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How long should a hard drive last?

This article’s not borne out of a question, per se. This one’s my own
experience that I want to share.

I know my regular readers are probably sick and tired of me evangelizing
(really just a nice term for “harping on”) the need for regular and complete
backups. (Perhaps almost as tired of that as they are Hotmail password articles
Smile.)

But if you’re not backing up or you think it just doesn’t apply to you – it’s
time to rethink and back up. The end is nearer than you think.

The end of your drive, that is.

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My 1.5 Terabytes of Woe

This morning I woke up to failing hard drive: the primary hard drive on my primary machine … again. It had been working just fine since I installed it as a replacement for a prior hard disk failure a few months ago.

As I type this, the repair and recovery software (SpinRite) is doing it’s magic, with a projected completion of … 5 days from now.

SpinRite's initial estimate of completion - an hour later it was ... an hour LONGER

Did I mention that this is a 1.5 terabyte drive?

The replacement will be here and installed before the repair operation is completed.

That’s just one of several new ways of thinking about hard drives that I think is important to cover.

Hard Drive Lifespan

How long should a drive last? I have no idea. All I know is that if it contains something that matters Murphy’s Law means that a hard drive probably won’t last as long as you want.

The drive I’m having troubles with was around four months old. That seems young, but then again it was also my primary drive – the drive used the most, and it’s on my primary machine – the machine I use the most.

And it’s the largest drive I own – 1.5TB.

In researching its replacement, I read some very interesting and insightful comments expressing ideas that I think are worth repeating here – if for no other reason than to put the fear of failure in front of you to get you to start backing up.

Drives are Huge

I don’t mean just big, I mean frakkin’ HUGE! I mean, really, one and a half trillion bytes in a single small enclosure? Using my “Bible as a somewhat more understandable measurement of size” approach – that hard drive could hold the full contents of 300,000 copies of the Bible.

Capacity comes at a price, however.

The drives have gotten larger in capacity, but the actual drives are physically the same size. If anything, as the capacities have gotten larger the drives themselves have become smaller. That means that hard drive manufacturers are squeezing more bits per inch on the media putting them right on the bleeding edge of readability.

It’s a well known fact that today’s hard drives have incredible error rates – but you typically don’t see that because of all the error detection and correction techniques that are involved. It’s only when the errors exceed a certain severity or quantity that you and I as users start to see things actually fail.

The important take away? Drives are always closer to failure than you think.

Drives are Cheap

I don’t mean inexpensive, I mean frakkin’ CHEAP! I ordered a replacement drive (downsizing to “only” 1 terabyte) for $70 – including next-day shipping. Seventy dollars. All the major brands were comparably priced.

High capacity disk drives have become a commodity. More importantly: a replaceable commodity.

If your hard drive dies, it’s incredibly cheap to replace it. Heck, you’ll probably get a larger capacity drive as part of the bargain. Such a deal.

Hard drive manufacturers are struggling – not just to stay ahead of each other, but to continue with a viable approach to making money. With drives being as cheap as they are, you know that the manufacturers can’t spend a ton of effort in QA and test on each device. My suspicion is that the number of drives that arrive dead is much higher than it used to be. I’ll also bet that “infant mortality” rates (drives, like mine, that experience a problem within the first few months of use) is also much higher than in the past.

The important take away? Drives are allowed to fail more often because they’re so cheap to replace.

But What About the Data?

Aye, there’s the rub.

The drives may be cheap and easy to replace if they fail – even if they fail often.

But your data? Not so much.

Which leads me to the inevitable and quite expected conclusion: back up.

I may recover my 1.5 TB drive, and I may not. When the replacement arrives I’ll restore my most recent backup and carry on. Absolute worst I’ll reinstall from scratch, but in no case will any meaningful data be lost.

Now, you may never experience a failure. You may have a drive that’s in fantastic shape that’ll last for years.

Or not. You don’t know. And if you think you know, you’re wrong.

If your data is stored in only one place, then it’s not backed up.

If that one place is a hard drive, it may well be more vulnerable than you think.

The solution is simple.

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25 comments on “How long should a hard drive last?”

