H-P and Compaq PCs add portable hard drive

  • By Walter Mossberg
  • Monday, July 5, 2004 9:00pm
  • Business

Desktop Windows PCs have become boring commodity devices whose designers generally display as much ingenuity and boldness as politicians in an election year. If you think of George W. Bush and John Kerry as exciting and fresh, then you’ll feel the same way about the design of Dell’s next desktop.

Occasionally, though, a desktop PC maker breaks ranks and does something clever that benefits users. Last year, Hewlett-Packard added a bank of memory-card readers to most of its desktops so that you could easily pop the memory card out of your digital camera and into your PC.

Now, H-P has come up with another of those modest innovations – a special slot on the front of some of its desktop PCs that can accommodate a roomy removable hard disk. This removable hard disk can be popped in and out of the PC, without opening the case or using tools, even when the machine is running.

The PCs with this feature still have the standard built-in hard disk. The removable hard disk is intended as a secondary, portable data-storage unit.

H-P calls this the Personal Media Drive slot, and it’s offering the feature on two of its series of desktops – the flashy H-P Media Center m1000 models, which have built-in TV tuners; and a more standard series, the Compaq Presario SA4000 models. The m1000 series starts at $1,049, after a rebate, in retail stores, or $899, after rebate, when configured online. The Compaq series starts at $950, after a rebate.

For these prices, you get only the slot for the removable hard disks. The Personal Media Drive itself, which holds a whopping 160 gigabytes, is a $219 option.

Easily removable hard disks have been around on some laptops for a while, and a few desktop PCs have also had them over the years. So the H-P Personal Media Drive isn’t a big breakthrough. Also, you can buy third-party external hard disks that can be plugged in and out of most new Windows and Mac desktops via a cable while the machine is running. And some of these are much cheaper than the $219 H-P is charging.

But by making the removable hard-drive slot standard on mass-market desktops, H-P is bringing the concept to a wide audience.

Why would you need a second, removable hard disk? Well, one purpose might be to store large media files. Thousands of photos and songs can take a lot of room. And the computer files needed to hold home videos – or the recorded TV programs that can be created on the Media Center PCs – can be huge. H-P estimates that the 160-gigabyte Personal Media Drive can hold up to 160 hours of recorded TV programs.

Of course, you could store all of this on your regular internal hard disk if you have a large one. But it wouldn’t be portable.

Another use of the removable drive is to back up your main hard disk. You can then remove the drive to a safe place so that you have a copy of your data even if the PC is stolen or ruined by a fire or flood. Of course, to use this system, it’s best to have two identical removable drives, one kept away from the PC and one attached to the PC to get fresh files. If you wanted to use the new H-P drive system to do this, you’d have to shell out $438.

In my tests, the Personal Media Drive worked well. I recorded a TV program, saved it to the removable drive, then slid the drive out and connected it, using the cable and power adapter, to a plain-vanilla Dell desktop. The connection was smooth and quick, requiring no software, and the TV show played back perfectly on the Dell using the standard Windows Media Player program.

So, if you have some extra cash and want a PC that lets you easily insert and remove an extra hard disk, without the mess of added cables and electrical plugs, these new H-P and Compaq models may be for you.

Walter Mossberg writes about personal technology for The Wall Street Journal.

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