There is so much that makes up our digital lives these days. We all use computer technology of one kind or another – whether consciously (our PCs, laptops, smartphones and so on) or without really thinking too much about it (the viewing screens at the self-service checkouts in supermarkets, for instance). Just about everything in the world has a digital element, and that means a heck of a lot of bits and bytes!
For home and professional users, all those files and documents we generate and / or accumulate need to be kept somewhere. In this age of us all building some sort of digital library it’s inevitable that some of us will need ‘extra storage’ from time to time as our collection of files and documents grows.
Luckily, the digital world is not as spatially demanding as the physical world. So even though we all generate vast amounts of ‘stuff’ it’s not as if any of us need to keep buying filing cabinets or bookshelves to put everything in! In practical terms for computer purposes, ‘extra storage’ can mean a device installed within or connected to your PC. Either physically (such as an external HD or an SSD, or even USB sticks) or via the internet (cloud storage). We have come a long, long way from the old days of storing data on tapes, floppy drives and even CDs.
In this article we’ll presume your library of digital stuff is growing (of course it is!) and that you need more storage space so you’re on the hunt for your options. We’ll look at a variety of storage possibilities, and explore them in a little more detail. We’ll begin with the obvious – the good old hard drive, installed in your PC or laptop.
What is a Hard Drive?
A hard drive is an internal component in your PC, a data storage device attached to the disk controller on the motherboard. It contains a certain amount of space, some of which will be occupied by your computer’s operating systems and back-up installations. The remainder of the space is available as storage for all of your personal documents and files. The more you have then the bigger you will need the hard drive to be. If you are a medium to heavy computer user, it’s particularly important to upgrade your HDD if you possibly can, so that you’re able to benefit from the larger storage capacity that will bring.
How do Hard Drives work?
Let’s look at the way a traditional hard drive works when writing, storing or reading data. A traditional hard drive contains one (or more) platters, and data is written to (or read from) those platters using a magnetic head which moves rapidly across them as they spin. All of the information saved and stored on a traditional hard drive is created / stored as a vast series / sequence of complex magnetic polarities (one side of the polarity is 0 and the other is 1).
For a computer to write information to the hard drive’s platter the read/write head aligns the magnetic polarities, and writes 0s and 1s which can be read later. When the computer needs to read data from the hard drive it reads the magnetic polarities as binary and the computer is able to ‘decode them’ (a simplistic but accurate way of putting it) and can figure out what the data is.
It’s possible to upgrade the storage capacity of your computer with a new, larger, internal Hard Drive. This will mean that your PC gains extra space for software, games, videos and more. It’s a pretty easy task – but, to give you some proper guidance, here’s a short video so that you have something to refer to and can see the process step by step.
With that in mind, take a look at our video on how to install a hard drive and upgrade your PC’s storage. Once you’ve seen how easy it is to install a hard drive, why not treat yourself to an upgrade? You can find a huge range of great hard drives available on the Ebuyer website.
Older hard drives measured in the hundreds of MB and up to several GB in terms of their storage capacities. Modern day hard drives are vastly improved and have storage sizes of up to several TB (terabytes). That’s a huge amount of space, and if you are an average to heavy user of digital media you should find that you can pretty much store all of your collection on a drive of that capacity. Remember, a film of two hours duration in Full HD quality will take up approximately 4GB of storage space.
The average DVD has a capacity of either 4.5GB or, if it is dual layer, 9GB. So imagine your hard drive space in terms of your DVD collection, and you’ll probably then really begin to grasp how large modern hard drives can be. In addition, a three to four minute piece of music in the MP3 format, at fairly high 320kbps quality, will be around 4 or 5MB in size – so a drive of 1TB or multiple TB will be able to easily house your vast music collection.
It’s also possible to fit extra storage to your system without dismantling your desktop PC to install a new hard drive. There are external models available, which means you can connect up simply (usually via cable) and gain expansion that way. A bit more about external HDDs coming up now…
An HDD – or, to give it the full name, a hard disk drive – is, as the name suggests, a storage device which contains a disk on which your data is written and stored. These disks are rotating disc-shaped media known as ‘platters’. Your data is written to the surface of the platter.
