Space: The Digital Frontier

New storage systems help PCs handle the insatiable demands of rich media


You can't have too much storage. I used to think this rule applied only to closets and garages. But the explosive growth of digital media means that PC disk drives with 60 or even 100 gigabytes, which once seemed limitless, are filling up. Fortunately there are solutions that both solve your storage problems and make sharing content on a home network much simpler.

Remember when Windows 95 was first introduced? Most PCs at the time couldn't hold much more than 2 GB worth of files. Maybe they didn't need to because what we were storing was mostly text. A book as weighty as War and Peace would take up less space than a single digital photo or song. Now the world has moved to space-hogging "rich media," such as pictures and music. Just one high-quality song file can chew up 10 MB, a half-hour of ordinary television needs a gigabyte or more, and high-definition TV requires three times that much. Your current desktop PC may hold up to 250 GB, but even that doesn't seem to be sufficient.

Fortunately there are some exciting new ways to stash all that stuff. For a home network, there's a whole class of simple, low-cost storage devices that plug into the network rather than into a PC. These "network drives" make it much easier to access information from multiple computers and can also back up data automatically from connected PCs.

I tried two systems using different technologies. Maxtor Shared Storage Plus, a box about half the size of a laptop, is a miniature version of the sort of file server used on corporate networks. Capacity ranges from 200 GB (about $220) to 500 GB (about $500). It's easy to set up from any Windows PC, and since its technology is supported by all modern operating systems, it can be shared by PCs, Macs, and even Linux systems on the same network.

ONE OBVIOUS USE FOR NETWORK STORAGE is sharing your collection of digital music. You can put all your music on a network drive, which each family member can then access through iTunes or some other music player. (This won't work with some copy-protected songs.) And with Shared Storage Plus, each user can send music, photos, or video to anyone else on the network as long as the players adhere to standards of the Digital Living Network Alliance. These standards have caught on in Japan and are likely to become more common in other markets over the next year or two.

Netgear's (NTGR ) Storage Central SC101 costs less than the Maxtor device but is more of a do-it-yourself project. For about $100 you get a box that's about half the size of a shoebox, into which you can pop one or two standard desktop-type hard drives giving capacity of anywhere from 40 GB to 1,000 GB (for anywhere from $50 to about $350 per drive). The SC101 employs advanced technology used for large databases in corporate data centers. Its main selling point is that the network drive appears in Windows' "My Computer" just as if it were part of your PC. The drawback is that you need to install software on each PC that will share data, and Netgear's program runs only on Windows.

Either of these systems is good for backing up important data files. Both come with their own software to control what is archived, and when. But there's a new and more interesting method available called continuous backup that sends off copies of your files whenever a new version is saved. I tried two different programs: Memeo AutoBackup ($49.95 for up to three computers) and IBM (IBM ) Tivoli Continuous Data Protection ($35). Memeo is simpler to set up and use, but Tivoli, another scaled-down version of a corporate-class product, offers greater flexibility.

Which device is right for you? If opening a computer case makes you nervous, Maxtor is probably the better choice. Technical predilections aside, a network drive is an excellent way to get a lot of flexible storage for not much money.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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