On a long enough timeline the survival rate for every hard drive is zero. This is the existential fact of hard drive reliability. The good news? There are things you can do to give hard drives a fighting chance for a decent lifespan.
Just know that “decent” means five to six years—the median life expectancy for spinning disks according to Backblaze, a cloud storage provider that publishes reports on the reliability of the hard drives it uses. Bear in mind the reports should be taken with a grain of salt, and your drive usage likely differs from that of a cloud storage provider.
Hard Drive Reliability Killer #1: Heat
Heat is probably the most commonly accepted cause of hard drive failure. Monitor the temperature by checking around the venting of your drives to ensure there is adequate airflow through the computer case.
- For prebuilt systems, this means keeping fans and vents free of dust. Spray canned air duster on dusty cases. If you have multiple desktop PCs to look after, something like the DataVac Electric Duster will prove cost-efficient in the long run.
- Laptops are trickier to put air through, so cooling them happens externally. Laptop cooling pads blow air into the bottom of your laptop where the battery is located to help dissipate the heat it gives off.
- For custom builds, avoid common mistakes like installing the case fan backwards or in close proximity to a radiator. It also serves custom builders well to create negative pressure inside the computer case by having more exhaust fans than intake fans. Heat rises, so best to place exhaust fans in the upper part of the build.
Hard Drive Reliability Killer #2: Errant Electricity
Power spikes occur due to a storm or a faulty connection, and can result in fast and complete drive failure in addition to damaging other components in your PC as well. It is advisable to power down and unplug during an electrical storm if possible.
- For mission-critical systems, a quality uninterruptible power supply (UPS) provides defense against power spikes and allows your system to stay running after a power outage. Make sure to choose one with the appropriate volt-ampere (VA) level your systems require.
- A surge suppressor provides a layer of protection between your systems and the outside world, as well as adding more available outlets to a wall socket. Protection is rated in joules—every lighting hit takes a certain number of joules off the life of a surge suppressor. If lighting storms occur frequently, it is a good idea to purchase a surge suppressor with a higher joules rating.
Static electricity—called static shock or electrostatic discharge (ESD)—claims hard drives prematurely as well. In fact, charges that are undetectable to human sensation will often damage semiconductor devices. Take caution when handling a hard drive outside a computer and wear an anti-static wrist strap. Risk of ESD elevates in arid climates. A humidifier can aid in reducing static electricity in a work space.
Hard Drive Reliability Killer #3—Disk Thrashing
Hard drive reliability is measured in hours, namely in the number of hours in Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF). This is why powering down computers during downtime is generally a good idea—it saves energy and component wear-down.
Now obviously some wear cannot be avoided. But there are certain tasks that take their toll on hard drives that are probably unneeded in most cases.
- Manual anti-virus scans beyond scheduled intervals
- Running antivirus software that might overlap inefficiently
- Having a computer virus
- Manual disk defragmentation beyond scheduled intervals
Another form of disk thrashing occurs when a system operates at peak physical RAM capacity. You can tell when you are disk thrashing when an application stops responding and the disk drive light blinks on and off. To avoid this, either upgrade physical memory or ease back on the multitasking.
Monitoring hard disk use and drive health is advisable and can be approached a number of ways. Hard drives have a built in feature called SMART (Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology) to monitor errors and anticipate failure rate.
You can check SMART data using the Windows Command Prompt. Press the Start Button type Command Prompt in the search field and press enter. In the Command Prompt Window type the following commands and press Enter after each:
diskdrive get status
There are a number of third party applications that run in Windows that check SMART data.
If errors are found in your hard drive, this does not mean it will fail immediately—but make sure you have a backup made and plan on replacing the hard drive sooner rather than later.
Make sure to acquaint yourself with other signs of hard drive failure, like strange noises and slowing data transfer rates. For more on this, see: Symptoms of Impending SSD / Hard Drive Failure and What to Do.
Knowing what causes hard drive wear and tear is the first step in getting more life out of your drives. Play it smart and you will see better hard drive reliability no matter which brand you choose.