Figuring out your personal computer's data storage needs used to be easy: Buy the biggest hard-disk drive that you can afford. That's still very good advice, but it's not enough anymore. Rapid advances in storage capacity and space-hogging software have made it tough to determine just how big to buy. Moreover, a dizzying array of new storage devices has exploded onto the market.
So how big is big enough? The average hard drive--the central repository for all your programs and data--on a new PC stores about 850 million bytes of data. But once you install Windows 95 and associated applications, a few games, and surf the Internet, you'll want at least a gigabyte drive--a billion bytes. Besides, at less than $250, they're a steal. And you may need drives that store 1.6 gig (starting at $450) or 2 gig ($700 and up) if you're a program pack rat.
TRY CHEATING. Although a lot of cheaper PCs still use hard drives with older technology, seek out new models with the latest data interfaces that allow higher access speeds. For IBM-style PCs, drives should use one of two nearly identical interface standards: Fast ATA (for Advanced Technology Attachment) and Enhanced IDE (Integrated Drive Electronics).
If you're strapped for cash, you can always cheat: Compression software, costing less than $100, scrunches data to give you up to twice the disk space. Programs range from shareware such as PKZIP, which compresses little-used data into archives, to commercial packages such as Stac Electronics' Stacker. But if you're using Windows 95, Microsoft Corp.'s new DriveSpace3 is especially nifty.
CD-ROM drives, a staple on today's consumer PCs, are a must for multimedia and today's huge programs. Get the dealer to install one, though--it can be a configuration nightmare. Go for a quad-speed drive--which spins four times as fast as the original CD-ROM players and offers smoother video on new games. But six-speed drives are still too pricey, and few programs tap that speed yet.
With so much critical data on a hard disk that spins 5,000 times a minute, it's wise to make frequent backups. But floppy disks won't do: Even a 300-meg hard drive would take 200 floppies and several hours to back up. That's why special backup drives are becoming de rigeur. If you're on a budget, tape drives are the cheapest--as low as $100 to store hundreds of megabytes on one $15 cartridge. Look for drives that use the quarter-inch cartridge (QIC) or Travan standards. Main problem: Tape drives can be agonizingly slow.
The hottest backup choice is a new generation of removable drives that are cheap, fast, and convenient. Iomega Corp.'s $200 Zip drive stores 100 megabytes--70 times more than a standard floppy disk--on a single $20 disk. SyQuest Technology Inc.'s similarly priced EZ135, which uses 135-megabyte disks, is faster than the Zip. But the Zip's software is easier to use. Whichever you choose, "They're just like a super-floppy," says Dataquest Inc. analyst Rod Watkins.
More choices are coming: A 120-megabyte mega-floppy drive from 3M, Compaq Computer, and Matsushita that can also read current floppy disks is expected to be introduced by yearend. Higher-capacity backup drives--such as Iomega's $500 Jaz drive, which will store a gigabyte on a single $100 cartridge--will also debut this year. But the new writeable CDs, which store 650-megabytes on a single disk, currently cost $800 to more than $2,000--too much for most consumers. And PC memory cards, which store data on memory chips instead of rotating disks, can be handy for laptops. But at $10 per megabyte--40 times as much as hard drives--they're a luxury, too.
With Intel Corp. dropping chip prices fast, it's tempting to spend all your computing budget on the latest Pentium. But with programs getting piggier, buying hard-drive space will give you more byte for your bucks than ever before.
PC STORAGE OPTIONS
The PC's central repository. Stores all data and programs on sealed metal platters.
Plays compact disks storing large programs and graphics. A must for multimedia.
TAPE BACKUP DRIVE
Mirrors data on the hard drive in case it crashes. Near-essential for jumbo drives.
REMOVABLE BACKUP DRIVE
Faster, more flexible alternative to a tape drive. Also more expensive.
A business-card-size memory pack for laptops that uses less power than disk drives.
Shrinks and expands data, allowing you to cheaply fit more on a hard disk.