How Long Do Hard Drives Last?

Category: Hard-Drives

It's a good question. But it might be the wrong question. Read on for some stats on the life expectancy of a hard drive, and find out the more important question you should be asking yourself...

Hard Drive Life Expectancy (and the Right Question)

Whenever I am asked, “How long can I expect a hard drive to last?” I reply with, “How often do you back up your data?” This seeming non sequitur perplexes people, but I have found that the answer to my question is, almost invariably, the reason the first question is asked. The questioner is wondering how much longer he/she can get away with not backing up data.

Technobabble about MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure) in the 50,000 to 100,000 hour range is useless. Those hours are active hours during which the read/write head of the drive is moving. You have no way to monitor and record read/write head activity and you don’t want to be bothered doing so unless you’re a test engineer for a hard drive manufacturer.
Hard Drive Life Expectancy

Furthermore, MTBF measures mean (average) time before the hardware fails catastrophically, as in “won’t spin anymore.” That is the very last thing that will go wrong with a hard drive, akin to throwing a rod in your car’s engine. Long before the hardware fails catastrophically, you will be experiencing losses of data, and you might not even notice that it's happening.

When data is written to a drive, the magnetic charge of tiny areas of the physical disk is altered. One magnetic state means “0” or zero, the other means “1” or one… or on/off, if you prefer. The patterns of this binary code store your data as a collection of magnetized spots in one state or the other. In order to make the disk reusable, the magnetic state of each spot on it must be changeable.

A lot of things can change that magnetic state beside the drive’s read/write head. A strong magnetic field near a drive can scramble data. Power blips can cause a read/write head to write (change the magnetic state of a spot) instead of read, overwriting data with gibberish. Even cosmic rays can penetrate any computer case and zap the data on a hard drive, although a cosmic ray is so narrow it will probably affect only one or a handful of data spots.

You don't believe in cosmic rays? Fine. Natural disasters like fires, floods, hurricanes and tornados also tend to dramatically shorten the lifespan of a hard drive. Even if your brand-new 2 terabyte hard drive has no manufacturing defects, it won't last long in an F5 tornado packing 200 MPH winds. And of course, there are well-known threats from viruses and botnets.

So a hard drive is in constant danger of having all or part of its data either erased, corrupted, destroyed, or otherwise rendered unreadable. It doesn’t matter if the drive is fresh out of the box or nearing its MTBF.

What Studies Have Been Done on Hard Drive Life Expectancy?

A recent study on hard drive longevity was conducted by Backblaze, an online backup provider that has more than 25,000 consumer-grade hard drives in service. They found that 78% of the drives they use are lasting longer than four years. That might sound good, but it also implies that 22% of hard drives fail in the first four years.

The Backblaze study identifies the three most common causes of drive failure: factory defects, random failures, and parts that wear out. The failures due to factory defects tend to happen in the first 18 months of service. Failures due to wear out start to increase much faster after the three-year point.

The Backblaze study has been ongoing for four years. Other hard drive studies done by Google and Carnegie-Mellon University have been five-year spans, and both were conducted in 2007. So there just isn't an authoritative answer as to how long a hard drive will last. Backblaze has some stats that give them confidence to predict that more than half of all drives will last six years. I think you'll find their report interesting.

What Are the Implications?

Let me summarize and pontificate a bit. One in five hard drives will fail within four years. Failure rates start to jump after three years. And there's a 50/50 chance your drive will last six years. Does that give you a warm fuzzy feeling? With apologies to Clint Eastwood, you've got to ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?

I'd rather not rely on luck and statistics. My advice is simple. If your drive has lasted three years, why take chances? Even if you make nightly backups you could still lose data if your hard drive fails suddenly. You can find 1-terabyte (1000 GB) SATA drives for under $60 now, and free disk cloning software makes it easy to transfer all your files. (See How to Clone Your Hard Drive.)

And of course, it's vital to back up your data regularly and not just whenever you don’t feel like doing something else. My article Free Backup Software Solutions will get you started. As I mentioned earlier here, data can and does get corrupted or erased while “just sitting there.” Regular backups and replacing your hard drive every few years are the best defense you have against loss of data.

Your thoughts are welcome on this topic! Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "How Long Do Hard Drives Last?"

(See all 33 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

04 Dec 2013

I apologize for the typo:
The last line my post SHOULD read:
T.E.C. Date: 2022/04/10 (I think T.E.C. indicates the estimate date of SSD death)

Posted by:

04 Dec 2013

I strongly suggest that defragging your HD should be done ONLY when it's utmost necessary. Remember that defragging means rewriting ALL your files wich were written since your last defrag. Meaning : you do all your writes TWICE...
People who defrag regularly shout devide their MTBF by 2 ... yes ?

