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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | Hard Disk Drives | Construction and Operation of the Hard Disk | Hard Disk Packaging and Mounting ]

Retail and OEM Packaging

Most hard disk drive models are sold as two different packages: OEM drives and retail drives (sometimes called retail kits). Retail drives are of course drives that are distributed to retail stores and online dealers for sale to the general public. OEM drives are those sold to system manufacturers in large quantity, for inclusion in PCs built for resale: "OEM" stands for "original equipment manufacturer" and refers to a company that makes PCs (or other equipment). See this general discussion of OEM and retail parts in The PC Buyer's Guide for more.

Retail packaged hard disk drives normally include the following (though this varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and model to model):

  • Hard Disk Drive: The hard disk drive itself, in an anti-static bag or similar package.
  • Installation Instructions: Instructions on how to configure and install the hard disk.
  • Drivers and/or Overlay Software: A floppy disk or CD-ROM containing any necessary drivers or utilities, and usually, a copy of that manufacturer's version of drive overlay software for working around BIOS capacity problems in older systems.
  • Mounting Hardware: A set of appropriately-sized screws for mounting the drive into the system case.
  • Interface Cable: A cable of the correct type for the drive's interface.
  • Warranty Card: A card describing the warranty provided on the drive, usually three or five years in length.
  • Pretty Box: A very colorful box that looks nifty and holds all of the above. :^)

In contrast, OEM drives typically contain the following:

And that's it (heck, even the jumpers aren't a sure thing. :^) ) The reason that OEM packaging is so "plain" is that most OEMs do not need the additional support materials and packaging required for a proper retail package--they are just going to put the drives into PCs, not resell them to end users. If you are SuperPeeceez Inc. and make 10,000 systems a month, you just want 10,000 drives--not 10,000 fancy boxes, 10,000 warranty cards, 10,000 driver disks, and so on. So the drive manufacturers just ship OEMs lots of bare drives, with the minimum required to protect them, and that's all. By skipping all the extras, the OEM is able to buy the drives at a lower price from the manufacturer (and the fact that they are buying them by the thousand certainly helps with price as well!)

Contents of a Western Digital hard disk retail box kit.

Original image Western Digital Corporation
Image used with permission.

Originally, OEM drives were available only to, well, OEMs. If you needed a hard disk for your PC you bought it in a retail box and that was that. A few years ago however, OEM drives began to appear for sale to individuals and end-users. They usually enter the market either by an OEM selling off extra drives to another company that then offers them to the public, or increasingly these days, by companies that buy them in bulk specifically for resale. Like the OEMs, many experienced PC home-builders and upgraders realized they don't need most or even all of the goodies in a retail package, and preferred the lower price of the OEM drives. Many companies quickly added OEM drives to their product lines to fill this demand.

Warning: In most cases, the retail and OEM versions of a given drive are identical, however this is not always the case. Sometimes a manufacturer will make slightly different versions of the same drive for the OEM and retail channels. A common difference is having a larger cache on the retail drive than on the OEM drive.

There's nothing wrong with buying OEM drives if you can get a significantly better price and don't need the items included in the retail package. However, you must be sure of what you are buying. In some ways the most important thing in that retail box is the warranty card, because there can be serious warranty consequences when purchasing OEM hard disks made by certain manufacturers. See this discussion of warranty coverage on OEM and retail drives for details. Ironically, in many cases OEM drives are no cheaper than the equivalent retail versions with full warranty, and in some cases, I have seem retail boxes go for less than plain-wrapped OEM drives!

Warning: When buying a hard disk mail order, be 100% certain of what you are purchasing. As always, most online retailers are honest but there are always a couple of bad apples who will send you an OEM drive after you ordered a retail one. Sometimes the salespeople at these companies don't really understand the difference between OEM and retail and may not really understand the warranty issues involved. Shop with care, and send back for exchange anything you are sent that isn't what you ordered.

Next: Hard Disk Handling

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