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Hard Drives: How They Work (Page 1/4)

Posted: April 17, 2000
Written by: Tuan "Solace" Nguyen


Remember back in the days when hard drives would cost an arm and a leg? Well, those days are over and these days, one can buy gigs and gigs without putting a massive hole in the wallet. You may not know this but "ancient" hard drives would take up an incredible amount of space – try an entire bookshelf for one hard drive that couldn’t even store 500MB.

Nowadays, bigger and bigger size drives are so common that we take them for granted. We just opt for the largest size we can get and we’re happy. What we may not know is that the hard drive is one of the most significant performance factors in our PCs.

What? You already have a 1GHz Pentium III with a Mental3D’3000 graphics card with 256MB of curiously high-bandwidth LMNOP RAM? Well what if we tell you that the reason why your apps are taking long to load is because of your hard drive? That’s right.

Over 60% of the time, your ultra fast processor is sitting around daydreaming the day he meets a pretty and sensitive solid state drive packed with silicon – pardon the pun. The hard drive is the slowest part in your computer (after the floppy drive and cd-rom). This is because it is mechanical and consequently, has moving components. This moving and rotating business takes time and it will never be as fast as the solid state electronics that move at the speed of an electron. Yet despite all this, it is the one device that stores all the information kept on the computer. Just like the processor, the computer is practically useless without it. It’s where your documents, games, utilities, MP3s and other I’d-prefer-not-to-mention stuff is kept.

Thanks to innovation in hard drive technology though, they’ve gotten faster, quieter, and especially larger than ever before. And this innovation is accelerating and doubles every 18 months – which fits Moore’s Law.

So what is it about the hard drive that makes it interesting? And most of all, why is it fast, yet still the slowest part in your computer? Keep on reading.

The Innards

The inside of the hard drive is composed of many parts. They are sealed in a dust-free chamber for reasons we will discuss later on. But first let’s take a look at the basic components of a hard drive.


These are metal alloy discs that are coated with an aluminum alloy or glass substrate. The traditional material is aluminum alloy but these days, newer hard drives are coated with a glass substrate because it provides greater durability. This is where the hard drive stores information. All your data is stored using magnetic polarity differences. For example, a northern charge would denote a 1 and a southern charge would denote a 0.

So the more platters a hard drive has the more data it can pack? Not quite…

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