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Back to the December 2011 ITS Newsletter

December 2011 Holiday Buying Guide for Peripherals

By Bret Olsen

Many faculty and students will be buying electronics over the break, and external hard drives and digital cameras are likely to be among them. For those members of the community who wish to to buy these devices for use with any of the ITS supported labs and classrooms, we have some guidelines that will insure the most utility with the least frustrations.

External Hard Drives

Purchasing an external hard drive is a great way to back up up important files and keep all of your work in one central location. Think of it as a portfolio of your work! When purchasing a drive there are some technical details to consider.

Ports - While USB ports are found on all computers, there are many versions and some can be slow to transfer large files (think video files). Firewire and Thunderbolt ports are faster, but might only be available on Apple hardware. Look for a drive that has multiple types of connection ports.

Portability/Power - If you're buying an external drive, portability is important. Some drives can be powered right through their connection port, which means you don't need to carry the "wall wart" power cable. Also consider the size of the case. Small drives are easy to carry.

Ruggedness - Hard drives are delicate and a big bump can destroy the drive and your data. Look for a drive that rugged enough to stand up to trips in your backpack to the computer lab.

Capacity - Bigger is better, but for the same price point you'll trade features for capacity. Video is the one medium that quickly eats up your hard drive space. If you plan on taking a class that uses video, think big... 500GB should do.

Format - If you are primarily a Mac user, the drive should be formatted using HFS+. Windows users should have their drives in NTFS format. While drives can be reformatted at any time, it's best to format them correctly from the beginning to minimize the potential for data loss. For help in getting your hard drive formatted and set up for the first time, stop by the desk in the MPC on the first floor of Burke Library. If you envision the need to work in under both OS platforms, you'll to create a three partition drive where you can transfer files back and forth between a HFS+ and NTFS. This third partition should be formatted as FAT32. Of course transferring files using a server or cloud solution (Google docs) works as well. If you expect to be editing digital media here at Hamilton, be aware that the digital editing facilities are Macintosh based.

ITS has been using great external drives by Lacie which fit the above criteria with a $130-150 street price. While you might be able to get a drive cheaper, it surely won't tick all the above boxes!

Video Cameras

We're starting to see a major transformation in the world of video cameras. Tape based cameras are fading away and affordable Hi-Definition cameras that shoot onto SD cards are becoming the new norm. With this transition we need to know a few things before we take the plunge.

Format -  Many new video camera shoot in the AVCHD format. While it is great for shooting it's not so great for editing. Editing programs like iMovie and Final Cut Pro need to "transcode" the video files into a different format for editing, resulting in files sizes that can be up to four times larger! That 8GB SD card full of footage will bloom into 32 GB of footage that needs storing somewhere. In the near future when computers get faster and editing software becomes more flexible this transcoding will be unnecessary, but until then storage is an issue.

DSLR - Many DSLR still cameras have the ability to shoot video and their large images sensors and interchangeable lenses can create beautiful footage. Since their main goal is to shoot still images DSLR do have drawbacks as well. Poor sound without and external microphone, lack of power zoom and clumsy controls all make shooting video with a DSLR a challenge.