HDDs use magnetism to store your data on the disk. A read/write head hovers above the spinning platter, and magnetically reads or writes the new data to it / from it. The faster the disk spins, the quicker an HDD can perform. Speed is measured in revolutions per minute (RPM), and disks with a higher RPM are better suited to quicker writing tasks (such as in gaming rigs or servers).
HDDs are classed as ‘non-volatile’ storage as the information is magnetically written to the disk in a semi-permanent way, and not lost when the power is taken away (ie. when the device containing the drive, or that the drive is attached to, is switched off). This makes an HDD particularly advantageous as a back-up media in the event that power is lost to a storage device.
Hard disk drive storage is probably the oldest computer storage technology in use today, having first come into existence in the mid-1950s. The technology has naturally advanced, and HDDs are now found in almost every computer, server and large laptop. HDDs are also currently still the cheapest way to buy larger amounts of storage.
- Easy large file transfer
- Susceptible to impact damage
- Susceptible to magnetism
- Larger form factor
- Can overheat
- Slower than SSD
You will have heard the term SSD bandied about, and often in the same sentence as the term HDD. But what exactly is an SSD, and how does it differ from an HDD? Solid State Drives (more commonly referred to as SSDs) do not use moving parts so they are unlike HDDs (which use spinning platters), despite both types of drive performing the same functions and meeting the same purpose. Instead of spinning platters, SSDs use flash memory, which is created by an array of semiconductors joined together using integrated circuits (ICs).
Because new data doesn’t need to be physically written to a disk, the flash memory involved in SDD is far quicker to read and write than for an HDD. An SSD can have access speeds of between 35 to 100 microseconds – which means it is almost 100 times faster than an HDD. This quicker access speed means software and programs can run much faster, as information can be relayed to and from the drive extremely quickly. This is important for programs which need fast access to large amounts of data (things like operating systems or high-intensity media editing suites).
The case of an SSD doesn’t need to house a physical disk, so as a result they often have a smaller form factor than traditional HDDs. This makes them the ideal choice for small form factor PCs or laptops. SSDs can be used to house data needed quickly (such as an OS, as we mentioned earlier), in order to keep your PC running at top speed. This then leaves the archived data (which can take up terabytes of space – pictures, movies or document files) to be held on the far cheaper HDD. Dual use provides the best of both worlds!
Plus, because there are no physically moving parts within SSDs, they use less power than HDDs, and as a further consequence they create almost no noise. The lack of internal movement means that they are also less likely to overheat and they’re not affected by magnetism. All of that is a big plus point.
What are USB sticks and how do they work? Before we explain that, perhaps it’d be handy to know what USB means. USB is an acronym for Universal Serial Bus, an industry standard for cables and connectors for connection and power supply between computers, peripheral devices and other storage devices.
A USB stick is one of the most convenient forms of storage that you could possibly find. It’s portable, so it’s something you can take with you wherever you go, without too much thought or the need for anything more than a pocket or a keyring! Most often no larger than the size of a human thumb (which, fact fans, is why they are sometimes referred to as ‘thumb drives’) these small but perfectly formed devices have made the world of computers so much more convenient.
Though the storage capacity of USB drives is limited (not tiny, but limited), they are incredibly convenient. Just insert the stick into the USB port of your computer and save the files or documents you want to take with you to use on another device, and slip the USB into your pocket. Away you go! Some of them even double as key-rings, so that you’re never without them, which makes things really convenient. Unless you’re a dab hand at losing your keys, that is!
But how do USB sticks work? They use flash memory. A chip inside the cover contains a grid of transistors which behave like switches. All data in the digital realm is, as you probably already know, reduced to binary – ie. to 1s and 0s – and one of these values is stored at each point in the USB stick’s memory.
To store a 1 the transistor in the relevant location is switched on, which allows electrical charge to flow through it. To store a 0 the transistor is switched off. The transistors remain in these states even when there is no power to the stick, so the data stays intact on it, even when you disconnect it by removing it from the USB port into which it has been plugged. This feature of flash memory is what is known as ‘non-volatile’, (ie. no power is required to maintain the information stored on the drive).
Anything else I should know about USB and USB sticks?
