Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for my weekly newsletter, "Confident Computing", for more solutions you can use to make your life easier. Click here.

What Should I Look for in a Replacement Hard Drive?

//

What features should I look for on a long lasting hard drive? I know it will fail at some point, and that I should have multiple backups. I grew up in a time when the technology was much more expensive, so I’m not really used to being able to have access to multiple backups. What I’m looking for is how I can determine the expected lifespan of a hard drive.

My friend and I both lost backup drives in the last week, both were 3 years old. Mine was used constantly as a network storage device, hers was used sparingly as a backup drive. We have both given up hope in recovering the data. I do have mine on a few other drives, but not as well consolidated at it was on the drive that died, there is little hope for her photo collection.

I would suppose warranty length and MTBF would be two factors I could determine the lifespan. Also, I know a couple of sites that keep the statistics. I was also wondering if recovery ‘insurance’ would be useful.

I have to start by pointing out that if data was lost when a “backup” drive failed, then it wasn’t really a backup drive; it must have held the one-and-only copy of the files that were lost. As I so often say, if it’s in only one place, it’s not backed up.

I’ve been watching hard drives and hard drive technology for a couple of decades now, and it’s been both amazing and frustrating: amazing in the speed and capacity we now take for granted, and frustrating in that there are certain things we can still never count on.

Like the drives themselves.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

Don’t count on the manufacturers

It’s interesting to watch the state of the HDD (hard disk drive) market over time; you begin to notice trends. The relevant trend I’ve noticed is this: this year’s winner is next year’s loser, and vice versa.

By that I mean that today, drives from manufacturer “X” perform well, last seemingly forever, and are just generally “the best” when compared with the competition. Drives from company “Y”, on the other hand, have high failure rates, poor performance, and garner a well-deserved negative reputation.

And next year, they’ll trade places. Or company “Z” will be the best. Or some random upstart we’ve never heard of will enter the market with fanfare and exceptional initial quality. Meanwhile, an industry darling will stumble and fail, and their drives will be the ones to avoid.

All that is to say that there is no “best” drive manufacturer in any absolute or persistent sense. Today’s best may be tomorrow’s worst.

Hard Disk DrivesYou can’t count on a brand name.

However…

Buy a brand name anyway

To stack the deck in your favor, you do want a brand-name drive. Seagate, Maxtor, Samsung, Toshiba, and Western Digital are all current hard drive manufacturers with track records and name recognition. Most also manufacture SSDs (Solid State Drives) in addition to HDDs, but the list of SSD manufacturers is somewhat longer given their current increase in popularity.

Note that I’m not saying any of these brands are “the best”. As I said above, that changes over time. The point here is that “the best” generally cycles through these name brands. Choosing from their offerings reduces your overall risk of failure.

Recovery insurance

Recovery insurance isn’t something you buy — it’s something you do.

The only recovery insurance against hard drive failure is a backup. If you’re not backing up, there’s absolutely no guarantee you won’t lose everything in an instant due to a catastrophic hard drive failure. And yes, it’s possible that a drive will fail in such a way that even advanced (and expensive) recovery techniques will be unable to recover the data stored on it.

There is no substitute for backing up. Period.

My approach is simple: rather than researching which drives are best or last longer, I’ll pick from a few “go to” brands1 for my replacement drives.

I’ll take the time I would have spent researching which drives are best today, and spend it setting up a comprehensive backup strategy, so when (not if) the drive eventually fails, I won’t lose a thing.

With backups in place, there’s simply no excuse to ever lose something as precious as a photo collection. A good backup strategy protects you no matter what drives you happen to purchase, or how quickly they fail.

Podcast audio

Play

Footnotes & references

1: Most recently, Seagate.

27 comments on “What Should I Look for in a Replacement Hard Drive?”

  1. For Home the system i use is two portable Hard disks (bit locker encrypted), i have one plugged into my system for automated weekly/monthly backup and the other at my work (offsite) i then swap them about each month. These are essentially zipped up archives of files that exist on the server, mine and my wifes laptops.
    So in the event of a failure i have three copies from various times :
    -Original files on server and laptops – Most current
    -Attached Backup Disk – Up to a week old
    – Offsite Backup disk – Last Month

    The most i can lose in a catastrophic disaster (File, flood or Croc eats the server box) is one month, if laptop dies then i lose at most a week , if attached Hard drive fails i lose nothing (go buy new Hard drive and redo current backups).

    • If you use an on-line service like OneDrive, Dropbox, Backblaze or Carbonite, you’d have a real-time off-site backup. That is in addition to my system image and on-site file backups. My slogan on backing up, “There’s no such thing as overkill when it comes to backing up.”

      • Correct Mark, cloud storage would be an option, however slow internet and large data (one terabyte) makes that approach a bit impractical.

        • Cloud backup takes a long time, but once the initial data has been uploaded, in my case that took a couple of weeks, it stays in sync pretty quickly unless you have added some huge files. In any case, that shouldn’t be your only backup.

  2. I’d stress the ‘offsite’ bit – if there’s a fire, any number of onsite disks are just so much smouldering wreckage. A friend of mine had just enough ‘in the cloud’ to save himself after losing his house contents – but he had terrible trouble remembering his cloud accounts and passwords …..

    I’m even considering putting a written copy of my cloud accesses in my solicitor’s safe. Overkill?

  3. Interesting that you put Seagate first in your list of established companies. Several years ago, they seemed to be at the top of every list of most reliable, and it after much reading, it was an easy decision to replace some internal HDs with Seagate.
    More recently though, there have been too many reports of premature failure, which led to a class-action lawsuit in 2016. From what I’ve just read elsewhere today, they’re still having serious problems. I’ll be steering clear.

