August 10, 2006


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How big is your drive?
Not as big as you think, as usual
By John “jaQ” Andrews

Can you imagine the giddiness, the sheer joy and elation engineers must have felt when they first managed to cram five megabytes onto a hard drive?

What’s more, that hard drive was only a foot wide! Revolutionary!

These days you can eat up 5MB without blinking an eye, and your computer’s hard drive barely notices. Even laptops are routinely being sold with drives in excess of 100 gigabytes. That’s 20,000 times the capacity of our 12-incher up above.

Still, drive storage capacity can make a significant difference in the price of any computer you’re considering, so how much space do you really need to pay for? It all depends on what you’re doing.

But first, consider how much usable space you’ll be getting. Today’s operating systems and pre-loaded software easily take up a good gigabyte or two, along with a partition that’s set aside just in case you ever want to restore your PC to its original factory condition. Four gigabytes gone in a snap.

Then you have to realize that in marketing parlance, a gigabyte is 1,000,000,000 bytes. In actual computerese, though, it’s 1,073,741,824 bytes. That’s because computers deal in Base 2; instead of our familiar Base 10 digits 0 through 9, they only understand 0 and 1. That means 1,000 — 10 to the third power — isn’t a nice round number to a computer like it is to you and me. The closest round number is 2 to the 10th power, or 1,024. When your computer says “kilo,” “mega” or “giga,” it’s multiplying by 1,024, not 1,000. This results in those marketing numbers being a touch high. A 100GB hard drive will look to your computer to really be about 93GB.

So we’ve already lost 10 percent of our storage space without touching our new PC yet. Turn the thing on and more disappears. Where does it go? Some of it is used as a swap file, also called virtual memory. This supplements the physical memory installed in your system and is usually about 1.5 times that amount. So if your system comes with 512MB of memory, there will be around 768MB of your hard drive allocated for a swap file. Windows varies the swap file size as needed. Windows also takes up a load of space with System Restore data, which logs changes to your system so you can roll back to a specific point should you screw it up somehow.

If you actually want to start using your system, well, fine, but just realize you’ll be filling up even more of that space. Applications are hoggier than ever, especially games. They come on DVDs now, you know that? And everything that’s compressed on the install disc gets expanded. Yeah.

Want to save your own content? A typical digital photo, downloaded straight from your camera, will be one or two megabytes. MP3s and other compressed digital audio formats run about a megabyte per minute. DVD quality video is 2GB per hour, so if you’re planning to record lots of TV on your computer, invest in a hugeantic hard drive.

The good news is that letters to the editor, term papers and the great American novel are still relatively compact. Especially if you type in a really small font.

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss these articles and more at

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