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Drives are getting bigger, but are they more reliable? That's a hard question.

I saw this in the early 2000s about cheap China hard drive failure. I think it was in a magazine. The ending remark was that they are getting better in quality. I bought one two years ago and it's ready to die. So, are they better? it does seem that smaller capacity drives from the 1990s last longer.

In this excerpt from Answercast #99 I look at the quality and size of hard drives today compared to what we used in the past.

Drives getting more reliable

Yea, a lot of people feel that way; that the smaller drives actually are more robust, I guess, and failure-free.

I have to admit.. I guess - that's probably true. It's probably, in the long run, more reliable to have five drives of 10 GB instead of a single 50 GB drive.

I've heard of people doing that kind of thing. Unfortunately, it's not practical.

Technology is improved

I do believe that the technology has improved. In other words, the underlying technology that's being used to make these hard drives is getting better. Unfortunately, I also believe that instead of the improvement in technology making them more reliable, they are instead making them more "capacious" - I guess would be the way to put it.

In other words, they're making the hard drives bigger. Let's face it; ten years ago, you didn't have the 3 TB drives that you can purchase off the shelf now for a couple hundred bucks. And in fact, you wouldn't be able to, in any practical situation, put together 3 TB worth of storage using any technology that was available in the 1990s. Not in any practical sense.

I remember being at Microsoft in a small data center where we had racks and racks of hard drives. I think the rack had about 7 bays, with about 7 or 8 drives per bay. Do the math; those were 4 or 2 GB drives. Even that doesn't get close to what you now get in a single drive.

And when you increase the number of drives as we did then, you still increase the probability of failure. Each individual drive may last longer - but as a collection, adding up to that much storage then, it was still pretty likely that one of them was going to fail relatively soon.

So, it's a tough question to answer.


I do think that things, in general, are better. But I think they're better in ways that we don't necessarily appreciate as improved reliability.

Now, all this is really to say there is a solution. There is a very good solution to this problem.

And you know what it is: backup!

The fact is, regardless of whether it's technology that fails frequently or infrequently the number of failures per GB of storage probably has not changed that much - and it's non-zero. By that I mean - you know that sooner or later that hard drive is going to fail... regardless of what size it is.

That means that unless you're protected, you're going to lose what's on it. And you know that hard drives are gonna fail at the worst possible time.

Assume failure

I strongly recommend that regardless, or perhaps instead of, of making assumptions about hard drive longevity, instead make the opposite assumption. Assume that it's going to fail; assume that it's going to fail soon and prepare for that - because the only thing about that statement that is perhaps a bit of a stretch is the "soon" part.

A hard drive will eventually fail.

You don't know, when so be prepared for it happening soon. Make sure you've got the appropriate level of backup so that when a hard drive fails, it's nothing more than an inconvenience and never ever, a catastrophe.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

Article C6359 - March 22, 2013 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

Mike Castro
March 26, 2013 9:28 AM

Hi Leo, I have read the hard drive article which makes interesting reading. In the last 6 months I bought 4 Western Digital 1TB ( or is it 1tb ?) hard drive. Two are fitted in two computers ( one each ) and the other two are external backup drives for each of the computers. One of the computer fitted hard drives failed, it was acting oddly and so I phoned Western Digital's support centre. I have to tell you that I have never ever recieved such great service. After giving them the serial number of the HD they arranged for a replacement to be sent.

You can either strip out the failed unit and send them or give them a credit card to put a sale to, which isnt used if they get the old drive back, and they send a new unit out within 3 days.

When you get it all you need do is format the new drive and transfer the backed data onto to it. Send the old drive back with the label which they also send you and you are back on track.

In these days of hearing about bad service its great to see a company that helps like this, I can forgive the fact that the drived failed, "it happens" as the bumper/fender sticker says !!

Gord Campbell
March 26, 2013 1:05 PM

In 2009, I was building a computer. At that time, the Newegg ratings for 640 GB drives were significantly better than drives of 1 TB or larger. My 640 GB drive continues to work flawlessly.

Which is not to say Newegg ratings are perfect, but they often provide a hint.

Old Man
March 26, 2013 9:46 PM

Thinking about the long list of HDs I've had over the years, I think the majority (leaving room for exceptions) of the current HDs are better quality than the earlier ones. The bearings don't wear out as fast and the heads are less likely to contact the platters - the two main problems of the older drives (including my first whopping 40M drive). That said, we must remember that they are still mechanical, and all mechanical devices wear out - some sooner than others.

Like Mike, I had a very pleasant experience with WD. Mine was a 500G that died while I was trying to remove all the data off it. The free refurbished one sent by WD has outlasted the original drive. Although the service was outstanding, the fact remains that the HD failed during the warranty period.

From what I've read on other tech sites, when China first got in the HD manufacturing business, the quality was way down. In the past couple of years their QC has improved to where they are better than some from other countries. Still, they aren't perfect.

The new SSDs have no moving parts, so they won't "wear out." However, even electronic components deteriorate over time. Also, there is no guarantee on the quality of the individual components on the board.

To kind of piggyback Leo, if 99% of a company's HDs or SSDs will last 20 years, but 1% will fail in the first year, assume yours is part of the 1%. Backup - backup - backup - and hope the one you have is part of the 99%.

Mark J
March 27, 2013 3:05 AM

@Old Man
Although SSDs have no moving parts, they actually have a shorter life than HDs.

March 29, 2013 11:41 PM

People now have a lot of pen drives and external hard disks so that the 26 drive letters change frequently for each partition when they are plugged.
So is there any best way we can manage these drive letters?

Mark J
March 30, 2013 1:04 AM

Here's an article on assigning drive letters:
How can I make an external drive keep its same drive letter?

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