  4. Not quite correct, there are now only 3 hard drive manufacturers – Western Digital, Seagate and Toshiba.
    The other 2 brands mentioned here, Maxtor and Samsung, are now just that, simply brands, owned by Seagate.
    All hard drive manufacturers have had their problems from time to time but in my 25 years or so of building and fixing computers, of the 3 remaining manufacturers, Seagate is by a very, very long way the least reliable.
    Given, one of the most successful, and the largest, having absorbed all of these companies, either fully or their hard drive technology parts, either directly or indirectly – DEC, Quantum, Plus, MiniScribe, PrarieTek, CoData, CDC, Conner, Maxtor, LaCie & Samsung.
    Many other people, I’m sure, will have their own experiences, preferences and stories, some probably very different to mine, but for my penneth, once (actually, very, very many) bitten, twice shy and I won’t be buying anything from Seagate until they’re either the only one left standing or my experience drastically changes.

      • Bill K., Presumably you meant to type “my sole hdd”, but your typo hints at the close connection between many of us and the machines that hold our information.

    • If your using a core i5 or better then you would see a reasonable improvement using an SSD over a conventional hard drive, so if price and capacity are not an issue then i would go with an SSD

    • The age of the computer doesn’t matter. As long as the computer still works, an SSD will significantly speed it up. And if it’s running so slow that you’re constantly getting “Not responding” messages, adding RAM and installing an SSD can often revive a seemingly dying machine. I’m typing this on a computer I revived this way.

  5. Good article.

    When it comes to backups I follow Steve Gibson’s (Spinrite) advice
    Remember 3-2-1 to have good backups:
    • at least 3 copies of any file (ie original, File History and Cloud Sync)
    • at least 2 different storage mediums (say on your hard drive plus at least one of the following: thumb drive, DVD or the cloud),
    • at least 1 copy offsite – in case of fire etc! (ie the “cloud” meets this requirement, so does using a thumb drive moved to a different building, or a server in a different building)
    .
    When someone asks me about buying drives the question I ask now is what is it for. If it is as a replacement (or even original) drive in a computer for the OS (and applications), then by all means spend the extra money for a slightly smaller SSD, than HD at same price. The extra perceived performance a SSD gives a computer is worth it. If the drive is going to be used for backups, then go with HD to get more space at a lower price.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Being an English teacher, I want to give a little advice on the word medium.
      Media is the plural of medium, and medium is the singular of media. Mediums are people who communicate with the dead. You might need one of those to communicate with your dead HDD 🙂

  6. A few weeks ago I had a bitter-sweet experience with my HDD. I went to bed after working on my computer, (paying bills, YouTube, games, etc.), and everything was working fine. The next morning my wife said she was unable to access our finance spreadsheet, and my eyes snapped open.
    Well, I confirmed the data drive was missing. Drive Manager saw the drive but reported it as unallocated space. I tried several recovery applications to recover the data, but none of them could access the drive. There was some cryptic message about a possible bad cable, (and yes, I replaced the data cable but no change.)
    So, I fired up my WD external HDD and confirmed that I had backed up my data…3 years ago. Fortunately, I subscribe to Microsoft’s OneDrive service where I synchronize my photos, videos, music, and the finance spreadsheet, (4 months old but better than nothing). I felt fortunate that I had backed up a lot of information that I still refer to often. Even though some information like eBooks and manuals can be re-downloaded through online sources, other information such as emails from friends or family, receipts for purchases made online, and downloaded applications and their license keys may not be.
    We all perform maintenance on our homes, cars and ourselves because their longevity is important to us. Today our computers, and more specifically, our data is also important to us. Backing up your drive is the least expensive insurance you can do to protect your data investment. Pick a strategy that works for you, and stick with it.

    • If you use IMAP to manage your email account(s), the emails will all remain on the server and will be downloadable if the files are lost or damaged on your hard drive. You can alternatively use POP3 with the leave mail on server box checked.

  7. I have found myself in a situation where I finally have filled up my current Hard Drive on my Laptop. To my surprize, I discovered this Laptop has two Hard Drive caddies within it, with only one having a Hard Drive. So I have ordered a 2Tb drive and Cable, to install a second Drive.

    But here’s my dilemma: Should I just use this big drive as storage of my big collection of Digital Pictures? Or should I go through the potentially painful process of turning it into my Primary Drive. Then I’d use the Smaller Drive (650Gb) as either additional storage, or another backup. Note: I use an external drive to do backups. On one Hand, the new drive has seen less spinning cycles, which should make it more reliable. On the Other Hand, What matters to me most are my pictures. So as long as I have those on the new drive, I’m still protecting them by saving them on a newer platter.

    Or is there a compelling reason to do a fresh install (on the New, bigger Drive)? My installation DVD would have the same Bloatware I had to uninstall years ago. Or is there an easy way to bring my backed up image file onto a hard drive with much different structure (nume of disks, LBA, etc)?

    • I don’t know what’s best in your situation, but when I installed a second internal hard drive, I kept the OS on the original drive. Much less work and everything ran fine for years.

  8. Hi Leo, I want to get another external hard drive backup, but how should I go about it? Am I supposed to make sure every file is organized the way I want it before getting another one? It would of course be easier once I back up new files, but I’m still in the middle of trying to organize a huge mess from when I backed everything up from my old PC, and it would be a headache to do so and keep track of it on two different drives.

    • It REALLY depends on exactly HOW you back up. If you use a backup program, for example, you would just point it at your new external drive (or set up two schedules, one for each drive) and so on….

      If you’re doing it manually, well a) that’s failure/error/forgetfulness prone, and b) it really all depends on how you want to organize your digital life.

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Typically that's off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.