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Ask Dr. Tech



When you rely on your computer, when is it
Time to replace your hard drive?

Why would you replace a major part of your computer, one that doesn’t need upgrading and that’s showing no signs of distress? Shouldn’t you just leave well enough alone?

Not necessarily. Let us tell you why…

Hard Drive Failure Is No Joke
Hard drive failure, particularly in a business environment, is no joke.  Imagine the sudden loss of all your data, with no way to retrieve it. 

Without a current backup, it could take weeks to get it back, not to mention thousands of dollars in retrieval fees.  Even with a current backup, it could take a full nerve-wracking day or more just to resume from where you were.  What would you do if that happened? 

That’s what a hard drive failure is.  Your computer not only doesn’t work, the data it contains is inaccessible.  In the wrong set of circumstances, a failure of this particular, relatively inexpensive part could be catastrophic. 

You can’t predict the circumstances when a hard drive will fail, but you can, with no lack of certainty, predict its failure.  The question isn’t whether it will fail, but when. 

Death, Taxes, Hard Drive Failure
We’re not talking about damage due to power surges or abuse.  Those are bad enough, but the simple mechanical deterioration of the hard drive’s physical components can be downright insidious..  Although a hard drive can easily outlive its usefulness (we still have some fully functional drives more than a decade old), it could just as easily- and as likely- not even make it through its prime.  There’s just no way to know, ahead of time, what it will do.  A hard drive might last a day or two, and it might seem to strive for eternity.   

Most of the failures we have seen aren’t too extreme.  They generally occur somewhere around the three year mark. 

Considering that the warranty on these drives was three years or so, this is no real surprise.  Maxtor, Seagate, Western Digital, and other manufacturers know what they’re about, and a warranty is their best guess of what you can really count on from their drives.  Beyond the expiration date, the drive is running into borrowed time.  For today’s much larger (and much less expensive) hard drives, the warranty is typically reduced to one short year. 

The manufacturers are not predicting failure after only 12 months of use, but they’re not prepared to bet on more, either.  That’s a fact that needs to be considered in your plans.  Backups are a must, of course, from the first day of installation.  Even with daily backups, though, you should plan to replace your hard drive before it fails, or begins to exhibit signs of problems.   

You Choose the Time and Conditions
When you replace a hard drive before it fails, you give up, undeniably, some portion of its useful life.  In exchange for this, you get to choose the time and conditions for the replacement.  You can plan and prepare for it, and prevent the chaos of an unexpected failure.  Economically, the tradeoff is a good one, and the drive you’re replacing doesn’t even have to, as you might imagine, go to waste. 

Hard drives are cheap.  As this is written (Fall, 2003), forty gigabytes and more can be had for less than one hundred dollars, and still less with ubiquitous rebate offerings.  At an amortized cost of eight dollars or less a month, replacing one each year would not be an unreasonable proposition. 

Replacing a hard drive on such a schedule would be overkill, of course.  Like most electronics, a hard drive that makes it through the first few days of use is likely to last years with no problems.  Add the cost of paying someone else to make the change, and annual replacement is an even less attractive option.  The trick, then, is to get your money’s worth from one, but not to wait for failure before replacing it. 

When to Replace a Drive
Although we have seen drives fail at or before the warranty, it’s a fairly safe bet they’ll last at least that long, and probably some time more.  So when ought a hard drive to be replaced? 

You want to balance cost with effect, taking into the account the likelihood the drive will fail and how much it would cost you if it did. 

As noted above, most of the failures we’ve seen are close to the three year mark.  If your drive’s older than this, it would be a good idea to replace it now, or as soon as possible.  Sure, it could last longer, but why take the chance? 

The drives we’ve been replacing during 2003 were generally close to three years old, less than 30 gigabytes in size, and came with a three year warranty.  After nearly twenty years of working with computers, we begin to get a little antsy in the third year of use.  The larger the drive (and the more that’s stored within it), the more nervous we become. 

Newer, more capacious drives have shorter warranties, and probably should be replaced more frequently- toward the beginning of the third year, rather than the end.   

A Cost-Effective Option
Although some would advise replacing a three year old computer to avoid embarrassment among your geeky friends, we maintain that a system that does what you need ought not be replaced- not until it no longer serves your purpose.  Sure, you can replace the whole thing for around five hundred dollars or so, but there are costs to replacing a whole computer, beside which the purchase price may pale. 

Besides the time and hassle of moving your operations to a new machine, it’s likely that some of your current software will have to be replaced.  Scanners and such may or may not work with new equipment.  Add-in internals like network or video capture cards may or may not be compatible.  Having gone through the process many times, we’ve seen the costs of moving to a new computer multiply the purchase price, using whole numbers in the calculation. 

If you have more than one computer system, these hidden costs can add up rapidly- particularly with modern software activation routines that prohibit installation on more than a single machine. 

Replacing just the hard drive eliminates the need for most of the effort and expense of replacing a whole system, and effectively extends its life as well.  In the absence of damage, your computer’s CPU, motherboard, and RAM can last through many scheduled hard drive replacements. 

In a business where every dollar of expense is a dollar out of profits, the savings can be significant.  Particularly so, with several computers. 

Is It Time to Replace Your Drive?
As we said above, we begin getting antsy in the third year of use.  On older drives, the warranty is close to expiration.  On newer ones, the expiration date has passed. 

