About hard drives

04. December 2013 Security 2

This post is not really about security, not sure how to categorize it but as I had some time on my hands with nothing better to do I figured, what the heck. This post is about hard drives, why I choose one over the other, how I use them and how I discard them eventually.

I’ve made good and bad choices over the years but the good definitely outweighs the bad. By now I think I’ve figured out how to make the right choices and enjoy my purchases as long as possible without incident. In sharing this hopefully I’ll help someone out some day.

Want VS Need
I remember drooling over the 12GB CTO option when purchasing a PowerMac G3 in 1999, I wanted it. Of course I had no need for it but the stock 6GB drive just seemed so small. I had a ton of excuses as to why I really needed the 12GB instead of the 6GB and almost tricked myself into justifying the horrendous additional dollar figure expense. In the end I ended up with the stock 6Gb drive and guess what, it lasted me for years. Only a year later the PowerMac G4 was available with a 40Gb hard drive and a year after that there were 80Gb drives. Capacity nearly doubled every year and it quickly became obvious that biggest is not always best and if you’d just wait a few months an even bigger drive would be available for the same amount of money. With bigger drives also came more data to manage, more fragmentation (yes even on Macs) and even though you’d end up with more space, performance did not actually improve.

Yes you want room for growth but what is the proper amount? Buying an 4TB drive now should satisfy your needs for quite some time but let’s say you use 2TB in the next two years, two years from now that 4TB drive will be half the price and you could have saved some good money by just buying a 2 or 3TB drive, doh.

I try to plan for one or two years of growth and base my purchase on that, amongst other things. What are those other things? Read on to find out.

Brand and Reputation
For years I put all my money towards Maxtor drives. When their reliability started showing cracks I switched to Hitachi drives and as Western Digital (WD) bought up Hitachi, WD became my drive of choice. I’ve been using WD drives since. Which brand is best is open for debate, everyone has their favorite, I’ve just had the most luck with these brands. Western Digital has a good reputation and their drives have far outlasted any IBM, Seagate, Fujitsu or Toshiba drive I’ve ever used. Over the years many of the hard drive manufacturers have been gobbled up by bigger players and there are now three major manufacturers left; Western Digital, Seagate and Toshiba. Many new manufacturers are popping up now that Solid State Drives (SSD) are popular but eventually this huge list of companies will fold up into a hand full as well.

Warranty and Support
A company that offers good warranty on their products means (or should mean) they stand behind their products and the products are expected to last. I’m not taking about a standard one year warranty that you can extend by paying extra, I mean a default warranty of 2 years or more. Warranty plays an important role in my selection of hard drives. Drives with a one year warranty are a no-go for me.

A few days ago my external WD MyBook Studio Edition II died completely after a firmware update failed. The drives work but the enclosure is no longer functioning. I made a backup before running the firmware update but it’s still a bummer that will halt some of my work for a while until a replacement product is shipped to me. Luckily this drive came with a five year warranty and this happened with one year left so WD has been great in working with me. This drive is no longer made so I’m being offered one hell of a nice upgrade, good (and fast) service, always a plus. This earns a company my loyalty and I’ll gladly spend my money on their products in the future. Not something you have to expect from OWC, Lacie or G-tech I found.

Latest is rarely the greatest
If a new 10TB drive is introduced tomorrow, even if it’s a WD, I’ll admire it but (even if I’d need it) I would not buy it until they are at least 6 months into production. All of the kinks should be ironed out and the cost should have leveled out by then. When it comes to new model hard drives you want to just sit back and let others be the guinea pigs.

The fastest RPM, biggest cache, biggest capacity, latest technology… it all really doesn’t mean much. The before mentioned external drive uses two WD Green drives, these drives are slower than most drives but fast enough for what I need. They run very quiet and cool which is also why I have a few of them in my Mac Pro. To get the best performance with the most amount of space I use WD Black drives which are faster but run hotter and sometimes a tiny bit noisier. When speed is crucial I look to SSD, this is what I run my OS off of. Running my media center, iPhoto libraries, iTunes library etc I use the WD Green drives and even though they are slower, I’ve never had a hiccup in loading anything. Virtual machines, most used files and some rarely used applications are on the WD black drives and OS X, my most used applications and files reside on the SSD. Nothing mention worthy about any of these drives and their specs yet they get the job done to my satisfaction and I’ve saved a lot of money by not spec-whoring on every hard drive I buy.

Once purchased, test it.
Once I settle on a drive and make the purchase, it’s not just a matter of plugging it in and trusting it with all my files. The drive is tested for a little while until I feel comfortable using it, this is called a burn-in. Different people have different methods but here is mine. To test the platters I start by writing zero’s to the entire disk, when this is done I fill up all but a small part of the drive with random data. With the drive at 99% capacity I start a thorough defragmentation (not on SSD’s), this puts the drive mechanics through it’s paces and will have the drive working harder and longer continuously than it ever would. With the defrag completed I zero out the disk again and when that is finally done I let a benchmark utility have at it for several hours. If the drive operates to my satisfaction during all this (noise level, temperature and benchmark results), I will use it.

