Upgrading Computer Memory Is Tricky

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A year ago, I bought a computer with a huge storage space. At least, it seemed huge at the time. But in less than a year, the 540-megabyte drive that stores all the computer's data was full. So last month, I upgraded.

I had a dealer put in a new 850-megabyte drive and give me back the 540-megabyte model. I wanted to upgrade my older 486-class machine and see if I could do the job myself.

Many users will consider upgrading their hard drives this month, when the new Windows 95 operating system unleashes another round of faster but bigger software programs. But upgrading is a tricky proposition. Users of older machines are often better off replacing their entire system, especially if they're trying to switch from an older drive standard to a newer one.

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That was my challenge. I wanted to move from an antiquated standard to a newer one, called IDE. That meant buying a card - a printed circuit called a controller card - that slips into a slot, or plug, inside the computer.

So I bought a $50 card from a company called Acculogic. It came loaded with basic software that would allow my older computer to easily recognize the newer IDE standard. Or so I thought.

I won't go into all my travails to get the thing to work. The succession of weird beeps, error messages, and hardware conflicts I encountered goes beyond the scope of this column. Suffice it to say I was amazed when the thing finally worked.

Exchanging a hard drive is not a ''Computers for the Rest of Us'' operation. ''If you have no idea what you're doing, and you're kind of scared of it, I would say go to your local reseller,'' says Brett Morris, regional sales manager for Computer Products Corporation, which sells computer-storage hardware and peripherals to corporations and universities. That's sound advice for everyone but the most technically literate.

But I'm happy to report that my hard-drive travails may represent the end of an era rather than the beginning.

A number of initiatives are under way to make drives easily recognizable by the circuitry inside a computer. One such initiative is going on for IDE drives. Another is in process for the rival format - Small Computer System Interface, which is abbreviated SCSI and pronounced ''scuzzy.'' The SCSI folks have a sense of humor because they've named their initiative SCSI Configured Auto-Magically, which is abbreviated SCAM.

Theoretically, these initiatives would make it possible to pop in a hard drive and have the system automatically configure it. Phil Devin, chief analyst of storage technologies for market-researcher Dataquest, thinks such drives could appear in a year.

Those drives will be far larger than today's models. Jim Porter, president of research firm Disk/Trend Inc., estimates the capacity of hard drives has been growing 60 percent a year since 1990. Last year's biggest-selling drive held 240 megabytes, he says. The first half of this year, the big seller became 340 megabytes and is now moving to 540 megabytes.

In a year's time, Mr. Devin estimates, the smallest drive you can get may be the huge 850-megabyte beast I just had installed on my newest computer. Soon after, the average computer will sport a 1 gigabyte drive (1,000 megabytes) - a size that was unthinkable to those of us tapping away at 20-megabyte personal computers a decade ago.

Of course, none of us imagined the incredible new uses for personal computers: taking phone-mail messages, storing the images of thousands of documents, running video clips. Inevitably, the newest uses of computers gobble up even more hard-drive space than their predecessors.

Fortunately, it should be much easier to replace our hard

drives the next time a new advance comes along.

* Send comments via Internet (laurentb@delphi.com) or to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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