until recently, the largest hard drive available to desktop users was 500 GB. Desktop drives that employ perpendicular recording are debuting now at 750 GB, a hefty 50 percent increase over the highest-capacity traditional hard drives.

Yet there's more to come. Seagate's vice president of research, Mark Kryder, expects perpendicular recording to achieve efficiencies that allow manufacturers to pack more than 1 terabyte of data on a single 3-inch (75mm) hard drive platter. With multiple platters able to be used in a conventional desktop hard drive, that means multi-terabyte hard drives are on the way.

Right now, though, if you want to take advantage of the capacities allowed by perpendicular recording, you'll pay for the pleasure.

Seagate's 750 GB perpendicular recording hard drive is widely available but runs for around US$520 at the retail level.

And while the new perpendicular recording hard drives are compatible with many recently made computers, users of older PCs will need to make sure that their computers will even recognize the full capacities of these large drives.

Most users with PCs older than 6 months to a year will likely need to get a BIOS upgrade from their hardware maker before using a perpendicular recording hard drive -- or use software supplied by the hard drive manufacturer. A BIOS update, usually performed by running a software program downloadable from the manufacturer of your computer, often allows older computers to work with newer equipment.

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