Pulp and Paper Canada

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NEW DISCS IN OLD COMPUTERS


January 1, 2001
By Pulp & Paper Canada

Our first hard disc cost about $1500 and had capacity of 20 Mb. At the time, it was the largest available for a PC and weighed about 2 kg. Things have changed.Today, computers come with discs with a f…

Our first hard disc cost about $1500 and had capacity of 20 Mb. At the time, it was the largest available for a PC and weighed about 2 kg. Things have changed.

Today, computers come with discs with a few Gigabytes (1 Gb = 1024 Mb) capacity, and our needs have tended to grow to match as software becomes more ambitious and we work with more and more graphic files. Older computers with a few hundred megabytes of disc capacity can still be useful, particularly at home, or where the principal use is accessing the Internet, the company network, and small documents or spreadsheets. However, space on the hard disc can become an obstacle if you wish to install a variety of software, computer games or keep graphics or music files.

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Even when you do not absolutely need the capacity, it is often more cost effective to add capacity than to spend a couple of days carefully tidying up your existing disc and deleting unnecessary files.

It is very convenient to have generous hard disc capacity. I find that I keep much data on disc, which saves time formerly spent searching paper files. In the past the cost of large disc capacity would have been prohibitive, but not at today’s low prices.

The easiest way of obtaining large disc capacity is to buy a new computer, if you do not object to the cost. Whenever buying a new machine, it is best to order it with the largest hard disc that is available at an acceptable price. Unless your current computer has always had plenty of spare disc space, a good rule of thumb is that a new machine should have about three times as much disc capacity as the one you are replacing.

It is usually possible to replace a hard drive with a larger unit, but for desktop computers, it is often even better to simply add a drive for additional storage. The older the computer you have, the more you probably want a larger drive, but pitfalls exist.

We have three laptops connected in a network with an eight-year-old Pentium desktop as a spare computer cum printer driver. With its 1.3-Gb disc (as large as could be bought at the time of purchase) it is almost useless for storage and its tape drive is a nuisance for back-up with only about 650 Mb capacity. The classic solution is of course to buy a larger tape drive, but they are slow, particularly if an old file is required in a hurry.

Today, hard drives are amazingly cheap, and after looking around I found the best price on a well known brand at Insight Canada, where a 30-Gb drive cost about $230. The best price I could find in the US was rather higher.

I had the choice of the “OEM” or “Retail” versions, with a price difference of about $50. The only difference is in the packaging. The OEM version seems to be shipped from the factory in bushel baskets, since it arrived by FedEx in an unlabeled plastic bag in a plain cardboard box. The only “manual” was a small label stuck to the disk unit with instructions on setting the jumpers according to whether the disc was to be the principal unit in the computer or a secondary (non bootable) one. The retail version has a nicely finished box, color printed, and a manual. Seems that there is more profit in the packaging than the hard disc.

There seems to be an increasing trend for on-line vendors to ship products in very basic packaging, since the buyer does not see the product before purchasing. The manufacturer, like many others, makes a very detailed, up-to-date manual available on its web site. Not a good omen for the paper industry.

Physical installation of the new disc was simple because our old Gateway, like virtually all desktop computers, has a second connector on the signal cable which connects the hard disc to the motherboard, and several spare power cables which simply plug in. The disc attaches to the computer with standard screws.

The software side of the installation is rather more complicated.

Our old computer runs under an early version of Windows 95, which results in the computer being unable to address any hard disc beyond 2.1-Gb capacity. The solution was to download free software from the disc vendor’s web site, which made our computer think the new 30-Gb disc is a group of 15 discs, each with 2 Gb capacity. This is not as convenient as having one large disc, but is usable. The software virtually self-installs, with excellent on-line help for responding to the few prompts presented during installation.

Recent versions of Windows 95 will support discs up to 8-Gb capacity, and of course, Windows 98 and later versions will simply see large hard discs for what they are.

HARD DISC VS. TAPE FOR BACK-UP

Magnetic tape has been the back-up medium of choice for most users for many years. It is still useful, but we selected the new disc since the back-up from one computer to another over our network is about six times faster than with the tape drive. This means that we back up more often. (Of course, you follow the standard advice and back up daily, but we are not as well disciplined as we should be.) Recovery of a specified file from back-up on disc requires only seconds, whereas it can take up to about half an hour on our tape drive.

The principal disadvantage of our approach is that the disc cannot be readily removed and stored in a separate building, so that we are not protected against fire.

Upgrading Windows

We generally purchase the latest upgrades for the main software that we use as soon as available, since the enhancements make life more pleasant and work more productive

However, we are reluctant to upgrade Windows itself, since doing so can be very time consuming if there are incompatibilities with the “drivers”. These are the programs that make the connection inside the computer between Windows and the components such as the hard disc, the network card, and the video display. Normally a Windows upgrade installs in minutes, but in the not-infrequent cases where there is an incompatibility, it can take a few days to work everything out.

It is noticeable that Dell Computer Corporation’s normally excellent technical support does not extend to customers upgrading Windows.

Recent reviews of Windows upgrades have all warned that major difficulties are encountered in a significant number of cases. The more complicated your computer is, and he greater variety of software installed, the more you are likely to have difficulties.

After a couple of bad experiences, we normally live with the original operating system in each computer as long as we own it.


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