  1. My Seagate Barracuda came in a Used machine that i bought just over a year ago and its amazing. And who knows how long it was in before i bought it. The downside and possibly the cause for this drive is that its only 250GB. Im thinking of getting a Momentus XT 500GB to put in my desktop as i cant afford a SSD. i However, am not backed up but am working on that right now. i am going to use the Original Seagate for a backup of the Momentus XT as well as some other networked machines in my home.

    Reply
  2. i have a 500GB drive and it is a western digital and is over 1yr old now i also have a old 40gb that is 5 yrs old and still kicking. and it is also western digital i swear by them never had one let me down yet.

    Reply
  3. Why have you bought a replacement drive? Surely the 4 month old failed one is in warranty

    Good point. Two reasons actually – speed (new drive in two days, warranty replacement after dealing with paperwork in …how long?) – and the fact that the drive is kinda sorta working. If it were dead dead dead it’s be a slam dunk.

    But your point is well taken – I’ll definitely look into that after the system is working again.

    Leo
    26-Jul-2010

    Reply
  4. Thank you Leo, so much for educating people on backing up there data. If you do not have your data backed up you are relying on Data Recovery to be your backup. Drives are very reasonable and you can buy a lot of hard drives for the cost of Data Recovery. I work for a HD manufacture and am amazed at the # of people who call in upset that we do not cover Data Recovery in warranty. It is the User’s responsibility to backup your data. If your data is truly backed up you will never be at the mercy of Data Recovery. Again thank you Leo, you do a service to all of us. Keep harping on backup and the fact that all hard drives will fail eventually. Back up your data. Thanks.

    Reply
  5. Just a little additional insight.

    I work in the IT department at my current place a business. We maintain roughly 100 computers. We have had some hard drives work 10+ years after implementation and we have had them DOA (dead on arrival). It doesn’t really matter the brand either, we have had them all through our doors and have had them all – at one point or another – in our trash. Leo is 100% correct is stating that they can and are very inconsistent… Please be vigilant in your backups and always keep in mind that your drive may last 10 years or 10 minutes. Also take note in the reviews of any given drive. If it has 200 reviews with a 2 out of 5 star rating you may want to avoid. 4 out of 5 stars or higher is usually a stable and proven drive.

    Reply
  6. The good thing about dirt cheap drives? There is NO reason not to have RAID. There is NO reason to not have an old machine in the corner where you do a very frequent network backup of important data. I really like a program called Second Copy for data on a Windows machine.

    Reply
  7. And backing up is so easy these days.

    Plenty of free reliable packages that let you schedule a back-up when you are not actually working on the machine etc etc. And external USB drives are so cheap – there isn’t any excuse.

    It surprises me, however, that PC manufacturers insisting on filling GBs of new hardrives with largely useless crapware, and yet few, to my knowledge, include reliable back-up software.

    I’ve just looked at what came with my Samsung laptop. It’s relatively crapware free, but other than its own Recovery Solution (not a back-up at all) there is no shipped facility for backing up.

    Reply
  8. So how best to backup? I used to use CDROMs but I’ve got too much data, now. External hard drive? What’s best?

    I use an external hard drive with Acronis True Image as my backup software, and in addition I also make redudant copies of important files in other locations as many people have suggessted. The “best” is whatever you’ll actually do.

    Leo
    29-Jul-2010

    Reply
  9. Leo, I hope that your backup works. However, if you are using Windows 7, you have a potential problem. If you are restoring from a system image, Windows will not restore to a drive smaller than the one you are replacing. I make sure that I use Windows tools to keep the size of my primary partition smaller than the spare drive I keep here (which is smaller than the drive I am using). Most hard drives, mine included, are much bigger than needed (unless you are keeping incredible amounts of video files). Windows allows the active partition to be made smaller, when the drive is viable. However, once it fails and you try to restore from backup, even if most of the drive was blank, you will be unable to go to a smaller drive. Windows will only be happy with the same size or bigger. Leo, what happened to you when you tried to go from a 1.5 TB to a 1.0 TB drive? Did you have to restore individual files because the system image wouldn’t work?

    I definitely had to do some dancing around – though with Acronis, not Windows backup. In the end, though, Acronis restored all files, and Windows 7’s boot repair worked to fix my ability to reboot.

