Monday, September 08, 2008

Choosing the Right Storage Medium

Last week I reviewed the various portable hard drives that are now widely available. These drives can store the entire contents of your home or office computer. As discussed, these new USB drives are essentially the same as the hard drives you have had in your computer for decades. The big difference is that they have higher capacity and are designed to be portable. They can handle rough treatment and plug easily into the USB port of most any modern PC or Mac computer.

That column prompted some questions about the other types of storage media. How do they differ from hard drives? What applications are suited for the various types?

There are three basic types of data storage devices that you might use at the office, at school or at home. There are those that store data on a disc or platter using magnetism. Another type stores data on a disc using an optical system. Finally there are those that use Flash Memory.

Perhaps the most basic type of storage is the floppy disc, a magnetic media. Once the most ubiquitous of all media, it has almost disappeared from the market. In fact, you must special order a floppy drive in any new computer and most likely in the very near future this will no longer be possible. The floppy uses a plastic disc that is coated with iron oxide (i.e., rust.) Data are stored on the disc using a magnetic read / write head. The 3.5 inch floppy only holds about 1.4 mb. of data. This was plenty of room if you were storing your school book report. If you want to save copies of digital pictures, the floppy doesn’t cut it. You can hardly fit one high quality digital picture on a single floppy.

My suggestion is that if you have a box of floppies sitting on your desk, you may wish to see what is stored on them and save any valuable content to another type of media. For those of you who might still have data stored on a 5.25 inch floppy, you may need to go on eBay to find a drive.

Most of us are familiar with optical discs. First there were CDs, and now DVDs. These media use a laser to read and write to the surface of the disc. There are two types of CD discs. One type, a CD-R, allows you to write the data only once and read many times. This is an excellent choice for archiving files. There are others, dubbed CD-R/W. These can be used like a hard drive allowing you to erase unwanted files.

Most of us are familiar with DVD video discs. There are also DVD data discs that work much like a CD. The big difference is the capacity. A standard CD data disc can store about 700 mb., while a DVD data disc can hold more than 8 gig. Before running out and buying DVD discs for data storage be sure that your computer can handle them. Many will play a DVD video disc, but cannot read or write to a DVD data disc.

Finally, there are Flash Memory based storage options. The most popular is the SD Card. These small cards are commonly found in cameras and some audio players. They can hold a tremendous about of data. Once very expensive, these postage stamp sized cards can hold several gigabytes of information and are very reasonably priced . One negative is that they are so small they are easily misplaced. Akin to these SD cards are the Memory Sticks that seem to be everywhere. They operate much the same as the SD cards but do not require a SD slot or “drive” in your computer. Rather they plug into the USB port of your computer or device. They are great for sharing files between machines. Many in business use them to store meeting presentations. They can fit in your pocket and hold very large files. Since most computers have a USB port, data is easily retrieved.

The good news is that prices for file storage media continue to fall. The bad news is that the media keep changing and just like it is hard to find a player for your Betamax tape, a few years from now we will be searching for a drive that will play a CD.

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