The operating system your computer came with is a clue to the age of a hard drive.  If it came with Windows 98, it’s time to replace the drive.  For Windows ME, if it’s not yet time it will be by the end of 2004.  Windows XP began showing up near the end of 2001, so if you bought a system then, mid 2004 could be a good time to consider changing. 

The capacity might tell you something of the age, especially with mass market systems such as Compaq or HP.  The smaller the hard drive, the older it’s likely to be.  Less than 20 GB was likely made prior to 2000.  20-30 GB were popular through 2001, 40 GB 2002, and 60-80 GB is most likely to be found with hard drives installed in 2003.  Anything larger than these was likely made in 2003 or later. 

The correlation between capacity and age isn’t always positive however.  You can still buy lower capacity drives in 2003, with 20 GB still being common.  By the same token, if you paid a lot for a drive in prior years, it could be older than the notes above would indicate. 

If your computer has been upgraded, rebuilt, or repaired with recycled parts, the age of the drive is anyone’s guess.  The only one who knows is the one who did the work.  If you know the drive has never been replaced, the ID plate on the back of the computer case will likely have at least the year the computer was assembled, and it’s reasonable enough to assume the drive is the same age as the system. 

There is only one sure way to tell how old a drive really is, though.  Remove it from the system and check the date of manufacture on the label affixed to the enclosure.   

Aside from the age of a drive, it should probably be replaced any time you notice a distinct and ongoing change in its behavior.  A formerly quiet drive that begins to whine or rattle, for example, is a good candidate for replacement.  If ScanDisk or its equivalent is suddenly reporting high or increasing instances of file system errors, that could be a sign that your drive’s on the edge of the abyss, and the least little thing could push it over. 

What’s Involved in Hard Drive Replacement?
Replacing a hard drive is a relatively straightforward task.  Your computer’s software and data is copied, in its entirety, from the old drive to the new, so the change when it’s complete is imperceptible.  The new drive, with a higher RPM and/or transfer rate, may perform a little faster, but probably not so much so that you’d notice it. 

In fact, if you didn’t know the drive was replaced, you’d hardly be able to tell.  This is actually a feature- there’s nothing to get used to, no change in any operations, just the peace of mind that accompanies a new hard drive instead of the one that was getting old and older. 

Depending on the contents of the drive you’re replacing, the process can take from an hour or so to the best part of a day.  If you know what you’re doing, or if you’re prepared to learn, replacement can be a do it yourself operation.  In a business environment though, you’d probably do better hiring a professional.  There are some things that can go wrong, and it’s best to have someone doing the work prepared to deal with them. 

Whoever does the job, we recommend backing up the contents of the old drive before doing anything, and keeping the old drive at hand when you’re done just in case.  Although it isn’t likely, the new hard drive could fail within the first few hours of use, and you want to have something to fall back on.  Once the new one has been used for a few days or so, it’s safe to assume you have a good one. 

Get More From the Drive You Install
Installing a new hard drive is a good time to make some major alterations to the way your data’s stored.  With the huge capacities available today, we like to divide a single hard drive into several partitions known as “logical” drives.  They only exist within the mind of the computer, but instead of a just a C drive, you wind up with a C, D, E, F… up to the number of partitions you create.  The reasons for doing this are many, but among the most important are ease of maintenance and backups.   

Especially with the gargantuan capacities available today (and someday we’ll look at them and laugh), it makes a lot of sense to subdivide them wisely.  Defrag’s and ScanDisks will run more effectively, and backups become much more manageable. 

If you arrange for all your data to reside on its own partition, you can back it more quickly and therefore more frequently- always a very good idea. 

Get More From the Drive You Replace
When you replace a working hard drive, whether to gain more capacity or as a precautionary measure, you are left with a still-useful hard drive on your hands.  With the price of new ones now so low, used hard drives are worthless in the marketplace.  That doesn’t make them worthless though.  There could be years of life remaining in the drive that you’ve replaced, and its easy to make good use of whatever time is left it on this earth. 

With the purchase of a hard drive enclosure, you can convert your current drive to an external USB device.  It may be too chancy as a primary drive, but as a second one for backups or the transfer of large amounts of data, it’ll do just fine. 

This may seem contradictory- why use a drive you’ve replaced as unreliable?  The fact is that you can use it all you want- as long as all you use it for is copies.  As a backup for your data for example, a USB connected drive is great for daily backups.  If your main drive should fail, you’d still have your data.  Both drives would have to fail at the same time to lose it, and that’s not a likely thing to happen.  You’d still want a full backup on CD or DVD for system restoration when it’s needed, but too many backups are impossible. 

USB enclosures- get them here...

Ounces of Prevention, Stitches Made in Time
One of the most common inquiries we get at ThirdStar.net is with regard to recovering lost data.  In the vast majority of cases, there’s nothing we can do.  We’re equipped to handle logical malfunctions, but mechanical ones- whether due to damage or old age- require a more extensive and expensive service than we offer. 

Powerful tools for hard drive management.
See our reviews of
Drive Image...

Partition Magic...

Norton System Works...

No one wants to think about it, but there’s seldom a good reason for losing your data to drive failure, or to lose any time from work because of it.  Just like changing the tires, belts, and fluids in a car, computers benefit from preventive maintenance.  With today’s computer systems, hard drive replacement is an item not to be ignored.  Don’t wait until your current hard drive fails to replace it.


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