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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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