Once in use, register it.
Registering a hard drive can have benefits. The manufacturer can let you know if any problems are discovered or any new soft/firmware updates become available. Having my WD drives registered ensured I was notified immediately about the WD+Mavericks issues for example. I do not use the WD software so apparently I was not at risk but had I used my WD external on Mavericks with the software installed, data loss may have kept me up for a few nights. If you do not want your information out there with every company you purchase a drive (or any electronic) from, use a fake name and address. Just make sure the email address is real so they can get in touch with you if needed.

Once in use, monitor and maintain it.
Unless it’s critical, there is no need to monitor a drive 24/7. You can install all kinds of utilities to monitor your drive but it may take away some of the performance and/or put additional stress on the drive. Disk Utility will notify you if a drive is failing it’s S.M.A.R.T. status but unless you open Disk Utility you’ll never know. I have a small utility installed to monitor the S.M.A.R.T. status on all my drives every few hours but that’s it. I found Techtool’s Drive Pulse and other utilities too invasive and/or too annoying.

The utility I use is simply called SMART Utility and tells me if the S.M.A.R.T. status is ok but also tells me if bad sectors have been found and remapped. An increasing number of bad sectors usually means bad news. It also shows me the total number of hours a drive has been in use, this helps me verify if a new drive is in fact new. There is not really a magic number when it comes to how long a hard drive will last but generally I believe if a drive survives the first year it will make it to three years or more. So as the counter goes up to 25.000 hours I double-check if all data is backed up and I test it like I would a new drive. If it survives the testing again I’ll continue to use it but I will keep a closer eye on the drive. A recent study has shown almost 80% of all hard drives will live to be at least four years old and it is predicted that this number drops rapidly to 50% at six years so with my three years I play it safe.

Your ears are a valuable tool as well. If you notice a drive is becoming noisier it may be time to investigate. Defrag the drive (not on SSD’s) to see if that resolves it, it may have just been extremely cluttered. If it’s still noisy after that, noisier than it used to be, perhaps do some more tests or contact the manufacturer.

Power down or leave on?
This is something about which I have made up my own mind, some may not agree at all but it makes sense to me and has served me well so far. I believe in leaving hard drives that are in use most or multiple times a day, on. In a PCWorld article two experts gave their opinion on this matter. One said turning it off when not in use is better for the bearings and will extend the drive’s life. Another said that turning a drive on and off is even harder on the drive so it’s best to leave it on. Hard drives have moved away from fragile ball bearings years ago, bearings are a small layer of oil now that can withstand friction far better and longer, so if bearings are the weak link, I’ll go with the second statement and keep my drives on. So far this has worked well for me. Using energy efficient hard drives I do not worry too much about the energy impact of keeping the drives on either. To avoid your hard drives from spinning down open System Preferences > Energy Saver and uncheck the “Put hard disks to sleep when possible” box. Again there are no conclusive studies that show one is better than the other but from the earlier mentioned BackBlaze study (they leave their drives on 24/7) I think I made the safer bet.

I don’t use a single drive that is older than 5 years (or 40.000+ hours). Mostly because I have moved on to higher capacity drives or simply because I no longer trust them or the warranty expired/is about to expire. When a drive makes it to the glorious age of 5 years or gets replaced at any time with a newer drive some steps have to be taken. Transferring all data to a replacement drive first of all and then properly erasing the drive. Once that is done I will sell the drive, usually online. I list the brand, model number, how it has been used, the last numbers SMART Utility gave me and a link to the manufacturers product page if it is still available. Hard drives sell pretty quick. I list all that data so that potential buyers will know exactly what they are looking at. Selling a drive with 40.000+ hours on it may not matter for most but will (should) scare off anyone that needs a reliable drive for a few years. Yes, I could sell the drive much quicker if I left all those numbers out but what if that drive ends up in the computer of someone you know? Would you want them to rely on an old drive? Listing all those stats will help those that care about it.

Keep in mind
While hard drives have come far since the 60’s, they are still fragile devices. Extremely fast moving parts prone to wear. Eventually every hard drive will fail either due to mechanical failure or platter degradation. This is where warranty comes in, you want a replacement drive if you experience a failure within the warranty period and statistically it’s more likely to experience one in a 5 year time span than a one or two year time span. Also, as with any mass produced item, accidents happen. A mistake during the production of any of the components that make up a hard drive can cause the drive to fail almost immediately or much faster than expected, you won’t know until it’s too late or the manufacturer notifies you. So always, always back up your important data.

This post may be updated as things come to mind.

2 thoughts on “About hard drives”

  • 1
    Michael on April 25, 2014 Reply

    Would you have a recommendation for a defragmentation utility? Also I don’t understand what you mean when you reference OWC, G-Tech and LaCie… good experience or negative?


    • 2
      Jay on April 25, 2014 Reply

      In this article the reference to OWC, Lacie and G-Tech were for the poor support I’ve received from them in the past. For defragmenting I only use iDefrag as it has never damaged or corrupted any files in the time I have used it (several years). I have tried Drive Genius a few times but found it slower and more limited than iDefrag. Even though I trust iDefrag, something as intrusive as defragmenting still increases the potential for something to go wrong a hundred fold so I


      backup my data before doing so.

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