Buying a new hard drive? Expect it to die

When building a PC, people often ask me which brand of mechanical hard drive they should buy.

I tend to keep things pretty simple:

  1. It doesn't matter what brand
  2. Stay away from "green" drives, as the speed deficit isn't worth the energy saving at consumer scale
  3. Get the one with the largest warranty
  4. Expect it to fail.

The last point usually shocks. Am I recommending something that will die?

Well, yes. It's not that I want to; it's just that the odds are good that at some time in your tech life, you're going to suffer from a failed hard drive, more so than anything else in your system. It also has the biggest ramifications of any failure in your system. Documents gone. Photos lost forever. That epic video library, wasted away.

Saving yourself time and pain

Thinking about storage as something that's built to fail helps to reframe people's ideas about backup. Whether they get a NAS and some sync software, or even use something like Time Machine on OS X, if people expect their hard drive to fail at any time, they tend to be more careful with their data.

Heck, as much as it isn't backup, I'd settle for people thinking about RAID, if only for that tiny bit of extra data security.

You can tell those who don't have a backup plan; instead of realising it's their fault, they choose to rant, "I will never buy [brand] again!"

Admittedly, like all technology products, there have been some bad batches of hard drives. IBM's infamous DeskStar GXP problems caused enough of a reputation issue that users started calling its drives "Death Stars". Shortly after, IBM sold its hard-drive division to Hitachi, when it became a money-losing enterprise.

Western Digital green drives don't like playing in RAID. Seagate has released dodgy firmware that stopped a computer from detecting some models of its hard drives. You name the brand, and it's likely to have had a problem drive in its history.

Add to this Google's 2007 study on hard-drive life spans, which found that particular brands fail more often than others, but didn't release names. It also turned up a lot of other incredibly useful information, although more for the enterprise than for the home consumer.

Have a plan

Ultimately, though, the savvy user transcends the brand and model of their hard drive by making sure that their data is in more than one place at one time.

There are myriad storage services now that can help — DropBox, Box, Skydrive, et al. You could even image your hard drive regularly and in an automated fashion if you wanted to use something like Acronis True Image. After all, mechanical storage is cheap — you could always buy an external hard drive for the express purpose of backing up. Copy files, then leave it on the shelf.

That's where the biggest warranty comes into it; if your hard drive fails, and you have all of your data elsewhere ready to recover, at least you get a free replacement hard drive out of the equation.

Just a word of note: expect that one to fail, too.

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Latest comments (Add your comment)

When you say "Stay away from "green" drives, as the speed deficit isn't worth the energy saving at consumer scale", I think you missed the point why a significant number of people buy them. It's not the power savings but a by-product of lower power usage - drive temperature. Quite often, "Green HDD's" run significantly cooler and quieter than standard 7200rpm HDD's. This makes them perfect as drives in home theatre PC's and NAS drives. I had a standard HDD in a NAS enclosure and after a bit of spirited file transfering, the enclosure was extremely hot to touch - and we all know that excessive heat is a major cause of electronic component failure. I replaced it with a Samsung "Green" HDD, and apart from less noise, the drive then ran a lot cooler.
But I agree, trusting a HDD with important data (without a backup on different media) is a recipe for disaster - it's not a matter of 'if" but "when?"
Posted by mediabiz
Running cooler is one aspect, however "green" drives also have a tendency to not ship with TLER or whatever vendor equivalent, meaning they're more likely to drop from an array.

It looks like the newer Red drives from WD are addressing all of this directly though.
Posted by Craig Simms
Over the last ten years i've had seven different hard drives over three systems. One is external so we wont count that. Out of all of them only one failed and it was the oldest one. I always tend to find that they generally give you a bit of warning that they are going to fail and give you enough time to do something about it.

I'm not a huge fan of soft storage and to be honest i probably never will be. I dont like the idea of paying someone to store my stuff somewhere else and taking forever to back up and retrieve. Given the most you ever get is around 25gb free, i dont see the point, especially since most of us could day our media library is over that.