    Leo
    29-Jul-2010

    Reply
  10. The easiest way to “avoid” the disaster is to store your important documents, downloaded programes/software in another storage drive such as portable drives. This way whatever happens to your PC HD will not drive you crazy because your important documents, etc. will still be available. And also, make those documents,etc. stored at the other storage drives “read only”, just in case you unintentionally delete them.
    I have been doing this for quite sometime now after a big headache because my HD declared itself “retired” ….8=))

    Reply
  11. I replaced my 5 year old drive before it would have died. I have backups, anyway. None of my friends backs up anything, no matter how many times I tel them to and I gave up telling them.

    Reply
  12. Sounds like a certain brand (won’t mention names# that has a history #at least in the past 15 years) of the “clicking drive syndrom”.

    To backup, why not backup to the Internet. It’s relatively cheap and services like carbonite and Mozy are excellent, with unlimited backup.

    Backing up to the internet is impractical when you’re talking gigabytes of data. Internet upload speeds are rarely fast enough to make that a viable solution.

    Leo
    29-Jul-2010

    Reply
  13. Since drives are so cheap why not include two drives internally in your computer and keep the two in sync. I use synctoy which does a fast efficient backup of all my data, pictures, music etc. It only adds or changes files that have changed since your last backup so it goes fast. I’m sure the probability of two drives failing at the same time is slim to none.

    Reply
  14. I have had computers with Maxtor drives that are over 5 years old and still running strong. I think that some brands may not be as reliable as others. I have a Maxtor 500GB USB External Drive that I bought over a year ago and it works great. I believe that Western Digital and Maxtor are great drives.

    Reply
  15. Back-up! Back-up! Back-up!
    OK, With that out of the way, here’s the reason I’m posting.
    Here’s something that’s NOT new. Most drives are mechanical. Mechanical things “wear out”.
    See that little activity lite that tells you when your hard drive is “working”? If it seems to be active an awe full lot when it’s doesn’t seem like it should be, well, maybe it shouldn’t be.
    Over time things get added to start on boot that you can stop and still use them when needed.
    Also a lot of those same programs could be “phoning Home” or whatever.
    Also services running in the back ground can be turned off if not needed. Not on a network? There are many services pertaining just to this that are probably running needlessly. Turning these off can relieve stress on a HD and even speed up your system a little.

    I do system clones about once a month (more or less) using a free program called xXclone to an ext. WD HD.
    Off to back-up now.
    If YOU haven’t, well tissues are even cheaper than hard drives.

    Reply
  16. To “Myxtyplx” …

    No need to be offensive with someone else’s opinion, which i actually agree with. Educational sites are expected to use proper writing.

    I lost my 6 months 500GB WD which fell off the table and broke down. I wonder if an older drive would have resisted the fall. Older things were way better.

    Reply
  17. In the old days of MFM drives, I never had one failure from my first 20MB drive to a huge 80MB [ ha ha !] In fact, when I thru them all out, they still were chugging along. With big drives, I had 3 failures in 4 years but I too used my noodle and double backed up everything. Commercial back up programs didn’t cut it [ 5 days with spinwrite ? – you gottas be kidding ] no, as mentioned before,don’t reinvent the wheel, KARENS REPLICATOR restored every drive in less than an hour and I didn’t even have to reload any programs bar the OS from scratch. Just copy the windows directory, the programs directory, the documents and settings directory and [ critical ] the registry copy from another disk back to your raw OS disk and voila !. Instant restore. The programs free [ Karens Power Tools ]This piece of brilliance has saved my bacon three times.

    Reply
  18. This is why I have built my last two computers with RAID 5 arrays. For under $250.00 I can install 4 500GB drives in a RAID 5 yielding 1.5TB. If a single drive fails, everything keeps running. It slows down a bit, but the computer is still functional. I can then replace the bad drive and rebuild in the background. Again, things slow down for the 36 hours it takes to rebuild the RAID, but I’ve still lost nothing. Nonetheless, I still backup. The Windows 7 utility on the computer I recently completed works pretty well. I back up all the files and the system image.

    Unfortunately, most manufacturers don’t offer RAID arrays unless one wants to buy a server, which can be expensive. In a home built machine with the right motherboard it adds very little cost.

    Reply
  19. I work at a data recovery lab and most of the drives we receive for data recovery services [link removed] are large capacity drives. There is no favourite drive manufacturer; all are destined to faile at some point in time. In many cases I have seen newer and larger capacity drives going down within days of use.

