Hard Disks Are Too Small to Accommodate the Technology

Here's a common scenario: Joe Consumer, lured by Apple Computer's digital-hub commercials, takes a Saturday afternoon drive over to the local Apple retail store and is blown away by demonstrations of iMovie, iDVD, iPhoto, and iTunes. Excited about the possibilities, Joe Consumer plunks down $1900 for a new flat-panel iMac, complete with recordable DVD drive, a fast 60GB hard disk, and 256MB of RAM; he has acquired an ample system for digital media. Joe Consumer has a simple plan: Record some audio CDs to the hard disk, scan some photos for a personal Web site, and start encoding home movies, which he can edit in iMovie and copy to standard DVDs that anyone with a DVD player can watch. Joe Consumer is on the road to digital "nerdvana," right?

Not exactly. Unfortunately, our fictitious Joe Consumer is in for a surprise. The preceding paragraph conveniently glosses over the details and cost of several other items Joe will need to reach oneness with his digital self. And the most problematic of these items is storage.

I don't mean to pick on Apple, but the company's products make digital media look deceptively easy. As I've said before, Apple's iMovie and iDVD software packages are second-to-none, and the fact that the products come free with modern Macintoshes makes such systems viable PCs for anyone interested in digital video. But during a recent month-long test of the iMac system I described earlier, I bumped into The Storage Problem; the 60GB hard disk that Apple includes in its highest-end iMac simply isn't enough space to do more than dabble with digital video. And solving The Storage Problem—which applies to all PCs, not just Macs—won't be easy.

Here's the problem in a nutshell. As part of my review process for the iMac, I wanted to copy all my home movies from 2001 to the machine, use iMovie to edit them, and create a new DVD movie with the results. (I already had made DVDs in a similar manner on the PC and wanted to see how the process and end results differed on a Mac.) Like many people, I don't take many home movies; my total output from 2001 amounts to about 60 minutes of usable video, perfect for one DVD movie. After I copy the movies to the iMac, the raw video takes up about 15GB on the system.

After editing, the final movies occupy another 12GB to 13GB on the hard disk. Then, I created an iDVD project (4GB) and started the long process of writing the DVD movie. The end results were fantastic, but let's do a bit of math. In the process of creating a simple 60-minute DVD movie, I used up more than 30GB of the 60GB hard disk. And the OS, applications, and other digital media files occupy a generous portion of the remaining hard disk space. No more DVDs for you, Joe Consumer.

The Storage Problem also affects PCs, although PC users are blessed by much cheaper expandability than iMac users are. For example, I recently bought two internal 120GB hard disks specifically for digital video storage and added them directly to my main PC. On the iMac, this type of storage expansion would require an external storage solution because the iMac is a sealed system with no internal expandability. The end result is a stack of ugly, loud boxes; you know, everything the iMac isn't.

You might think that the presence of a recordable DVD disk in the iMac and some PCs would be a viable alternative to adding hard disk space. With 4.7GB of space, a recordable DVD could serve as a backup storage solution, right? Not exactly. The video files that make up my 2001 DVD occupy 1.5GB to 3GB each, which means that some raw video files would take up an entire DVD. I would require several DVDs to back up my video files. And would anyone care to guess how long that process would take?

So what's the solution when your video files are larger than 4.7GB? Realistically, the following personal storage options are available today:

  • Internal hard disk expansion. PC and Apple PowerMac (not iMac) users can add one or more internal hard disks to the system, which is cheap but difficult, especially if you don't have a technical bent. If installing hard disks is too intimidating, your local Best Buy or CompUSA will install the disk for a small fee. However, note that most PCs are limited to four internal drives, including hard disks and CD-type drives.


  • External hard disk expansion. Mac and PC users whose systems use FireWire or USB 2.0 (not USB 1.x) expansion can purchase external hard disk kits, which are basically just internal hard disks in a case that includes new interface hardware. These disks are easy to attach and use but expensive: A Maxtor 80GB FireWire hard disk costs about $280, but you can purchase the same disk for internal use for only $100. One nice aspect of FireWire and USB 2.0 solutions, however, is expandability: You can stack and daisy-chain these devices as your needs increase.

Those are your options, limited as they are. Many more storage solutions are available in the business world, including Network Attached Storage (NAS), storage appliances, and servers with massive amounts of hard disk space. I recently—only somewhat jokingly—looked into adding 1TB (yes, terabyte) of storage to my home because we're planning a $100,000 addition. The storage would have cost $20,000, a comparatively negligible cost because we already planned to spend so much money. My wife instantly nixed that idea, but it still lingers in the back of my mind. Is enterprise-class storage ready to come home? How would a closet full of cooled, expandable storage change the way we view in-home computing? I'll be examining these topics in the coming months and speaking with storage experts to see whether digital video enthusiasts can expect any relief for The Storage Problem soon. But I don't see an easy—or cheap—solution on the horizon.