I like the idea of Bluray back up. Discs are around $5-10, hold 50gb of data and will back up faster than soft storage.
Posted by Will1505
"Expect that one to fail, too"
i cracked up laughing - its so right, this has actually happened to me
once my computer HDD failed but i formatted and restored from time machine (OSX), then about a year later the time capsule itself failed and i had to get a new one.
...and i swear, the short few days where you have no backup is when you get ridiculously paranoid
Posted by JamesP3
Point 2 - Green drives are starting to disapear. Seagate EOL'd theirs under their "power of one" campaign and WD is nearing their refresh cycle

Point 3 - Post Thailand and Post GFC warranties have been redefined:

Eg Seagate current warranty :
Constellation 2 and ES.2 drives: 3 years
Barracuda and Barracuda Green 3.5-inch drives: 1 year
Barracuda XT: 3 years
Momentus 2.5-inch (5400 and 7200rpm): 1 year
Momentus XT: 3 years
SV35 Series - Video Surveillance: 2 years
Pipeline HD Mini, Pipeline HD: 2 years

As we can see consumer drives are classed as disposable now. 3 and 5yr warranty on a $100 drive is a bit unstainable really and causes pre thailand flood oversupply of HDDs again. Vendors want low inventories, they want to sell all their production to channel and not have it stockpile. Enterprise drives retain their warranty.

RAID 1 is ideal for end users but does not cover the 'powe failure' scenario which can take out all hardware. Also some comentators make out RAID 1 to be too complex for end users when it can be easier than they think. Intel Rapid Storage Technology (Intel's consumer RAID and Storage software) allows easy migration from single disk to raid1 from windows.

IBM "Deathstar" was only a drop in the ocean.

There actually was an official firmware update - fix published by IBM which solved the "Excessive dwelling" issue on the original 75GXP series however this was not widely publicised for technical and commerical reasons. Maximum PC I think it was did an indepth investigation and even sourced data depicting actual failure numbers.It was not as high as many seem to made out.

I dont like it when media write about HDD failures they imedatly turn to Deathstar and not look into newer drives/failures . That was 12yrs ago. Some firmware updated 75GXPs are still running to this day. The product life of the 75GXP was not signficant, even its replacement 60 series had some issues.

There have been many other scenarios since, some which have been mentioned in this article and some not Drives from Fujitsu, Seagate, Maxtor have had major flaws or recalls. Some drive recalls were not applicable to Australia such as those from Fujitsu

Seagate had a bad run with Momentus 4 drives which were quite popular in laptops especially Apple Macbooks. 2.5 drives a are notirous for failure. Absolutely notorious. Especially those that are six years old, but that does not preclude new drives as mentioned in this article.

I feel HDD data protection is more important to laptop owners than desktops. Laptops owners tend thro cram everything into their laptop, it may be their only machine wether personal or work and since they are mobile parts, not as rugged as desktop.

Once it fails then the complaining begings, eg 'but backup was too hard' or 'I forgot'

Samsung also had firmware issues wih consumer drives for RAID, combined with the WD RAID compatibily is known and documented and many RAID HBA vendors such as LSI will not support some consumer drives anyway

"After all, mechanical storage is cheap"

Funny you should say that. The concensus I got from some power users and enthusiasts ive spoken with is that they feel that drives are too expensive and way too expensive during the shortage last year. I agree with your POV.

Some may consider "gimme pigs" an appropiate terminology.

The current fad with enthusiasts and 'computer geeks' is to buy brand name external drives on sale and strip the drives from the casing. Externals are good value for money as they are long life cycle using older drive models and vendors can price them more arrgressively than bare drives. This practise voids the warranty but that does not stop enthusiasts. Some External drives now have as much as 3yrs warranty on them.

Here is a quick flashback to internal HDD prices
1994. 540MB around $250
2000: 30GB around $300
2003: 80GB around $120
2009: 1TB around $110
2012: 3TB above $150/120GB SSD $160

Noone can say storage is expensive. If they do, the person likely already has enough storage already

As Craig pointed out:

"Just a word of note: expect that one to fail, too."

Especially if you have a laptop.

As a technican and also as a revieer, please please backup your data. This is the number one and only thing a user needs to do. Any software or hardware problems can be fixed one way or another even if the whole unit is dead we can get your data or drive out, but we cannot do anything if your data has vanished.
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