Tech Talk: What to do when your hard drive fills up

LET’S face it: however big your computer’s hard disk seemed when you bought it, sooner or later it’s going to fill up.

Top end: A Network Attached Storage box can be bought online for less than £150.
Top end: A Network Attached Storage box can be bought online for less than £150.

The size of disks has increased exponentially over the years. but the volume of data has multiplied even faster. My first laptop, purchased in 1992, came with a then-capacious 40 megabyte drive, but a few hundred word processor files soon ate it up. The average drive today is 15,000 times larger but has to contend with not just text but also pictures and high-definition video. A shelf full of HD movies will consume your 500GB disk in no time.

But it’s easier than ever to add more storage space – and if you do it right, it can service not just one PC but every connected phone, tablet and set-top box in your house. That means you can access your files from anywhere, stream photos and videos from a single source, and back up important data for safety.

The key to doing this is to install a server in your house: a mini, domestic version of the industrial-strength machines that “serve” up websites on demand. Your server can be a dedicated, low-power PC or a simple, portable hard drive attached by USB cable to a central point on your home network.

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    Your choice will depend on how much extra space you think you will need and what you plan to use it for. At the top end of the scale will be a dedicated Network-Attached Storage (NAS) box, a compact unit containing a basic processor and space for two or four separate hard drives. These machines can be bought online for less than £150: you then add the disks and install a free operating system like FreeNAS. The box is left on permanently and can run back-up tasks in the background while also serving files to your other devices.

    A cheaper way to accomplish more or less the same thing is via your broadband router, if it’s one that has a USB port. A single, portable hard drive (about £50, depending on size) can be plugged into it and similarly accessed from every device on your network. It will be slower and less functional than a dedicated server – but for regular domestic use it should be fine.

    A third option is to repurpose an old PC you’ve had lying around in a cupboard. It will be bigger, noisier and less energy-efficient than a dedicated NAS box but in other respects it’s the same – with a less than cutting edge processor and space inside for at least two hard drives.