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Hard drives fail, and external drives are no different. I'll look at the implications of external hard drive failure, and what you should do.

I've had two external hard drives fail in the past few months. One was an older drive that required external power in addition to a USB connection (to my Windows XP computer which has lots of RAM). The other was a newer, smaller one, just a year old, which was connected via USB alone. Is this kind of failure common? How do I make sure all my data is not at risk if I dispose of these? And will the new, larger capacity USB flash drives work as well for back-ups?

I'm not quite sure what "this kind of failure" might specifically refer to, but yes - drives do fail.

If you're asking about the timing - well, I've had two drives from the same manufacturer die within a few months of each other, and then had no failures for a couple of years.

My case is a little different than yours and I was able to draw a conclusion.

In your case my conclusions are little different.

Drives Fail

My conclusion in your case?

Drives fail. Given that the drives are of different ages and different models, even though from the same manufacturer, I wouldn't read much more into it yet other than exactly that: drives fail.

"The rule of thumb is very, very simple: if data exists in only one place, then it's not backed up."

That external drives might fail should be no surprise. They're just drives, after all, and occasionally even subject to slightly harder environments if they get carried, jostled or moved around a lot.

The take-away is actually very simple: back up. And yes, sometimes that means backing up your backup drive.

It all depends on how you backup.

The rule of thumb is very, very simple: if data exists in only one place, then it's not backed up. If that one place is your computer, you need to back it up. If that one place is an external drive, then you probably want to figure a way to back that up too. As you can see the external drive can die, and often without warning.

In my case, the two external drives I had fail were the exact same model, from the same manufacturer, purchased relatively close to each other. When both eventually ended up failing, the conclusion I drew was different: I chose to avoid that manufacturer for a while. (I say "a while" - typically meaning a couple of years - because disk manufacturer's quality ebbs and flows over time. I'd revisit them if their reputation improved someday.)

Disposing of Failed Drives

What to do when you dispose of a drive really depends on how sensitive the data is and how much effort you want to go through when you dispose of them.

Since they're external drives, it's possible that the failure is with the drive enclosure's circuitry and not the drive itself. If that's the case, you can actually remove the drive and potentially start using it elsewhere - in a machine perhaps - or connect it long enough to securely erase its contents.

If you can't regain access to the drive in some way then the only secure way to ensure the drive is no longer accessible to anyone - particularly someone motivated enough to take more extreme recovery methods - is to physically destroy the drive. Make sure that the drive's case is open, and the platters exposed and ideally damaged.

I've drilled holes in dead drives to achieve this effect.

USB Flash Drives

I have mixed feelings about flash drives.

They're darned convenient, I'll give you that. In fact I carry one with me at all times.

However there are issues:

  • They wear out. Inexpensive ones more quickly than the more costly ones. A quality external flash drive of the capacity I suspect you might want could get quite pricey.

  • They're sometimes slower... reading from flash memory is typically quite fast, but writing is significantly slower - frequently much slower than an equivalent hard drive. (Mine most definitely are - even the more costly ones.)

  • Longevity isn't proven. This isn't about wearing out as much as it is about just retaining data. An unused hard drive will retain its data safely for years - a flash drive isn't as certain.

My take is that for backup and archiving you really want an actual hard drive. For data transfer, convenience and perhaps as a third level backup then flash drives may make sense.

Article C4369 - July 14, 2010 « »

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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.

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11 Comments
Ken B
July 15, 2010 9:41 AM

You can also dispose of a hard drive by giving it to your 9-year-old daughter, along with a screwdriver and hammer. :-)

(It's amazing how many neighborhood boys will come by, ask what she's doing, and ask if they can have a turn.)

andy
July 20, 2010 9:16 AM

I had a failure of a 2 year old Western Digital drive. I received technical support from WD but when that failed to recover the drive they replaced it with a new one. Good to find a company with such support!

Dave S
July 20, 2010 9:39 AM

A very common problem with external hdd's happens when they are knocked off desks. If they were in use
(spinning) at the time they fell to the floor the odds of recovering data are minimal.

Gary R
July 20, 2010 10:32 AM

Agree with all the comments if the failure was due to a PHYSICAL problem.

