Plug It In; Do-It-Yourself PC Upgrades For Photographers

It's impossible to be a serious digital photographer without learning at least a little bit about computers. Some people take to computer technology like kids take to dirt, but many never get beyond e-mail and Photoshop. Don't get me wrong--that's not bad--but when the need to upgrade arises, the folks who are short on computer skills sometimes think they have a debilitating disadvantage. That feeling makes them reluctant to consider adding new components. That's not good.

The need to upgrade has never been more prevalent than it is today. The popularity of digital SLR cameras, 8-megapixel compacts, and shooting raw format all add up to one thing: huge image files. Big files can fill a hard drive in no time at all, especially if you're driving a notebook computer. Inexpensive 1GB memory cards encourage us to shoot "till our heart's content"--then of course we must download all of those images to our hapless PC. We all need more storage space.

The good news is that it's not necessary to reach for the screwdriver when it's time to install computer storage peripherals. Modern operating systems, both PC and Mac, offer genuine and reliable plug-and-play. In other words, if you have enough technical ability to operate a bread toaster you can add all sorts of accessories to your digital darkroom setup. What follows is a rundown on the devices you'll find most useful if you're running out of room to store your images and want to do something about it.

The Buffalo network hard drive (www.buffalotech.com) provides file storage for everyone on your wireless network.

External Drives And Peripherals
The installation procedure for all of the equipment described here is basically the same. If you are running Windows XP on a PC, installing external hardware is essentially automatic. Plug the device into the USB or FireWire port and your computer's Operating System (OS) will take it from there. You'll see a message at the bottom of the screen that tells you that your PC has found new hardware and a few seconds later another message will tell you that the device is ready for use. It really is that simple. (You may see a message box admonishing you for not connecting your high-speed device to a high-speed port; if so, see "Got FireWire?" sidebar.) Procedure for Mac users is similar, and just as easy. If you have an older PC and are running an older version of Windows you may be asked to insert a CD to load the required drivers. It's still an easy, menu-driven process--just follow the directions on the screen. If your version of Windows is older than Windows 2000, stop now and upgrade to XP.

Latest external hard drive from Maxtor, the OneTouch III Turbo

Step One: Attach An External Hard Drive
Why start here? It's smart to safely back up all images and other data before proceeding with any do-it-yourself upgrade project--even one that's presumed to be risk free. Besides, if your objective is to add more room to store image files, this is the best way to accomplish it.

Personally, I prefer adding external hard drives instead of a big internal drive for several reasons. External drives are brainlessly simple to install, and even though I routinely build computers as a hobby, easy is good. Internal drives produce heat and they block airflow inside my server, so I'm always reluctant to install one because excessive heat is the number one killer of computers. External hard drives facilitate moving files from my notebook to my desktop computer. Swapping files is as easy as unplugging a cable from one PC and plugging it into another. This is something to keep in mind if there's a chance you'll be replacing your current PC soon, too, because having portable back-up files makes it a snap to clone your old PC when you buy a new one.

The Maxtor Basic line of external hard drives cost less than $1 per GB of storage

There are several different types of external hard drives, but no matter which you buy be absolutely certain that it uses Hi-Speed USB (a.k.a. USB 2.0) and/or FireWire (a.k.a. IEEE 1394) for data transfer. This will assure that the transfer speed is fast enough to keep you from pulling your hair out. It will not be as fast as an internal drive, of course, but speed is about the only sacrifice an external drive will ask you to make.

If you plan to use your external drive on a desktop and rarely move it, consider a standard, large-capacity drive like the Maxtor OneTouch III (www.maxtor.com). This type has a larger footprint but they're less expensive than the pocket-sized drives. Prices hover around $1 per GB and sometimes can be found even lower. For most people, something in the 120-300GB range is perfect. A good rule of thumb is to add an external drive that is twice as large as your root drive. That will give you plenty of room for future growth. So if you are using a typical mail-order PC with a 40GB hard drive, you can perform a significant upgrade just by adding an 80GB external drive and still be out the door for well under $100. If you're really pinching pennies, check out Maxtor's new line of Basic drives. They lack the one-touch button and fancy back-up software but they wear low price tags. Depending on the capacity you choose, they can be had for as little as 50 cents per MB.

Connecting an external hard drive to a PC is as simple as plugging in a toaster

When it comes to ultra-portable drives I'm partial to the Western Digital 80GB Passport (www.westerndigital.com). It's about the same size as my Palm Pilot and is powered through the USB cable--no external AC adapter is required. That makes it perfect for travel. It's more expensive than the larger, stationary-type drives but the portability makes it well worth it. The unit I have been using for the past year has proven to be durable and reliable. Iomega (www.iomega.com) offers several models in this category, too, including some that are even smaller and weigh as little as 2 oz. Street price is around $129 for either brand of ultra-compact drive in the 80GB size.

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