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Hard Drives

Atari Notes By Vic Lennard
Published June 1994

Do you have countless disk boxes, and definite problems finding that song file you started last month? Vic Lennard explains why you should consider a hard drive, especially at the current low prices...

They say that you always remember your first car, warts and all; the same can be said of hard drives. Mine was a 40Mb Supra unit, some five years ago. At the time, I was running a professional recording studio, and using Hybrid Arts' SMPTETrack sequencing software. A virus had recently swept through my floppy disk collection, and I was busily trying to check them all when the 'phone rang: "Hi Vic... do you know anyone who wants to buy a hard drive?" I certainly did — me! That purchase had a more significant effect on my MIDI system than any other single piece of equipment either before or afterwards. To find out why, read on...

What Is A Hard Drive?

Let's spend a few lines explaining what you actually get with a hard drive. The hard disk mechanism itself comprises a metallic platter coated with a very thin magnetic layer. Data is effectively recorded to and retrieved from this layer, by the use of read/write heads. Don't be surprised if this rings bells — the process is very similar to the one used by a cassette recorder or video machine. However, in this case, the heads do not touch the magnetic layer, but hover just above it — at a distance of less than the thickness of a human hair.

When a hard drive is turned on, it takes a few seconds to reach its operating speed — usually 3,600 revolutions per minute, some 12 times faster than a floppy disk. While parameters such as data transfer rate and access time are important to those of you who want to participate in the sport of direct‑to‑disk recording, what we are talking about here is a hard drive for general use. Irrespective of whether the access time is 8 or 80 milliseconds, the result is a substantially better performance than your standard floppy drive.


My original 40Mb hard disk is tiny when compared with modern units, both in terms of physical size and the amount of data it held. Disks typically start at 85Mb, followed by 170Mb, 270Mb, 340Mb... get the picture? To put this into context, a 270Mb hard disk will hold the equivalent of over 350 full 3.5 inch floppies. Typically, you can expect to fit around 600 of your disks onto such a hard disk, allowing for the amount of data actually on one of your average disks. That's some seven or eight full disk boxes!

Notice the difference in terminology between hard drive and hard disk. The disk is the bare mechanism, to which must be added a power supply, a casing and, in the case of an ST, a host adaptor board, to give you a hard drive. Atari, in their infinite wisdom, used a non‑standard DMA interface, an acronym for Direct Memory Access. This requires a convertor, called a host adaptor circuit board, for connection to a modern SCSI‑embedded hard disk, which could add a premium of up to £100.

Buying A Drive

If you thumb through most PC or Mac mags, you'll see various vendors advertising SCSI hard drives. Such units will not have a host adaptor, and fitting one inside the casing is not to be recommended. Apart from invalidating the warranty, you will have a problem with space and fitting the different socket on the rear. But there is a simple solution. Various companies now sell external host adaptors that sit between the 25‑pin Hard Disk socket on the rear of your ST and the 50‑pin SCSI socket on the hard drive. Typical of this is ICD's The Link and System Solutions' Translator, each of which house the necessary gubbins inside a small, plastic‑cased cartridge.

Bearing this in mind, there is little point in buying an Atari‑specific hard drive unless you can pick one up cheaply second‑hand. Modern drives tend to be faster and quieter, the latter point being very important if you intend to have the unit in a recording environment. I had to use a couple of pieces of sponge around the rear of the casing to dull the sound of my Supra's fan...

Plug In And Go

Connection to an ST is simple; an Atari‑specific drive connects via an integral cable, while a SCSI drive plugs in via The Link or Translator. A new disk has to be formatted, irrespective of whether it's a floppy or a hard disk. Atari provide the HDX suite of programs for this process, while ICD includes its own software for either The Link or its ADSCSI internal host adaptor board. System Solutions is now bundling HD Driver with its Translator, which is reported to work very well.

During the formatting procedure, you will have the opportunity of breaking the disk up, metaphorically speaking, into bite‑sized chunks labelled by letter from 'C' upwards. This improves the performance, and allows you to organise your data in an efficient manner. It also means that data corruption in one partition will usually not affect the remaining ones. Personally, I tend to make the C partition about 2Mb for all of my desk accessories and autoload programs, and then break the remaining space into blocks of 16Mb, leaving 2Mb for the last partition, which I label as 'General Dogs'. This is used for temporary storage of files until I decide where they should go long‑term. Such a procedure prevents the hard disk from becoming 'fragmented' too quickly, which is what happens when you continuously write and erase files, and which diminishes a disk's efficiency.

Finally, set the drive to autoboot and that's it — next time you turn it on, you'll get your standard desktop, and can then create as many hard disk icons as you have partitions.


What follows is a series of hints and tips borne out of bitter experience...

  • Don't buy a second‑hand drive unless you absolutely cannot afford a new one. A serious head crash permanently damages a hard disk. If you must purchase in this manner, make the vendor reformat the disk in front of you, as any bad sectors will be marked and brought to your attention on‑screen.
  • Find out the hard disk mechanism, if possible. Look for good makes such as Quantum, Fujitsu, Micropolis and Maxtor. While this list is by no means exhaustive, these makes are tried and tested.
  • Make sure you frequently back‑up important files to floppy disk. There's no point crying that your prospective number one single is lying somewhere in the middle of partition D and that your hard drive has crashed! Alternatively, get a good hard disk back‑up program such as Diamond Back, which can be set to automatically back only files that have been altered since the last session.
  • Invest in a decent hard disk maintenance program such as Diamond Edge, and check the integrity of your unit from time to time, especially after a system crash.

Final Word

The best definition of a hard drive is a unit that can lose enough data to fill 100 floppies in one hundredth of the time! If you don't abuse a hard drive, it'll give you years of trouble‑free use, but do bear in mind Lennie's Law: if you can think of ten ways that something will go wrong, the eleventh always happens! Remember to back‑up those important song files...

Once you start using a hard drive, you'll wonder how you ever worked without one — guaranteed.


System Solutions (Tel. 081 693 3355) supply their MiniS drives in various sizes, including 40Mb (£199), 80Mb (£259), 170Mb (£319) and 270Mb (£399), all inclusive of the Translator and formatting software.

Diamond Edge (£49.95) and Diamond Back (£39.95) are both available from HiSoft (Tel. 0525 718181).