Although in principle all USB sticks are ‘the same’, there are of course slight variances in using this method of storage that you should consider – and these are pretty much all to do with the rate of data transfer. Primarily, there are different types of USB ports which are used to connect the stick (or other device) to the computer. The most common ones in general use are:
USB 2.0: This is also sometimes referred to as Hi-Speed USB, and it was originally introduced in 2000. It’s an updated version of the original connection (USB 1.1), and it provides improved functionalities and better speed. It is capable of delivering a maximum transfer speed of approximately 480 Megabits per second. However, in reality it delivers an average of 280 Mbps. Although this is relatively fast, there have been further improvements since 2.0 was introduced.
USB 3.0: This is also sometimes known as SuperSpeed USB, and it was first made available in 2008. It’s much-improved on USB 2.0, and supports the data transfer rate of 5 Gigabits per second, which is approximately 10 times faster than the USB 2.0 standard. The new 3.0 spec offered more bandwidth for data transfer, an increase in possible power output to improve charging and powering of external devices, and more robust power management. USB 3.0 cables are compatible with USB 2.0 devices – but the performance is only as fast as it would be with 2.0.
So, even though 2.0 and 3.0 (and other variances) won’t affect the actual data you choose to store on your USB stick, they will affect the speed with which you can write it and the speed with which you can read it. In day-to-day terms this won’t really cause you much of an issue, but it’s worth knowing about. But if you’re James Bond and you don’t have all the time in the world, just mere seconds to get those secret plans off the villain’s laptop before you make your escape, it could make all the difference!
How much stuff can you actually store on a USB?
There are – obviously – different sizes of USB stick available to buy – but when we say ‘size’ we mean in the storage capacity sense rather than the physical sense. Most USB sticks are, in physical terms, round about the same size (though there are some novelty versions available, perhaps tied to particular brands and so on, which are shaped differently and are different sizes to the standard ‘human finger’ sort of dimension). So, what different storage capacity USB sticks are available? And what can you store on them?
For light usage, perhaps moving a handful of documents from device to device, and storing the latest episode of your favourite TV show or a few music albums, you’re not going to require a particularly large capacity USB stick, so going for something like 2GB should provide you with more than ample storage to meet those needs. Upwards from there, for heavier data users, it’s worth thinking about sticks with higher capacity. Something like a 256GB USB memory stick is going to be able to cope with, say, around sixty to seventy two-hour films at HD quality. Or approximately 51,000 songs in good quality MP3 format. That’s a massive music collection, all on a device the size of your thumb!
This is a term you will definitely have heard in the last few years. People will have perhaps talked about something like “storing photos in the cloud” from their smartphone. This doesn’t mean they have their own personal weather feature following them around and carrying a hard drive containing their data for them! ‘The cloud’ basically means devices using the power of the internet to ‘outsource’ tasks which might otherwise be performed on a PC – including storage. In other words, the cloud is a hugely convenient and space-efficient way to store your data.
Having your data ‘in the cloud’ involves storing data on computer hardware which itself is stored in a remote physical location. What does this mean? It means there is a giant data centre somewhere which has a collection of networked computers. Cloud storage systems usually encompass many data servers linked together by a master control server.
Anything you upload to the cloud, or anything that you run from the cloud, is stored on servers and storage volumes which are kept in vast warehouses, sometimes in locations which have several such warehouses. These data centres are owned by service providers, who are responsible for keeping the cloud servers up and running. Cloud storage providers also take great care to implement the most advanced security techniques available on these computers, including layers of encryption, so that they can keep your data safe and private, and provide the most reliable service possible.
Incredible when you think about it, but somewhere on all of this hardware is stored that lovely photo of your cat, which can be accessed from any device via the internet.
There are also cloud websites which offer storage space on their data servers, usually in exchange for money (though they may also offer a limited amount of space, which is sometimes enough for light users, for free). These providers include familiar names such as Dropbox or NovaFile. Users upload their files or documents and can then share a created link with other users, who can then download the files or documents from that link.
Familiar services most of us encounter each day during our computer or smartphone activities, and which are powered by cloud computing services, include social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, webmail providers like Gmail and our online banking apps. The cloud is vast, the cloud is everywhere!
There you have it. We’ve covered the four main storage options for all of those documents, videos, music files and photographs you have accumulated and need to put somewhere! Whether you opt for a Hard Drive or SSD or the cloud or a USB storage stick depends on your exact use (you may prefer to have a physical storage device as opposed to relying on the cloud, for example). But one thing is for certain. Ebuyer stocks a great selection of storage devices, and you can find them here.