    Having a mirror set, RAID-5, or RAID-10 for redundancy is an excellent idea, yet does not guarantee against the data loss as we get RAIDs of all configurations with multiple failed drives quite frequently for recovery.

    If your data is important for your person or business then there is no better alternative to have regular data backups at multiple locations.

    Reply
  20. Leo, friend, are you suggesting that there are no reliable hard drive companies you might recommend as being superior to less reliable providers of such products. Surely, there must be, at least one company that produce reasonably respectable hard drives. If, as you seem to indicate, all current hard drive manufacturers fall short of “state of the art” reliability, perhaps I’m better off retaining my current one, until, if and when, such is available, in the relative short term, and, of course diligently backing up my data, per your guidelines. You are a Major source of insight, yet I suspect there must be sound knowledge as to decent, superior hard drives, you happen to be unaware of. I cannot imagine that an entire industry would subscribe to producing a questionable product. On the other hand, if you are indicating that no hard drive manufacturer has achieved, as yet, an excellent, and statistically reliable hard drive, and you have solid evidence for such, please provide factual information. Thank you sir.

    Reply
  21. Backing up to an image file will work great.

    But what if not only the hard drive but the computer is fried, lost or otherwise gone? If I have to replace the computer the image will not work, even if the drives are the same size.

    So beside backing up my notebook to an external drive I frequently backup the MY Documents folder, where I keep all my personal files, to a USB pen drive and keep it at another location. These little USB drives are getting bigger and cheaper so it makes sense to be careful. I live in California near a major earthquake fault, so I never know when the BIG ONE will hit and take everything with it.

    Reply
  22. Leo, you’re 100% correct, we’ll never know for sure how long our hard drives will last. That’s why I keep a second one on hand, larger than my current one, as well as a 500GB Seagate backup drive, and use Acronis True Image 2010 Home Edition as my backup system. It’s the best on the market. However, if you can’t afford Acronis, Macrium Reflect has a really good free backup program, and the one that’s included with Windows 7 is good, too. I’ve used both free options, and recovered with both.
    But not having a backup at all is flirting with disaster, and I learned the hard way too. Paid or free, I will have some sort of a usable backup program, and drive to store it on.
    And lastly, don’t forget to create your bootable media (CD), as without it, your backup may still be useless.

    Reply
  23. Just bought and installed a new hard drive yesterday as I was running out of space. Thanks for the article as it reminded me to backup important files such as my photos, docs and uni stuff.

    I wish I could backup everything but as my comp has 9 hard drives and almost 8TB of files thats a bit of a stretch.
    It would take:
    11428 CD’s
    1702 DVD’s or 851 DL
    320 Blu Rays or 160 DL… HA!!!!

    My point in all of this is a question: When do you foresee the next major leap in storage capacity and what tech is it most likely to involve?

    I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. My prognostication skills aren’t that great Smile.

    Leo
    05-Feb-2011
    Reply
  24. Out of the blue while in my email i get a hard drive failing and a ding and then several flasing messages!I then get a message to restore my files or defrag and stop HD failure.The cost of this ?software was $79 with $6 addl to back up data in case it ever happened again.In a complete panic that my computer was crashing as it was freezing up and flashing HD failure,I purchased this software.It says windows recovery so I thought it was related to windows.After things went back to normal but with some files lost,minor.I called the number on invoice,looked at adddress in Ca with a non- existent zip code, and phone numbet that seemed the same.Today the number did produce a voice that told me they were in India and called Magic Software ,Inc. I asked how they got on my computer as it was coincidentally failing and claimed I had downloaded the standard trial version and wad prompted to purchase full version during the failure.He stated that he could not tell me the CA location of company they worked for in India.I have virus protection.Can you tell me if this makes sense or can hackers or so called legitimate companies access and make it appear that your hard drive is failing as you are on the net? It has freaked me out as I see no sign of the installed and told them so.Oh so now the software did not install completely and sending to my email.HELP!!!![le/

    Sounds like you fell victim to “scareware”. I can’t say for sure without seeing the actual message, but it’s certainly possible tha tmalware could thro up fake errors for just about anything. This article shows similar: Why won’t this “Your Computer Is Infected” warning go away?

    Leo
    03-Jun-2011

    Reply

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