Size matters — but so does the speed (of your hard drive)

HD video, high-res picture, and CD-quality digital audio files all have at least one thing in common: They take up lots of space on your computer. With that in mind, you’d think choosing a hard drive for my new laptop would be as simple as buying the biggest sucker possible. But you would be wrong.

When you’re working with video, size isn’t the only thing that matters. If you want that HD video of your cousin’s wedding to play back without a stutter, you’re going to need a hard drive that’s not only big but fast, too. If the hard drive can’t keep up with the video, bad things can happen to good quality quickly. Your audio can sound messed up and frames can drop out, making things look herky jerky. Aunt Mildred and Uncle Fred might not mind, but trust me, the bride and groom’s HD-captured memories (not to mention your bragging rights among your video literati friends) will suffer.

If you’re still using a camcorder that shoots SD – standard definition – video (same as old-school broadcast TV – 740 pixels by 480 pixels), the hard drive in any off-the-shelf PC will do. These drives usually spin at 5400 revolutions per minute (RPMs). But if you’re working with higher-def video — say, AVCHD-format video shot on a camcorder, MKV-format video grabbed off the Internet, HD video shot with a high-def webcam, or even video shot with a point-and-shoot digital or DSLR camera — you’ll want to outfit your computer with at least a 7200-RPM drive. Higher RPMs are a pretty good indicator of the drive’s ability to sustain a high transfer rate, and that’s what you’re after.

Here’s another suggestion: If you’re really serious about your new PC doubling as a video station, add a second hard drive. Video pros typically buy a PC with at least two or more drives.

They leave their operating system and applications on the boot drive (the main drive that boots, or starts up, your PC, typically the C: drive), and save all their video to the extra drive. Why keep video separate? Again, it’s for speed. The constant reading and writing of small files that takes place on boot drives can gunk up reading and writing big video files.

So far, I’ve been talking about traditional hard drives, which store data on rotating platters. There’s another storage choice: the platterless solid-state drive (SSD for short). Think of SSDs as a bigger version of the SD cards that your digital camera stores pictures on. Their big advantage over hard drives is that they have no moving parts. That means they’re more rugged, and faster, especially at turning on your computer, making an SSD a great choice as a boot drive. SSDs don't generate heat and are dead quiet, which is great for recording audio (microphones tend to pick up the barely audible sounds that spinning hard drives make). The downside is SSDs are still costly. Currently, a 120GB SSD will set you back about $250. That doesn’t sound too bad – until you compare it to a standard hard drive with a terabyte (about 1,000GB) of storage for $100!

I wrestled long and hard with whether I wanted to get a laptop with one huge standard 750GB hard drive or two drives including a 128GB SSD boot drive. With “time is money” running through my head, I went for an Intel SSD. My plan: Use the SSD as my boot drive and use one or more gigantic hard drives to store my video and other media files.

Next: With the hardware stuff settled, I am ready to install some software!

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