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What is a computer hard drive and how does it work?

What is a computer's hard drive? It is a common question and we are more than happy to answer. Whether you're looking for ways to upgrade your hard drive, trying to buy a computer with the right drive, or just trying to figure out what everyone is talking about, what follows will interest you.

Inside of a mechanical hard drive showing the magnetic disks, the motor and the write read head to learn what is the hard drive of a computer

The purpose of the hard drive

The hard drive is where your computer stores long-term data, which is not erased when you turn it off, (unlike RAM). A hard drive not only stores your personal or work files, but all the code required for your operating system, the browsers used to connect to the Internet, the drivers for your accessories and everything else. When people talk about computer storage, they mean the hard drive (HDD or SSD, see more information below).

2.5-inch hard drive in a person's hand

Each hard drive has a specific amount of space, some of which is automatically consumed by the operating system and backup facilities, but you can fill the rest with the data you download and save, whether from a new application, music, or photos. of your vacation.

Hard drive space is no longer as important (or as expensive!) As it was before. This is because today you can run software and store data in the cloud, which does not require local storage, thus freeing up precious space on your computer.

This cloud-based dependency that relies on remote servers and their hard drives in data centers is what originally powered Google's Chrome OS platform. Chromebooks have very little “physical” storage space due to their reliance on streaming and cloud solutions. That's changing to some extent thanks to the growing support for Google Play's Android apps.

Birth of the hard disk.

A little history.

Have you ever wondered why the main storage unit is always assigned the letter "C:"? This is because the first commercial personal computers did not have a hard disk due to their high cost. At that time, it was common to work with two floppy disks.

Floppy disk of 8, 5.25 and 3.5 inches in black, orange and blue respectivelyGeorge Chernilevsky

They were called flexible because they were made of a type of plastic similar to that of radiographs, and inside a semi-rigid plastic package, the first units were 5.25 inches. They were subsequently discontinued by the 3.5-inch high-density drives (the former had a capacity of 360 and 720 Kb and the latter of 1.44 MB).

The first floppy disk contains the disk operating system (TWO, and the program you will be working with. On the second disc you kept all your work. To the first drive, the operating system assigned (mapped) it as drive A, to the second drive it assigned drive B, so, when the hard drives arrived, drive C was assigned and CD drives were assigned assigned (you guessed it!) unit D, and so on, consecutively and alphabetically.

Reynold B. Johnson developed the first real hard drive at IBM in 1956. Johnson's team originally experimented with other methods of storing data on things like magnetic tape. However, his team discovered ways to store information (in the form of bytes) on metallic magnetic disks, which could be overwritten with new information as desired. This led to the development of an automated disc that reads similarly to a disc player, except that it was much larger. The first commercially available version, RAMAC, had a hard drive about the size of a kitchen pantry.

Later, IBM set out to develop floppy disks in the late 1960s to easily load the code onto their mainframes. These discs initially measured eight inches in diameter with read-only data. The first commercially available read / write unit did not appear until 1972 when team leader Alan Shugart migrated to Memorex.

In general, these two parts, the smaller, more transferable automated magnetic disk and "floppy disk," became the backbone of the initial hard drive. For many years, the data storage method remained the same, while major improvements were made in the way the hard drive could store, read, and eventually write data.

Two types of units

Hard drives are internal or external. "Internal" means they are located inside your desktop or laptop and have a direct connection to the main card. External means they reside outside of the computer and are generally connected via a USB or Thunderbolt cable. The external hard drive is usually slower than the internal one due to the type of connection, but they can also be disconnected from the computer without any problem.

blue t5 ssd drive from samsung on a keyboard

You may or may not be able to upgrade an internal drive. For desktop computers, you can easily remove the side cover, disconnect the current unit, and connect a new unit. On notebook computers, the upgrade process may not be as simple.

Previously they had a special access to the hard disk and the memory at the bottom that gave you access for an almost immediate change, nowadays most laptops, to save on manufacturing processes, they eliminated that access and now it is necessary to open Fully bottom cover to change hard drive or memory

Some notebook computers from various manufacturers do not have removable storage. They have direct storage on the main card, and while it is not impossible to change it, it does need to be done by an expert, if possible. Read the specifications on the manufacturer's websites on how to properly change your laptop's drive.

Usually when we refer to a hard drive, it is the hard drive or HDD, (Hard disk drive, for its acronym in English). But there is another version: the solid state drives or SSD (Solid State Drive). There is a big difference between the two that we explain in a separate article, SSD vs. HDD. However, here we summarize it:

HDD– Hard drives use a spinning magnetic disc that contains information embedded in very small tracks, somewhat like a disc player. This requires moving parts, specifically heads, to read and write data to the disk, as needed, in addition to the drive required to spin the disk. It is a simple method, which makes buying hard drives very economical, especially when creating very large storage configurations.

SSD: There are no moving parts in the solid state drives. Instead, these units use semiconductors that store information by changing the electrical state of very small capacitors. They are much faster than HDD hard drives and can store information more easily without worrying about wear and tear on parts. SSDs are the reason why modern computers start up so fast.

Important qualities of the hard drive

A person working at a wooden table with a laptop and on the side of a book an external storage unit connected to the laptop

Space– Review the specifications available for computers today and you'll see multi-terabyte storage options. SSDs are particularly important to HDD hard drive storage because they store data in a much smaller, multi-layered space. That is why we have phones that can store all of our favorite music, videos, and images.

Speed: The speed of a hard disk depends on how fast data can be read or written. That includes your connection to the computer, which can hinder the flow of data and, ultimately, its performance (see below). For mechanical hard drives, speed is also important: 7,200 RPM drives tend to be faster than 5,400 RPM drives. However, they are both much slower than SSDs.

Physical security: Physical security is generally about durability, whether your hard drive is hidden inside a computer or an external version you can carry. It needs to resist shock and pressure, as well as heat and other environmental problems. More advanced hard drives may also have features that help prevent hacking or discourage theft.

Connections– A hard drive can be connected via SATA, PCIexpress, USB or Thunderbolt connectors. The connection type affects speed, so if you connect an external SSD to a USB-A 2.0 port, the maximum data flow is 60 megabytes per second, no matter if your SSD can read or write at 1,800 MB per second. Connections also determine compatibility and upgradeability, so always check before you buy or upgrade.

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