Posted by:

04 Dec 2013

Sorry, Tony ... But, the DVRs use the same standard consumer's hard drive, too. The newest ones are usually, 1TB at 7,500 RPM or 750GB at 7,500 RPM. They will fail, just like any PC or Laptop, at the same rate ... Which, is still one of Life's little mysteries!!!

The real issue hear is .... Back Up, Back Up, Back Up and Back Up some more!!! No one can make that point, any clearer. Plus, I don't know of any real Geek, who doesn't recommend, that you Back Up, all important data, to you ... Just in case, there is a Hard Drive Failure.

Trying to recover Lost Data, can be frustrating as all get out and there is NO guarantee, it can be recovered!!! Paying a company to do this service, can be rather expensive, $500 and up. There are several FREE software versions, but, you really must know what you are doing, to even get the lost data, you want. I recommend GEC's SpinRite. It does cost $89.95 and was created by Steve Gibson, one of the smartest computer Geeks, that I know of, besides Bob Rankin.

Steve Gibson has been into computers, right from the get go and was writing Assembly Code, for other companies, way back when. In fact, Steve still like to write in Assembly Code, the footprint is so small and simply, does NOT interfere with your PC. Bob knows Steve, most Geeks do. His SpinRite program has been around for years and is continually, updated. It just works, but, only if the hard drive can be recovered.

Another thing, to listen to the sounds of a Hard Drive "dying", is NOT music, to one's ear, ok? LOL Been there, done that, several times. :)

Posted by:

04 Dec 2013

@Tony --- Excuse me, for the snickering, but, Hard Drive Disc Failure, is still one of Life's Great Mysteries. You just can not predict, when it will happen. I prefer to chose good, well known brands, as opposed to using "generic" brands, for my PCs. I have had the best success with Western Digital and Seagate, the worst experiences have been with Maxtor. Again, Hard Drives in general, tend to be a "crap shoot."

Now, having said that I have had the greatest success using Western Digital, the one brand that crashed the quickest was Western Digital. A brand new one, crashed in 4 months. Now, that really surprised me. However, I still trust the Western Digital brand, the most.

Oh, Tony --- Just for your info ... The Hard Drives in a DVR, are just the same as the Standard Consumer Issued ones. They are not the BIG Hard Drives, like the Western Digital VelociRaptor, which runs at 10,000 RPMs, mainly used by power users. The ones that I have removed from my DVRs, has been the standard consumer's Hard Drive, which runs at 7,500 RPMs or 5,400 RPMs, in day's gone past and have been between 80GB, 160GB and 350GB. The one in my main DVR today, is 1TB and is a standard Hard Drive, at 7,500 RPMs.

The main difference between the newer DVRs and the older ones, is that the Hard Drives hold lots more storage today, than in years past. The Hard Drive inside, is still basically the same ... Standard Consumer issued.

The best plan of all, is to simply Back Up, Back Up, Back Up and Back Up some more. I don't think, this can be expressed enough. Every Geek, on the Planet will tell you this. Why?! Because, they know that a Hard Drive can "fail" at anytime, without any warning. Why, do they know this?! Because, it has happened to them, at least once, when they hadn't "Backed Up" everything, that's why. I can't tell you, how many times I have read about websites being hacked, going down and all content was lost completely. This is no different, than a Hard Drive failing completely. The lost is always devastating. Especially, for Home Office owners. This is also why, trying to recover valuable information off of a "failed" Hard Drive, costs so darn much!!! Plus, there is never a guarantee, that anything can be recovered!!!

It easily could be money spent and money lost and I mean, lots of dollars, like $500 and up, for Recovery Service Companies. Then there are also, FREE software, that may or may not help you, recover data. One recommendation is GRC's Spinrite, which costs &89.95. The owner of GRC, is Steve Gibson, he is the Computer Geek's, Geek. He is well known, within the computer field and well respected. Right now, SpinRite has had years of recommendations and years of usage, by those who have needed this software. :)

Posted by:

04 Dec 2013

I disagree about DVR drive quality. I have removed dvr drives on several occasions and noticed much sturdier construction, much thicker and heavier walls than on standard consumer drives of the same brand.This reduces warping and misalignment. What the insides look like I do not know but I assume similar sturdiness throughout.

Posted by:

the it-kutch
05 Dec 2013

A completely different and non-technic, call me uninformed, remark: seems you discuss not an issue but an attitude. When was the last time you checked &/or aired up the tires on the car you drive every day, or its oil, coolant, or battery? Things any adolescent can safely do at home for free in minutes...but does it get done? If not, will hazard a guess your drives crash frequently, your home, relationships, and life in general seem chaotic and require large injections of money to stabilize; even then not very successfully. Thanks Bob for all your insights even if many go right over my small pointy head.

