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A Guide to Computer Hardware

Written on July 31, 2006 by Richard Millard

Disk Drives

There are a few common types of disk drives, and below I highlight the features and considerations of the most common types.

Floppy Drives - Floppy drives are the oldest, and most familiar form of media that our computers use. Just pop in the disk, copy the data, and eject it. They've become more scarce recently, as they have a very small storage capacity, and are being eschewed in favor of larger optical discs.

CD-ROM - This drive plays CD's, both audio and data. The speed that it operates is usually expressed in terms of the speed an Audio Disc plays at (which happens to be 1.2 megabits per second). Today, CD-Roms read at up to 52x, which is 52 times faster than an audio disc plays.

CD-RW - This drive can play CD's, and even make them! With a blank CD and the proper software, you can make your own data files or audio CDs. These are usually described by 2 numbers: Read Speed and Write Speed.

DVD-ROM - As CD-ROM, but it can also play DVDs. Exceptionally large programs are starting to be distributed on DVD's rather than CD's, because DVD's have much higher capacity. Since this drive can read both DVDs and CDs, and is only fractionally more expensive than the CD-ROM, I universally recommend the purchase of a DVD drive over a CD drive.

DVD/CD-RW or "Combo Drive" - This drive combines a CD-RW and a DVD-ROM. It can read CDs, DVDs, and Write CDs.

DVD-RW - This drive does it all. It reads CDs and DVDs, and it writes both CDs and DVDs. DVD has a few formats (referred to by obscure terms like "+", "-", and "dual layer"). Modern DVD-RW drives should support all these formats.

Some burners are starting to pack some neat features.

Lightscribe is a novelty that's quite useful. If you're using a lightscribe DVD, you can flip the disc over, and etch a label onto the surface. No labels or messy pens, just use the software provided, and burn the graphics right onto the disc. Nifty! Some of the more expensive drives (like the Plextor models), have a "silent operation mode" which can be useful if you're in a recording environment, and are trying to keep things low-noise.

A good thing to keep in mind is software. Reading a CD is supported by most operating systems, but most DVD players need special software, as will any sort of disc writers. Some include reputable software suites (like Nero, Roxxio, etc), while others might come with some proprietary writing packages. You might find a drive that you think is a great deal, but if it doesn't come with software you might not be getting the bargain that you thought you were.

Becoming more and more obsolete, the floppy drive has almost gone the way of the dodo. However, I still recommend including one with your system. At the time of the writing of this article, Microsoft Windows still does not include native support for all types of controllers. Without getting too technical, this means that if you ever needed to install or reinstall Windows on your system, you may have to load in some special instructions on how to do so. Even more frustrating, Windows Setup only knows how to get these instructions from one source - you guessed it - the floppy drive.

Purchasing a DVD drive is a smart investment as well, even if you never plan on watching a DVD Movie on your system. Since DVD's store so much more data than a CD, larger programs and games are starting to be packaged on DVDs rather than CDs.

Lastly, I'd suggest getting at least one drive that can write to a Disc (either CD or DVD). When moving large files around, or trying to back up your data, copying it to a disc is both quick and easy compared to the alternatives.

If you're only looking at a single drive, I'd recommend a DVD-ROM or a DVD/CD-RW combo drive. Since the price difference between a CD-Rom and combo drive is pretty miniscule, I'd recommend the latter.

When configuring a system, I sometimes recommend 2 drives. A DVD-RW and a DVD-ROM make a perfect pair. This gives you one drive to do all the reading, and one to do all the writing. You can even write directly from one disc to another, giving you a great way to copy an existing disk quickly.

One other thing to keep in mind: Be sure to get drives that match the color of your case! Nothing's worse than mismatched drives!

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