Sunday, July 02, 2006

Of Laptops and Hard Drives

The more technically inclined will be wondering what has happened with my hard drive. Well, I’m not quite sure. There is some uncertainty whether the problem is entirely the hard drive or whether the fan, which runs a lot, is to blame. At any rate, on Tuesday I began to hear ominous sounds. You do not want to hear buzzing and grinding noises from a computer. I promptly closed the cover and let it sleep, SMSing my friend Deanna to bring CDs to the conference so that I could back up a few things.
We backed up some stuff, during which time the laptop behaved quite normally. However, my next attempt to use the thing was greeted with a grinding noise, so I desisted.
It must be said that while I believe strongly in backing up my data and have some strategies for doing so, like most people I find them cumbersome and inadequate in practice. This means I am never as well backed up as I would like.
Prior to moving to Prague, I had replaced the laptop’s hard drive (about 30GB) with the biggest one I could find (100GB). My outlay of about $100 for the new drive definitely beat paying $1000-2000 for a new laptop, especially since new laptops at the time generally came with 40-60GB drives anyway.
Though even my computer-expert friends were impressed that I had installed a new hard drive in the laptop, it was a lot easier than replacing the hard drive on my desktop computer had been. The hardest part had been figuring out where the hard drive was hidden (in this case, under the floppy drive). I used Norton Ghost to image the old drive onto an external hard drive, then restored from there onto the new drive. The old drive then went into a small caddy and became an external drive for backups. I intended to delete everything and use it only for essential backups, but never got around to that and only deleted some files and non-essential programs.
In the meantime, then, I periodically backed up email and dissertation and random things to the old drive. The new 100GB drive, however, was getting awfully full by spring. I had taken lots and lots of photos of things I found in the libraries and archives. This stuff was not very well backed up since it had to be backed up on CD, there not being space on the nearly full 30GB drive. This was where things stood when I heard the unpleasant sounds.
When I reached Prague after the conference, I immediately hooked up the 30GB drive and began backing up more stuff onto it, as well as making CDs of more photos. This went fine, although there had been a horrible noise when I opened the computer and there were occasional lesser noises subsequently that made me nervous. After all, when a drive is failing you never know just how much time remains to rescue the data.
After getting quite a bit of stuff off the 100GB drive, I shut everything off and removed it from the laptop, replacing it with its predecessor. The 100GB drive then went into the caddy and got hooked up. I did all of this late at night, which did not seem like a very good idea, but one gets obsessed with finishing a project, and the only thing that went wrong was that I dropped an extremely tiny screw somewhere. (I am hoping it is in the carpet and not inside the laptop.)
Voilà! I could boot up and install updates to the most essential programs. I was very glad I hadn’t wiped the 30GB drive clean of its programs and operating system. Of course, since I had only been backing up data to it, it was not up to date on its software or configurations. It wasn’t even set up to use my Prague internet connection.
Well, now that I have set up the internet connection for the smaller drive, and updated a few programs, all is well for the moment. I should be able to function for the next couple of weeks, until I can deal with the situation more permanently in California. Using the 100GB drive as an auxiliary rather than the boot disk means it is under less stress, plus I did delete hundreds (thousands?) of files so that it is now 20% free space. Defragging it will also (since it survived that process) mean using it will be less problematic. It has not made any odd noises whatsoever since becoming an auxiliary drive. With luck it will survive long enough for me to base my new hard drive on its contents rather than on the 30GB. If I’m really lucky, it was only temporarily unhappy with the summer heat and with being so full, but I wouldn’t care to trust that.
The plan? Well, the laptop is three years old, which, appallingly, is usually considered the lifespan of such a machine. Desktop computers can be run much longer if the user replaces parts from time to time, but a laptop that gets heavy use and a lot of travel may conk out in a nonrepairable way. I should probably think about a new laptop rather than just about a new hard drive. This is galling, since the machine is satisfactory and I am a poor grad student, but I am concerned that the fan will not last. One can buy computers much more cheaply in the US than in the Czech Republic, so it would be better to replace it in California than next year in Prague.
Presumably it will not be a problem to set up the new computer/hard drive. In essence, I need to get an external drive of at least 100GB, and I can then use Norton Ghost to make an image of the old drive onto that. I can then restore from that onto the new drive. (Unless Ghost has some means of doing a direct copy, which it may; I don’t use it much.) I then just take whatever is new from the 30GB drive and copy it to the new drive, which should really be only email and dissertation files.
It does concern me that, from what I can tell, laptop hard drives have not exactly leaped forward in the past year as regards capacity or price. Usually, you can expect that in a year’s time, any computer essential of this sort will have vastly improved. But no. The 100GB hard drive that I managed to fill up this year does not seem to have been at all superseded, but still appears to be pretty much top of the line. A few manufacturers seem to have 120GB drives for laptops, but it is hard enough to find 100GB drives and they are certainly not any cheaper than a year ago. The only possible improvement may be in their speed, which is less of a concern for me than storage and price. I find this rather bizarre, considering that you can get a 500GB desktop hard drive for around $300-350. With so many people using laptops as their primary computers, and with so many of them taking a lot of digital photos and filling up their drives with digital music, you would think there would be an outcry at the puny size of the average laptop hard drive. (OK, OK, the hard drive on my first computer was 100MB rather than GB, but I'm still complaining.)


Anonymous Dirk said...

Harrowing stuff. But I think storage megabytes are getting cheaper. I bough 160 gig external drive for about $150 a couple of years ago and my son just bought a 500 gig dive (to hold music) for about $350. The first hard drive I ever used on my own computer (provided by Apple where I worked at the time) held 5 megabytes and cost $2500 in the store.

July 03, 2006 5:37 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

Yes, external or for that matter desktop PC storage is definitely affordable. But as you know the laptop hard drives are a smaller physical size and I'd really like to have everything at my fingertips when working away from home. Yesterday I was swapping CDs in and out to look at (photographed) documents and it was a nuisance.

The 100GB continues to work fine externally. I'm sure clearing off space and defragging made it feel much better. I'd ask if you could recommend a good defragger but you are a Mac person.

My first 100MB hard drive was pretty large for its time, but of course that was long after your 5MB drive. The whole computer cost about $1900. I have a vague feeling that my second computer was 200MB, or maybe it was 200Mhz. Something about it was 200 and very spiffy.

July 04, 2006 9:34 AM  

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