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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Desktops

The drive for multidisk PCs

Long-term storage, instant backup and multicore chips are pushing the trend. Will consumers bite? Photos: Cramming in the hard drives

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
After losing nearly 9,000 photos to a malfunctioning internal hard drive, commercial photographer Peter Fox knew he'd better hurry up and take extra precautions to back up his work.

"I save hundreds of files for each shot on my computer before I burn them on CDs for my clients," the Palo, Alto, Calif., resident said of his near-miss. "Losing them would have been devastating." To cope with his storage needs and reliability concerns, he bought eight external drives to make sure nothing went wrong.

Fox isn't the only heavy-duty PC user worrying about storage. To avoid trouble, many take matters into their own hands by building their own PCs or, like Fox, installing additional disk drives.

News.context

What's new:
As consumers become increasingly aware of the need to back up data, more PC makers are building multiple hard drives into their machines.

Bottom line:
RAID, a technique used in larger computer servers, has greatly helped the transition to dual-hard-drive PCs. But some analysts wonder if consumers will take to the added heft that RAID brings.

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Fortunately, PC makers are starting to provide an alternative to the do-it-yourself approach. While all the major computer makers let customers add a second, third or even fourth hard drive, some PC manufacturers are installing dual hard-disk drives in their basic computers so consumers don't have to fiddle with external devices.

"The benefit of a dual-hard-drive solution is unquestionably based on the backup applications beyond the need for more space," said Toni Duboise, an analyst with the research firm Current Analysis.

Hewlett-Packard and Gateway sell computers with multiple hard drives built right in, and Dell, HP, Lenovo and Gateway will all let customers upgrade a single hard-drive system.

•  Gateway's FX-400XL PC for home users and E-6500 PC for professional customers, which are shipping now with a starting price tag of $1,999 and $989 respectively, come with 500GB of storage through two 250GB hard-disk drives. The PCs can be expanded to three drives.

•  HP offers dual-hard-drive systems in its Pavilion d4100 series desktop PCs, which are available online starting at $869. HP also offers its own family of external personal media drives for desktop PCs; they're available in sizes ranging between 120GB and 400GB.

•  Dell's Dimension 9100 allows customers to upgrade to as many as two 500GB hard drives, while its XPS Gen 5 supports as many as three 500GB drives. Prices start at $974 and $1,385 respectively after rebate.

•  Lenovo's ThinkCentre desktops, which range in price from $399 to $899, can be upgraded to include a second hard drive in every version except the company's minitower. Even the smaller PC and normal-size desktop models can support a second hard drive if the system is configured without a floppy drive. The tower version can support a second and third hard drive.

dual-hard-drive PCs

The drive toward PCs with dual hard drives is getting a lift from semiconductor giant Intel. During the launch of the company's Pentium D processors in June, Gerald Holzhammer, a vice president with Intel's digital-home group, hinted that new dual-core chip designs--two computer brains on the same piece of silicon--lend themselves to configurations where PCs could come with multiple hard drives.

Intel has long touted its dual-core processors for handling several tasks at once. For example, one side of the dual-core Intel chip could manage a massive media download like a television show, while the other side could enable Web surfing. The current version of Windows already supports multiple hard-drive options.

Dave Reinsel, a director of storage research at research firm IDC, has for years been evangelizing any trend toward automatically offering multiple hard drives in a PC.

"The biggest benefit is it gives consumer the protection they need," Reinsel said. "It is basically an insurance policy against data loss. You might never need it but if you don't have it, it can be devastating."

IDC's Reinsel suggests that many PC makers will eventually build desktops with drive bays that are externally accessible and have

 

Correction: This story incorrectly used the term "memory" in some instances to refer to disk-based storage.
an indicator light to tell consumers when the drive is functioning or full.

Generally, there tends to be less data to lose in PCs used by only one person. Resumes, spreadsheets and personal financial information, for example, usually can be reconstructed if lost or corrupted and not backed up.

But now even home users with the most basic needs are adding gigabytes of content to their PCs in the form of wedding photos and video, snapshots of grandchildren, and digital audio of baby's first words.

"Recovery is not always possible for digital-media versions of one-time personal events," IDC's Reinsel said. "If not backed up or protected by some means, there is no way to get back this type of data."

RAID hits home
Reinsel said the technology that has helped most with the transition to dual-hard-drive PCs is a technique used in larger computer servers: RAID, or redundant array of inexpensive (or independent) disks. The method combines multiple hard-disk drives to serve as one logical unit.

There are two main types of RAID used in home PCs. RAID 0, which is also known as striping, is used to increase performance. The technique lets two or more hard-disk drives share data with little or no interaction. Then there's RAID 1--sometimes called mirroring--where two or more hard-disk drives share the exact same data at the exact same time.

IDC recently published a special report titled "RAIDing the Home" that touted the benefits of additional hard-disk drives for computers used for more than Web surfing or basic document creation. Of the two configurations, IDC said RAID 1 is more likely to find its way into home desktop PCs and various external storage solutions in the immediate future.

The IDC technology survey also found a high potential for RAID in the home. IDC estimates that the home retail market for RAID will approach $5 billion in 2008, up from $3.23 billion last year. That number includes both individual systems and networked devices.

"Businesses have policies that govern the protection and backup of data, but consumers are driven by their own intuition, or worse, by a disaster," Reinsel said. "However, external drives still have deficiencies--namely, they can still fail, and data loss can still occur."

Chip manufacturers like Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are already integrating RAID functionality into their core logic chipsets, making it easier for consumers to take advantage of multiple hard-disk drives.

Some analysts, however, are skeptical about whether consumers will want PCs that use RAID to connect internal hard drives.

Leslie Fiering, an analyst with the market research firm Gartner, said most people will not want to add the weight or expense of a built-in second drive. She believes it's less expensive--and far easier--to go with something like Lenovo's ImageUltra product, a do-it-yourself software tool that allows users to manage hard drives as needed externally.

"I can see a small segment of the market that buys desktop PCs wanting the additional reliability that RAID can offer," Fiering said. "A second drive in a desktop actually makes some sense as a backup for more reliability. Hard-disk drives do fail, however. And if your PC totally crashes, you lose both drives."