By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Q. Many a time you've recommended that we mere mortals invest in an external hard drive, for backup purposes. I'm sold, but what should I look for in one of these storage units? Could I make do with the cheapest drive on the block, or is this the sort of thing I shouldn't skimp on?
A.You should eschew the cheapest of the cheap, but you needn't spend more than $150. Since you'll only be mining the drive's data in case of an emergencya rare occurrence if your karmic slate is cleanyou can compromise a bit on speed. But don't skimp on size or the connection type, and make sure you've got the right software on hand.
The basic specs on a hard drive are size, expressed in gigabytes, and speed, measured in rotations per minute. Get something just a wee bit bigger than you think you need. Spend the extra $20 to get 80 GB instead of 60 GB, and you won't regret it; someday, when your PC's chock-full of memory-hogging movies, you'll thank Mr. Roboto big-time.
In terms of speed, you can make do with an older 5,400-rpm drive. Mr. Roboto would inveigh against going this slow if you were replacing an internal, primary drive, but it shouldn't matter on your backup unit. As for the other specs, like seek time and buffer size, don't sweat it: As long as the seek time is less than 10 milliseconds, and the buffer size is over 2 megabytes, you'll manage.
Another big consideration is what sort of connections the hard drive can handle. The surefire way to have an unhappy backup experience is to connect your drive through a USB 1.1 port, the horse and buggy of the computer realm. Hopefully your machine's new enough to boast a FireWire port, the high-speed interface of choice. Or maybe it's got a USB 2.0 port, nearly as good. What, your computer's got neither? Invest in a USB 2.0 adapter card from IOGEAR, currently $20 at B & H Photo & Video (bhphotovideo.com), which slides into any PCI slot.
The last thing you should think about is whether the drive comes bundled with backup software. It's all fine and well to click and drag your valuable documents to the external drive, but you should be doing more than just that. Norton Ghost takes a snapshot of your entire machine, including all the relevant drivers and system files, so you can reboot from your external drive in case of a disaster. As the recent victim of a fried hard drive, Mr. Roboto can attest to Ghost's ass-saving value.
All by its lonesome, Ghost retails at symantec.com for $70. But get thisIomega's 80-GB, USB 2.0-compatible hard drive comes with a free copy of the wondrous program. All that for a mere $115, according to the latest price quote from buy.com. How Mr. Roboto wishes he'd gone that route instead of plunking down $130 for Acomdata's 80-GB model, which came sans software. On the plus side, that Acomdata drive features a rubberized exterior for easy gripping. So at least Mr. Roboto's got that going for him.
A Wi-Fi Drive
More external hard-drive fun, dear readers: Cisco subsidiary Linksys (linksys.com) has introduced the Network Storage Link, a $99 gizmo that lets your external drive communicate wirelessly with your computer. The device should make it a lot easier for folks to get in the backup habit, as they needn't break out a FireWire or USB cable to Xerox their drive's contents. If you're in a multi-computer household, the Link is also a nifty way to share files: Just send your photos or songs to the drive, and another authorized user can scoop them up.
More than a few readers have recently asked about the best way to capture DVD imagesalas, the "Print Screen" command doesn't do the trick. Mr. Roboto instead endorses CyberLink's PowerDVD 5 (gocyberlink.com). You may not need all of the playback software's features, but it does make image capturing pretty easy, in addition to featuring tons of audio and format options. For a limited time, if you buy PowerDVD 5 ($40), you can get the video editor PowerDirector for $50 toohalf off the normal price. Go for it, you budding Kurosawa, you.