Hard drive upgrade tips for older PCs

A hard drive upgrade is one of the best ways to extend the usable lifespan of a computer.

A lot of people come to this site looking for hard drive upgrade advice, but I realized that it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about that. Since there are some gotchas, I need to address them.Most PCs, whether it’s a Compaq, Dell, Emachine, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard/HP, IBM, or a no-name clone, use IDE or ATA hard drives. The two terms mean basically the same thing, and the drives are interchangeable. IDE is dirt, dirt cheap, so it’s what virtually everyone uses. But its limitations can cause headaches, especially on older systems.

A growing concern is the question about serial ATA versus parallel ATA drives. Older systems used parallel drives exclusively. The highest-capacity drives are serial ATA, however. Serial allows longer cable lengths and thin, flexible cables that don’t interfere with airflow and look better when put inside computer cases with transparent sides. While the majority of people couldn’t care less what the inside of the computer looks like, cable length and airflow have been serious issues for many years–the first computer I ever repaired, back in 1993, overheated because someone had blocked the fan vents with an IDE hard drive cable. Today, with new computer running so hot that some computer enthusiasts use them to heat their homes in the winter, it’s an even bigger concern.

If your older computer doesn’t have serial ATA connectors, and you want to buy a 400-gigabyte serial ATA hard drive, then you just have to remember to buy a serial ATA controller card. As of this writing, a cheap no-name SATA controller costs a little over $20 while the big names like Promise, Sonnet, and Adaptec cost closer to $60-$80. What do you get for the extra money? Usually you get better performance and you’ll always get better technical support if you run into problems.

If you’re the kind of person who’s been building your own computers since before building your own computers was cool, you might consider taking your chances on the cheapies. If your only experience as a computer technician is adding a new memory stick, it’s much safer to buy a Promise or Adaptec card.

The good news with Serial ATA is that everything else you need to know is either on the poster that comes with the hard drive or in the thin manual that comes with the card. You can quit reading now.

With parallel ATA, there are still some gotchas. Some older systems can’t handle drives larger than 137 gigabytes or 34 gigabytes, and some really old systems can’t handle drives bigger than 8.4 gigs, 3.2 gigs, 2.1 gigs, or (gulp) half a gig.

If your computer dates from 1997, it might have the 8.4 gig limit. Anything newer than that is more likely to have the 34 or 137 gigabyte limit.

Hard drive manufacturers recommend one of three solutions: Use an included software overlay, buy or download a BIOS upgrade, or buy a new IDE controller.

The biggest problem with the software overlay method is that it doesn’t always work. If the computer goes into a permanent coma when you plug a 200-gigabyte hard drive into it, the software overlay won’t help. The other problem is that it’s way too easy to corrupt the software overlay and render the drive inaccessible. Reinstalling the overlay might or might not get your data back. And besides that, the new hard drive is probably capable of saturating your old IDE bus. In plain English, the drive might be able to run faster than your computer can take the data, which means buying a new controller card will make it faster. So I really have problems recommending the software overlay method.

The BIOS upgrade method is better, in that it’s usually free, and doesn’t have the disadvantages of the software overlay. The downside is that sometimes the manufacturers don’t offer a suitable upgrade. Don’t expect to be able to get a BIOS upgrade to allow a Pentium II-333 from 1998 to use a 200-gig drive, for instance. What about the places that claim to sell BIOS upgrades to allow new drives? I’ve only dealt with those companies twice, but in each case, they didn’t seem to have anything newer than the original manufacturer.

I’ve seen some hacked BIOS upgrades, where some enthusiast took the most recently available BIOS and modified it for new drives, but the legality of these BIOSes is very questionable, and I’m a little bit uncomfortable with using a hacked BIOS.

Then there’s that issue of bandwidth. If an older computer only has a 33 megabyte-per-second controller, and the new drive is intended for 133, suffice it to say it’s not going to perform at its peak. A new controller is the better option

The upside to old-fashioned parallel IDE controllers is the price. A Promise ATA133 controller card costs $35-$40. I’ve seen no-names for as little as $17. So the price won’t break the bank, and they give good performance.

And let’s talk performance. Unless you’re into 3D gaming, the two most important factors in computer performance are the hard drive and having adequate memory. A lot of people today take the attitude that a Pentium II is worthless. While it’s true that you can’t play Doom 3 on one, there are a lot of people out there who couldn’t care less about Doom 3 and they just want Word to load fast. For people like that, the best thing to do is max out the computer’s memory (but check prices–RAM for older computers can be very expensive), and buy a new hard drive controller and a big, honking wicked-fast hard drive.

Oh, and make sure your PC doesn’t have any spyware.

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One thought on “Hard drive upgrade tips for older PCs

  • October 5, 2004 at 8:32 pm

    SATA is incredible. On my machine my UDMA/133 drive pumps out 24Mb/sec using SiSoft Sandra. The same machine with a SATA/150 drive pumps out 48.4Mb/sec. And you can feel the difference.

    Another gotcha when buying an IDE drive is the RPM. For non power users a lower RPM drive – 5400RPM – might be sufficient. If you use your computer on a daily basis you’re going to want to fork over the extra cash for a 7200RPM drive. (RPM refers to how fast the platters spin.)

    For SATA drives a thought is ensuring the drive you purchase comes with a power converter or an alternative legacy (4 pin) power supply. A lot of the higher performance SATA drives only come equipped with the new style power supply, and I’ve yet to see a power supply that supports it natively, even off the shelf retail. Your interface card may also come with the converters — whatever you do, make sure you have one.

    As well, I disagree with Dave. I wouldn’t go cheap on an interface card that forms the circulatory system of your computer. Yes, in the end most of the boards are made by the same manufacturers using the same chips, but updated drivers and testing can make a world of difference. Spend the $40 and buy an Adaptec card, maybe get one with some built in cache.

    Also, when installing the PCI expansion card bear in mind that ultimately the PCI bus has a bandwidth limit of 133Mb/sec. If you’re doing heavy processing across multiple drives/devices you could be hit by this limitation. (If your hard drive can pump 150Mb/s and your IDE drive you’re copying from can push 133Mb/s, even ignoring the fact you never hit the maximum, you’re going to see some slowdown between the two.)

    (When you see speeds like UDMA/133 and SATA/150 these are theoretical maximums. Just like a car that can go 0-60 in 3 seconds rarely actually does, a drive rarely hits full speed.)

    If you upgrade your hard drive keep the old one. Put the swap file for your operating system on it — if they’re on two different interfaces ALL THE BETTER. The less bus contention on a drive interface the better. (Note: some power users might insist that you should use a high speed drive for a temporary file/swap area. I disagree. I’d spend the extra money on real RAM — stuff being thrown to the hard drive is usually in the background, and hasn’t been used in a while. Let it work slowly if it needs to.)

    Two final tips: keep your drive defragged. Microsoft said that NTFS didn’t need defragging when they first brought it out. THEY WERE WRONG. DiskKeeper, Defrag Manager, uh, man, can’t remember the others. There’s a ton of products out there. A well defragged drive can *really* bring a performance boost.

    Second: remember that only one device can transmit on an interface at any one time. If you have your hard drive and CD-ROM drive plugged in using the primary interface, spend $3 for an IDE cable and move the CD-ROM drive to the secondary interface. (Don’t buy the ultra expensive UDMA capable IDE cables for the CD drives; they’re only capable of UDMA-2 at most and again, they generally won’t reach it.)

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