However the original post said only that the external drive had "failed", which might have meant that the data couldn't be retrieved. Data retrieval failure for an external USB drive can also be caused by simply pulling the USB cable *without* going thru the "safely remove hardware" process. I have many customers who have lost data because of this and when I inform them of the proper way to remove an external USB drive, they admit they never did it.

Simply pulling the USB cable often has no adverse effect, but if done continually, the odds increase of a problem occuring.

Dave
July 20, 2010 10:39 AM

Not had an outright catastrophic failure but had a WD external drive (just over a year old) that suddenly wouldn't rustle up intermittently and then not at all. Power supply was fine. Took the actual drive out and put it in an external caddy and it was fine, so obviously a fault in the interface electronics. Surprised how primitive the build was, for the money, when I took it apart. That's one drive manufacturer off my Christmas list. Pity I didn't know about Andy's experience with them. Sounds like they might have looked at the problem.

Rob
July 20, 2010 11:02 AM

I know from which you speak. I had a scare (and I should know better - I work at helpdesk :) - my external HD case electronics went out. The drive was fine but the enclosure - poof. Luckily, I was able to just add it as a slave drive and my data was still there. But I was flirting with disaster.

Chris
July 20, 2010 1:00 PM

I have a Maxtor external 500GB USB Hard Drive and have not had any problems with it. However, it stays put in a cubby-hole area of my computer desk and does not move. I let it do regular back-ups automatically through the Windows 7 backup manager.

James Hillier
July 20, 2010 3:35 PM

Sometimes reported HDD failure is not a failure at all. I've had many occasions when a client has told me their external hard drive has failed and it is actually quite fine. This happens because external drives are not connected permanently; connecting an external drive after an extended idle period can often result in that drive not being recognised and the entry in 'Disk Management' describing the drive as RAW....with seemingly no way to access the data. To rectify that situation, all one needs do is simply allocate a new drive letter.

BTW Leo, loved your bit on Raid arrays....excellent!!

Peter
July 20, 2010 11:54 PM

I have had both a Maxtor and Seagate FreeAgent drive fail on me some time ago.....and both served as back-up for the other. The drives are not picked-up or recognised by removing them and installing them as slaves in another PC or by installing them in another Ext HDD case/caddy that does work. Is there anyway of reteiving the data at all? Is there any recovery software anyone can recommend? or is this a job for the professionals....and then...what about sensitive information?

Jim H
July 21, 2010 5:13 AM

I back up my data using Acronis True Image and the additional program that allows data restoration to a PC with a different hardware configuration. An aside, some backup software will only restore a full back up, a mirror of the original drive including the operating system and system files, correctly to the same hardware configuration. Essentially, that means the same computer with a replacement drive which I have been told can be a different brand but should be the same capacity as the failed one. Anyway, I happen to buy most of my software as downloads. It all goes onto an external drive along with the freebie programs I find and use. I back up that drive with Acronis as well. On top of that I backed the software storage drive and all the Acronis backup files to a subscription online backup service along with the traditional documents, email settings, music and picture files. Or so I thought. Last year I lost my C: drive followed two days later by the external drive I had all my software saved to. To cut to the chase I was able to recover all the C: drive data from the Acronis backup files. Unfortunately, even though the external drive Acronis backups had shown a successful completion when they last ran, the software storage drive and the back up files from the other external drives I use all showed corrupted and would not restore. I then learned that the online backup service I used which allowed external drives to be backed up (the competitor did not)hadn't saved any of my programs or my backup files! They don't allow any type of executable file to be saved. Backup files from any backup software are also prohibited! This was a policy change that occurred after I first signed up with them which they likely informed me of but I ignored. It was a tough lesson. Fortunately, I had saved all my receipts for the stuff I had bought and was able to recover most of it. I learned the hard way that even backups are no guarantee and that the traditional online storage services are not all they are cracked up to be. Online backup would be ideal as insurance for an external drive backup scheme if there was an affordable service that didn't restrict what could be saved, emphasis on the affordable!

Tony
July 31, 2010 10:35 AM

In Regards to external drives, One caution to keep in mind as in my case,I just purchased a 1tb WD usb mains powered drive,I plugged in the power then then the usb plug, ZZZ (arc noise),Drive non responsive,Lucky I was in play mode and hadn't put any criticle date on the drive( I now plug usb first then power,why this way i don't know as usb should be able to plug in with power on and was not stated any where by the manufacturer as a criticle point.

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