It's been a while since I visited the PC storage scene. Hard drive storage has reached ho-hum status because the speeds have not really increased very much, you don't need that much speed anyhow, and capacities are bigger than you can possibly use in most cases. But there are still some interesting things to discuss, so let's dive in.
The venerable 1.4 MB floppy disk drive has just about disappeared from the scene. Many manufacturers still include them because they are very cheap, but a lot of companies such as Dell now only offer them as options. Since you can't even put one full sized digital photo on a floppy, it's time to move on. The primary replacement for floppy disks is the writeable CD. To be used as such, you need the re-writeable format (CD-RW) - both a drive in your PC and the proper media. You also need software (usually comes with the drive or in Windows XP) to allow reading and writing to the CD as if it was a floppy. It's as easy to exchange CDs with friends or associates as it was with a floppy. Its fair to assume that anyone you want to exchange files with has at least a CD reader by now.
You can also use an external drive, such as the Iomega Zip, but CDs usually have a higher capacity, the disks are much cheaper, and you are more certain that the person you are sending the data to can read it without special equipment.
If you do need a floppy drive and your new PC doesn't have one, you can easily get a USB attached external floppy drive.
If you used floppies to move data between two locations (such as your PC at home and at work), the device to get is the USB "thumb" drive. These are small USB attached devices that appear to the PC like another drive letter. They are about the size of a thumb, and have a USB connector built right into the end. But the difference is that these devices can contain 256MB or more of data and are much faster than floppies because they are not mechanical, rotating devices.
Hard drive capacities are just off the scale. Any PC you buy these days has more gigabytes than you can possibly use. My old PC had a 60 GB hard drive, and I wasn't able to fill it more than half, even with all the digital photo and music files that I have. There is only one application that eats up more space, and that is video - converting your old VHS tapes to DVD or creating your own DVD video. In the case of video, enough is never enough since you might need 5-10 gigabytes to store each hour of video. Most PCs these days come with a minimum of 80 GB hard drives and some even have 200 GB.
If you want to add more storage to your PC, you have two options. You can buy an internal drive if your PC has an available drive connector. Its easier to add the new drive as another drive letter (probably D:) but you can replace your current hard drive if you know how to copy all the data and initialize the Operating System boot on the new drive. Adding an external hard drive (either USB or FireWire attached) is usually a matter of simply plugging the drive in to a standard connector.
Internal hard drives now use the older EIDE interface or the newer Serial ATA (SATA) interface. Right now, there is little to choose between them, although obviously SATA will predominate in the future. You might also consider a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) to improve capacity, speed, and/or reliability. Read up on RAID on the Internet if you want to take this step. The biggest downside of RAID 0 striping is that your data is split between two or more physical drives and if your PC fails it will be more difficult for you to move the hard drive to another PC to recover your data.
A couple of general things to be aware of: First of all, any storage USB device should support the higher speed USB 2.0. Second, you should be aware that hard drive capacities over 137 GB may require special software from the drive manufacturer to function as a single drive; check before you buy.
Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport / Oak Island area. You can visit his web site at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail questions or column ideas to him at email@example.com. For specific inquiries, please call Bob Seidel Consulting, LLC at 278-1007.