Posted by:

05 Dec 2013

Until the introduction of SATA drives, I was totally hooked on the SCSI interface and I had continually upgraded my Adaptec SCSI interface cards up to the time when SCSI320 met its challenge and SATA I/F became the de facto standard. I have had SCSI HDDs that spun at 10k and 15k rpm. I used to pay more for SCSI i/f cables than the current cost of SATA 1TB drives. I never had the desire to run RAID of any flavor but I used to run upto 6 different HDDs in all my systems. Not one of these Seagate SCSI HDDs ever failed on me and I would have to yank them out just to get larger SCSI HDDs as replacements. Then and with the introduction of Seagate VelociRaptor (10k rpm) SATA HDDs, it cost me a small fortune to upgrade to the original 150GB HDDs and then stepped up to few additional 300GB VelociRaptors. I have always used separate HDDs for 1)WinOS drive, 2)Data drive, 3)Audio/Music drive, 4)Video/Movie drive 5)Backup/Archive drive and 6)Linux OS drive. And now, with the 'reasonably' priced SSDs; I have replaced my WinOS drive to an SSD. During all of these years of multi-HDD systems, not one of these drives have ever failed. Instead they were retired for newer, faster, larger and higher performance drives. I am finding out that using an SSD for the WinOS drive has been the most substantial speed increase that I have seen over the past 2+ decades. A 240GB SSD can now be bought for under $200 and the performance improvement is amazing and worth every penny. For longevity purposes, I never share the WinOS drive for any data storage purposes and I have found over the years that multi-partitioning of the same drive does nothing to protect against single point hardware failure(s). Consider replacing your current OS drive with an SSD and you will be surprised at the performance gains that you can realize.

Posted by:

06 Dec 2013

I know this topic is about HDDs but if any of your readers are using Solid State Drives; there is a FREEware program called TweakSSD (by that appears to provide some nice tweaks that can be utilized for better performance and longevity of an SSD. There is also a PAYware version which includes TRIM capabilities (but not essential and your SSD may have it included).
Regards, RandiO

Posted by:

Tony Clayton
13 Dec 2013

When I ran the computer systems at a school many years ago we had over 100 computers and never encountered a hard drive failure. I have been running two drives on my present machine for nearly eight years with regular defragging and backups without trouble. Perhaps I have just been lucky, but as with all mechanical devices problems can occur (my car had a cam belt failure after 25,000 miles)

Posted by:

13 Dec 2013

All my hard drives across the 12 computers I am responsible for are well ventilated and cooled by a adequate fan/s.

I would think that keeping a hard drive cool would be a huge part in determining their longevity.


Posted by:

Mike Regan
13 Dec 2013

Maybe its my Irish luck, but I only ever had one HDD failure. I have 4 Desktops and 2 laptops. All except one laptop is now over 10 years old. The one failure I had was the oldest computer that failed after 10 years (3 years ago) I run them about 14 hours a day and always turn off at night. Oh, I also had a Maxtor 750 gb ext drive that failed after only 3 years. Having said all this I still backup daily and do image backups bi-weekly.

Posted by:

Bruce Hevner
15 Dec 2013

Having been responsible for several small (15 or less users) networks for the past 10 or so years I have the following to report. I have probably used every name HD out there at one time or another.
I am surprised that they are using CONSUMER class drives instead of ENTERPRISE drives. I have found that for ME (your mileage may vary) the WD RE3 & 4 ENTERPRISE class drives seem to last the longest ON AVERAGE. I have had FAR fewer "duds" in them than ANY other HD I have used. I use the Velociraptor 10k drives for my high end desktop builds. They are FAST but don't seem to last as long as the 7200 drives. I use WindowsSMART on all my machines to help monitor their health.
But HEY,,, that's just ME!!!

Posted by:

Yosh Mantinband
16 Dec 2013

Cycling the power on hard drives is one of the main factors affecting life span. When I worked for a large software company, one of my groups maintained the testing labs - about 2500 PCs altogether, ranging in age from new to 5 years old. Those machines were on continuously 24/7 - except for when we had a power outage, of course.

Whenever we had an outage - whether planned or unplanned - i. e., even when the machines went through an orderly shutdown - we could count on having to replace 5 - 10 drives. Every time.

Want to extend the life of your hard drive? Never turn it off.

P. S. I also endorse Steve Gibson's product, SpinDrive. He's one of the few people who understand the fundamentally analog nature of hard drives and puts it to good use in maintaining and recovering the digital information on them.

