Objects in Space: HDD Histories
There’s one key technology that has made possible the vast open worlds and stunning graphics of today’s games. It’s not the multicore CPU or the TFLOPS-tastic GPU. Rather, it’s the humble hard disk drive, and the cheap, reliable, big storage it enables. W
Thefirst hardware upgrade I ever bought for my own PC wasn’t a graphics card, or more RAM, or a new CPU. It was a hard disk drive. Assuming my biological data storage system is working properly, I seem to recall it was a Quantum ProDrive LPS, with a capacity of 425MB. It cost me $450 - oh and $65 for the dude at the shop to install it and set all the jumpers right.
There’s an argument to be made that it’s the hard disk drive that set the IBM PC apart from its competition.
Like machines from Apple, Tandy, Osborne, and others, in 1981 the first IBM PC didn’t ship with an HDD. But hard drives were available right out of the gate from third party manufacturers. (Okay, so maybe it’s really the open hardware standard that sets the IBM PC apart... moving on) and they were very much a popular option.
These early hard drives were extremely expensive, but they enabled owners to get into serious software development. The first IBM PC, the 5150, was unique because it could be configured cheap enough to compete with the Apple II, but power users could spec it up beyond family car prices with various upgrades. This meant the 5150 was a useful tool for commercial software development. And the HDD made handling this so much more convenient.
The hard drive was so popular and become so essential, IBM decided to ship one as standard equipment in its next-gen PC - the mighty XT. It was a Seagate drive, with 10MB of storage. That’s not a typo - ten megabytes. Keep in mind that in 1983, the XT’s 5.25-inch floppy drive could only handle disks with a 360KB capacity. Yeah. Storage has come on a LOT since then.
Today, we connect our internal HDDs via thin SATA cables that only go in one way with a satisfying click. In the beginning though, hard drives used a range of very complex connections and it wasn’t until 1986 that Western Digital came up with the iconic ribbon cable and its IDE - or integrated drive electronics - standard.
It was called IDE because it integrated the hard drive’s electronic controller into the hard drive itself. Previously, you needed a whole separate circuit board to handle the shuffling of data back and forth. This meant that you could now buy an entire storage system in 3.5-inch case about the size of a paperback, shove it in your PC, and get TENS of megabytes of relatively fast, reliable storage.
IDE quickly evolved into a more open standard called ATA. The Advanced Technology Attachment format made the most of IBM’s new AT PC and its blistering 6MHz CPU.
The problem with ATA was that it used a flat ribbon cable that - on earlier drives anyway - it was all too easy to jam into the back of the HDD the wrong way around. It was also necessary to have one hard drive set to “Master” and all others set to “Slave” by physically setting jumper switches on the back of the drive itself. Many a 1990s-era PC supergeek spent long Saturday evenings peering at the badly-printed jumper settings diagram that came with his new HDD, trying, literally, to figure out which way was up. Please note: if you set the jumpers wrong, the HDD wouldn’t start.
ROOM TO MOVE
The IBM AT had a 20MB hard drive. Rich lairs would upgrade this to a massive 40MB HDD. The first PC my family bought - an Osborne 486SX, you may recall - had a huge 125MB HDD.
The Advanced Technology Attachment format made the most of IBM’s new AT PC...
Now that’s a computer! The humble IDE cable. I really miss those early Xbox controllers...