HardCard add-on disk drive expands your storage -- at a price

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

When my wife and I moved into our first house, we wondered how we would ever fill up all the closets.

Of course, we were young and and foolish and didn't understand the First Law of Storage. That rule, expressed mathematically, states that the amount of stuff you have will expand geometrically to fill the space available for it.

It's the same with disk drives. No matter how big a disk drive you put in a computer, you'll find a way to fill it up.

This is why the Plus Development Corp. became an overnight success a few years ago with its HardCard line of add-on disk drives that fit into a single expansion slot of an IBM-compatible computer.

Over the years, Plus has improved and expanded the capacity of its HardCards, which is a good thing because serious computing today requires a lot more hard drive capacity than it once did.

Not long ago, a 20-megabyte hard drive (which holds the equivalent of 20 million characters of text or 22 average novels), was the standard for the industry.

But more powerful machines have spurred publishers to write big ger, more complex programs that gobble up disk space faster than a hungry football team chowing down at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

A high-end word processor or spreadsheet can claim four or five megabytes of space before you write your first letter to Aunt Rhoda. A graphics-based operating environment such as Microsoft Windows can easily chew up 10 or 11 megabytes before you install your first program.

My kids even have a few games that stake out four or five megabytes of real estate each.

Before the HardCard concept, adding a second hard disk once you'd filled up your first drive was a frustrating technical job best left to the hardware freaks.

First, you had to match the new drive with the existing disk controller. Then you had to dismantle half the computer to shoehorn the drive into its bay and and make sure the bizarre, twisted cables were hooked up properly. After setting jumpers on the drive and system board, switching terminating resistors and performing three different software operations to format the drive, you were ready to run -- if you were lucky.

Plus Development came up with the idea of mounting a compact drive and controller on a circuit board that fit into a single computer expansion slot. A simple software setup got the drive up and running with no fuss and no muss.

Not long ago, I filled up both my existing hard drives (yeah, I'm a pack rat). I needed more storage, fast, but my computer didn't have room for another standard drive.

So I picked up the latest addition to the Plus Development line -- a 105-megabyte HardCard II XL. The new, high-speed drive is designed for computers that use an Intel 80286 or 80386 processor and have a standard 16-bit expansion bus.

The XL comes with a software diskette and a 100-page manual. But if you're like 90 percent of the company's customers -- which means you're installing it as an additional drive in a machine running the standard MS-DOS operating system -- you won't spend much time reading.

In fact, it took me exactly eight minutes to install the HardCard and get it running, which is about three hours less than it took to install my last standard drive.

Once you've plugged the drive in an expansion slot and secured it with a retaining screw, all you have to do is put the cover back on the computer, turn on the machine and install the Plus software.

Unlike standard drives, which require that you run your computer's setup program and tell it exactly how may cylinders and sectors your disk has, the HardCard comes with its own software driver. It requires 9 kilobytes of memory, which is a fairly small price to pay.

The manual explains clearly how to modify your system configuration file to load the HardCard driver automatically when you start the computer.

Then it directs you to run the installation program, which is greatly improved over earlier versions.

The program automatically determines what version of DOS you're using and sets up the drive to take advantage of the operating system's maximum partition size. If you have DOS 4, it will set up the HardCard as one large disk. If you have an earlier version, it will set up the HardCard as two or more "logical" disk drives.

Most users will just have to look at the screen and hit the ENTER key a couple of times to get the drive up and running.

If you're using Microsoft Windows or the QuarterDeck Extended Memory Manager on an 80386 computer, you'll also have to make minor modifications to those programs' start-up files. The manual explains these clearly.

If you're using the OS/2 or Unix operating system, installing the HardCard as a Novell Network file server, or want a special partitioning scheme, setup is more complex. But if you're into that kind of thing, you're probably enough of a hacker to figure it out.

That's all there is to it. The drive has performed flawlessly for a couple of weeks now, although I have serious doubts about the company's speed claims.

The HardCard's advertised access time is 9 milliseconds, but in some informal tests I ran, the HardCard was only marginally faster than the 28-millisecond standard drives in my system. This may be the result of using disk caching software that improves the speed of any disk in the system.

The downside of the HardCard 105 is its price. Although Plus recently lowered the list price of the drive to $799 (about $600 on the street), it's still 30 to 40 percent more than a standard drive of the same capacity. A 50-megabyte HardCard is about $150 less.

But the HardCard's ease of installation and ironclad two-year warranty (if it fails, just return it and they'll send you a new one with another two-year warranty) may make the premium worthwhile.

Plus HardCard II

Plus HardCard II XL 105 is a high-speed, 105-megabyte hard disk that installs in a single expansion slot of an IBM-compatible computer.

System Requirements: An IBM-compatible computer with an 80286 or 80386 processor and a 16-bit (AT-style) expansion bus.

Price: $799 list, about $600 on the street.

Manufacturer: Plus Development Corp., 1778 McCarthy Boulevard, Milpitas, Calif. 95035.

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