Hard Drives 101

8 07 2008

IDE, SATA, I or II?  I stare at the inside of the computer box and simply wonder to myself WTF all of the acronyms stand for, and what I’m supposed to do with them.My Dell came to me with a 20gb hard drive.  Let’s face it, there’s no hope for a machine with aspirations such as mine to survive this cold world’s antics with a hard drive that collosal.  At least with the RAM upgrade, I quelled the painful screen refresh.

Yeh, it’s snappy now, but it ain’t packin much.  After my bordom got the best of me, World of Warcraft got installed on this beast, and I found myself trying to coerce XP into letting me uninstall (normally) important OS programs in order to make room for the parade.  It was a loosing battle…

So, a new hard drive it is.

As I looked around, I realized how little I knew about hard drives and speeds and such. Turns out, my machine is (of course) using some pretty out-of-date technology.

The Dell Dimension 4500S needs the old IDE hard drive type (ie, PATA).

The loverly machine also can only handle one single hard drive (unless you’re alright with propping the case open in order to insert a second).

*Ahem* … slideshow time.

An IDE (PATA) hard drive and its cable hookup spots. IDE / ATA / PATA hard drive

Now, this bad boy needs one of those freakin old cables that looks like it wants to eat the future’s staple crops:

The IDE cable of doom. IDE / ATA / PATA data cable (sometimes called a “ribbon” cable)

Just look at its menacing appearance…  The power cable that plugs into an IDE hard drive also is quite the spectacle of colored wiring and plastic.  Make no mistake, if you’ve got an IDE drive, this is what it’ll look like.

Vocab / History lesson time.

Terms to be familiar with: IDE, ATA, SATA (1.5Gbit), SATA-II (3.0Gbit), RPM

  • IDE stands for “integrated drive electronics” and is pretty much completely outdated.  I’ve depicted it above.  It’s slower, and its cabling is ginormous.  It needed some configuration of those jumper pins (shown in that first picture) in order to get a second one to run as a “slave” (secondary) drive.  The drive’s controller was not integrated on the drive itself.
  • ATA stands for “advanced technology attachment” and is the same thing as IDE.  Were they trying to be confusing?  There were so many sub versions of ATA that I would consider it spam to write about them all in this div tag.  Don’t worry about it… computers today probably don’t deal with anything other than “ATA” or “IDE” (if they even deal with it at all).  (Run away! .. Run away!!!)
  • PATA is just ATA, but with “parallel” prefixing the name.  Same thing as the above two.  (“WTF…?”, you might say)
  • SATA … now we reach something new: “serial ATA” was a step toward making hard drives more literally encapsulated, in terms of functionality.  It required less tweaking to make it work as a slave drive, banished that awful, forsaken ATA cable, and opened the way for future speed increases.  To give a brief rundown, SATA drives use 7-pin conductors, rather than the 40-pin mess in IDE drives.  The cables could also be longer now, since the type of signal passed through the cables wasn’t so sensitive to those distances.  The cables were now more flexible and were of course much thinner.  The signal strength only needed to be 250mV, rather than the 20 times higher voltage of 5V that the IDE drives needed.  And, EMI is less of a problem.  Big improvement, huh?
  • SATA 1.5Gbit.  Like all light and fluffy fun and games, the simplicity must come to an end.  But don’t fret, SATA isn’t as hard to understand.  Really.  When SATA drives first came out, they dealt with a 1.5gigabit per second transfer speed.  Not bad, but since we’re quaint and unsatisfied with anything in this world, we decided that that wasn’t good enough.  The next version of this drive is backward compatible, though.  Same cables.  If you’ve got a motherboard that wants a SATA drive, you can use whatever SATA you happen to be able to pull out of your… hat.
  • SATA 3.0Gbit is our latest upgrade to date.  Externally, the drive is the same as the 1.5Gbit version.  Be careful how you call this version of SATA drive.  There will be those merciless mean trolls out there on internet forums who will anxiously pound you into the ground for calling this drive a “SATA-II” (that’s “SATA two”).  Even though some companies market the drive as such, “SATA-II” was actually not the name of the drive.  The drive is (in all honesty) just a “SATA” drive.  “SATA-II” was something like the committee that came up with the ideas behind this 3Gbit version of the drive.  For your own reference, YES, if marketed as such, the SATA-II is, by all means, exactly the same thing as a SATA 3.0Gbit drive. So what’s the upgrade?  Speed.  It can push 3 gigabits per second, while the older model only pushes out half of that.
  • RPM is a simple acronym for “rotations per minute“.  Pretty basic, but I figured I’d list it.  Most average drives of today run at about 7200 RPM.  Frankly, that’s good enough.  Some “gamer” hard drives will run at 10000 RPM, but those are really only for the fanatically possessed.  RPM affects how fast the drive can seek data on the disk.  You’re still going to be limited to the bandwidth of the drive (like with a SATA 1.5Gbit).

So, I bought a 160gb IDE drive, which was a most welcome upgrade to my 20gb toy.

One last note, though… because the mini-tower design of the Dimension 4500S only allows for a single drive, I got stuck.  I had to fully replace my 20gb drive with the 160gb one.  This might seem kind of silly for a box that shipped with a 1.8GHz processor in the XP generation of PCs, but the 4500S was intended to be compact, and thus it is.