Data Storage Considerations (Part 1)

9/17/2012 9:01:19 AM

Storage. You want as much as possible. But where's the best place for it?

Data storage is always an important issue to consider. Not just the amount of storage you have, but what form it takes, and how secure you make it. This goes double in an educational context, where proper backups can mean the difference between passing your course and failing it, and data integrity could determine whether you spend an evening in detention or get let out on time.

With hard drive storage so cheap, data storage in an educational context isn't about volume - at least, not for the most part. Even the largest documents take up only the tiniest fraction of any storage device you care to name, and not since the days of floppy disks has running out of space for a project been a concern. Instead, students should be more concerned with a device's integrity, its reliability, its portability and - of course - its cost. In this guide, we'll help you figure out the options available to you, and determine which of them fit your needs best.

Hard Disk Drives

The humble hard disk has been the key data storage component of every home computer for decades now, and it's not hard to see why: they're cheap, they store more than enough data for one person, and they generally remain functioning for years without any significant errors.

If you're a student heading off to university, it's a good idea to make sure your computer has a large hard drive in it, if for no other reason than the limited space of halls/shared housing means you'll probably be using it as a media hub. A computer is an excellent place to store all of your music, videos, and (of course) games in addition to any academic work, and the low cost of hard drives (even appreciating prices have been lower) makes them ideal for turning PCs into data pack-mules in exactly this manner.

Of course, if you're just using your PC for work and nothing more, there's no great need for a large hard drive. Even the smallest on the market will be more than adequate for keeping your projects stored and saved, and barring any freak incidents, should retain your data for many years. Certainly, you can expect them to hold until you've passed your exams.

If you're buying a new HDD, there are many brands to choose from. The differences between each are generally minor, but the best-reviewed manufacturers tend to be Seagate and Western Digital, so you may want to pay a little extra for devices with those brands attached. Make sure to note whether you need to buy a SATA or IDE drive. SATA is the most up-to-date connection, but much older motherboards may not support the technology. It's worth checking.

Description: Hard Disk Drives

It's worth pointing out that although the probability of a freak drive crash is very low, it's never zero. For this reason, you shouldn't use a hard drive as your only storage area. Yes, you can use it as your primary 'working' storage - somewhere that you can refer to, search and revise from, but you should also create a backup that can be placed somewhere safe. Hard drives, for all their day-to-day reliability, only need one bad moment to lose everything, and once it's gone it'll cost a lot of money to get back if you haven't made proper backups.

The choice of an external hard drive may, in many ways, be a better option than a normal internal one - especially for students. Not only do they have all of the capacity and cost benefits of normal hard drives, but they're also portable.

It's true that the transfer speeds to external hard drives aren't quite as good as with internal ones, so for that reason it's not recommended that they be used to store a large amount of data in one go. The time it'd take to fill them up would rapidly become inconvenient. Rather, external drives should either be used for systematic archiving (in particular, storing incremental backups) or as a portable medium for files too big to be comfortably transferred by any other method.

One thing worth pointing out is that external drives are slightly more prone to damage and data loss, for the simple reason that they spend a lot more time being moved around than internal drives, and they're more likely to be de-powered mid-write. Admittedly, these factors affect all portable storage devices, but they affect external hard drives without any specific benefits in return.

Description: Hard drive

Hard drive and SSD prices are falling again. Phew.


The increasingly popular, decreasingly expensive Solid State Drive (SSD to its friends) is becoming a more and more attractive accessory for any computer owner. Compared to hard drives, they are smaller in capacity and more expensive per-gigabyte, but are also faster, quieter, cooler, and less power-hungry than HDDs. Again, though, even a small SSD should prove enough storage for work purposes, so the benefits to having one need to be looked at from other perspectives.

Price is definitely a factor. If you're building a cheap PC for a school-goer in the family, or if you're a teenager being packed off to university with only a student loan to sustain you, an SSD might prove an unnecessary expense compared to a hard disk. You can buy a 1TB HDD for the price of a fairly bog-standard SSD, and while they make good primary drives, they're also a poor choice if you need lots of storage.

The main benefit of solid state drives is their superior access times. Even the slowest solid state drives will outpace a traditional hard drive, dramatically reducing read times. You won't just see file transfers complete quicker and thumbnails load faster, you'll also find Windows boots in less time, and loading times in games reduced substantially. The fastest SSDs can even max out a SATA 6Gbps connection.

The question, though, is whether this counts for much in the wider scheme. Their low power consumption might make them handy things to put in a laptop to reduce battery drain when working out and about, but their speed doesn't have any immediate benefits unless you're on some kind of media course and have a lot of audio or video to process. And then, that being the case, you'd bump up against the problem that they're much smaller than hard drives instead, so they're still not ideal.

Data integrity, at least, is good. No moving parts means that they are even more unlikely than hard drives to suffer a spontaneous crash, and where hard drive failure rates rise dramatically after three years of use, SSDs appear to remain steadily low for as long as five. They aren't good for long-term backup storage, but you can use an SSD as your primary drive without concern.

The best reviewed SSD brands include Intel, Crucial, Samsung and OCZ. Note that the vast majority of SSD drives are 2.5" (as opposed to the traditional 3.5" of HDDs) so if your case doesn't contain a 2.5" drive bay (most don't) you should make sure that the SSD comes with a drive bay conversion kit, or that you buy one separately. SSD drives require a SATA connection, and while it is possible to buy an IDE to SATA converter, this will eliminate many of the benefits of buying an SSD drive at all.

Description: Hard drive and SSD

There are increasing performance benefits to SSDs

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