Posted by:

16 Dec 2013

I believe it all depends on how much it is used. My desktop is getting old but it gets turned on maybe once per week or so, so it doesn't get that much use, even then it was to be used as a shared printer host, now that we using a wireless printer, it is not needed for that function. The printer was messing up, and not recognizing the color cartridge. (It was getting old too.)

Posted by:

17 Dec 2013

Rule of thumb for average use, 3 years.

Posted by:

David W
17 Dec 2013

I think this article did an excellent job of pointing out that there is simply no way to know ahead of time when a drive will fail, and that failures happen all too often.

So many incorrect assumptions about HDDs and SSDs. I'll address a few as a system builder/repairer for almost 20 years:
*The thicker cases of old drives trap heat inside them more so than thinner newer drives. You cannot use case thickness as a measure of construction, nor what is inside them. There is absolutely no advantage to a thicker HDD case, and cooling is much better with a thinner case as heat transfers more easily.
*The amount of time you use a drive is not necessarily directly related to how long they'll last. If your SSD lasts 15 years running 24/7, it may possibly be a consideration. My experience is that some drives run 24/7 for a decade without problems, and some fail after a few months when shut down daily, and visa versa.
*SSDs have as high or higher failure rates as HDDs. Search for any brand and model of SSD and you'll find failures occurring randomly - some right out of the box, some after little time, some after a few years, some heavily used, and some used sparingly.
*As with any electronics or hardware, starting and stopping causes more problems than running steadily. Unless you're a heavy gamer, your hard drive is under the most stress during startup and shutdown of the PC. That's when it generates the most heat and goes through the biggest temperature change. Upon starting, components heat up - which everyone knows will make all components expand. Cooling off causes the same components to contract. The more you stress components in this manner, the more likely a failure at some point. It may still last for decades. Consider yourself lucky if it does.
*Heat is THE most destructive force to any electronic component. Ventilation, cleaning your case fans and cooling fins, and keeping vents open to ensure sufficient air flow are very important for hard drives of any type. Smokers, systems on carpeting, and pet owners need to stay vigilant with case cleaning.
*Manufacturers invented and sold 5400RPM drives for one reason - they generate less heat, thus tend to last longer - in theory. The difference in power consumption from a 15,000, 10,000, 7200, or 5400 RPM drive is hardly noticeable on your electric bill. However the performance takes a serious hit on slower drives.
*Operating systems today tax hard drives much, much more than operating systems of the past. It's more than just luck that hard drives seemed to last longer on Windows 98, or Windows 2000, and even Windows XP. Example: Windows Vista's search feature was constantly thrashing hard drives as it accessed data files for cache and quickly accessing files - and trashed many a hard drive in weeks or months because of it (which was fixed for the most part with SP1). We had countless Vista systems brought in for repair soon after Vista was released - all for hard drive failures or corruption of the drives. The way we use computers today, the way operating systems are constantly adding more bling, and other hardware is evolving, all tax hard drives more today than they used to. So comparing what was and what is, is not a level playing field -even if your habits haven't changed.
*Mechanical hard drives have changed considerably. They used to all be single platen drives. Now most are double or triple platen drives to increase speed - and the internals have been updated accordingly. Even the motors and armatures inside have been upgraded.
*There is a difference between commercial and high performance or RAID drives. That doesn't necessarily mean that a more expensive drive will last longer, but you will get a longer warranty and "chances are better" that it will last longer.
*Defrag does not necessarily cut into the life of your hard drive, and it can make a big impact upon performance. It's very rare that a hard drive is going to fail because of too many reads/writes. It's much more likely that the motor which spins the drive will fail randomly. Many industries have been running commercial hard drives on servers for decades without reaching read/write limitations (servers are much more stressful on a hard drive than defrag and constantly read and write to drives). Defrag is not a stressful task on hard drives either. I would never recommend that someone stopped defragging their hard drive, unless it was an SSD (and only then because it's useless with Flash technology - not because it's using up reads/writes).

I'm not brand loyal when it comes to HDDs. We've had good luck and bad luck with Seagate, Western Digital, Samsung, and Maxtor. We tend to go with commercial Seagate drives for customers because they're cheaper. Customers bring in drives from all manufacturers which have failed randomly.

My own system runs 4x Samsung F1 1TB drives (I believe roughly 7 years old now) in RAID 0 for data, and a Corsair Force 3 240GB SSD for the operating system (Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit). It has run 24/7 for 4 years now (other than shutting down for upgrades or Windows Updates reboots) without a problem. I use Western Digital Red 2TB drives for movies and my music collection which are connected to my TV and also run 24/7.

I backup my OS with images (Acronis True Image Home 2010) on 2 separate drives, and manually delete old data files and then copy/paste my data to 2 different Seagate drives. My wife prefers Karen's Replicator to backup her data. It's all just user preference, but by all means make sure you have a decent backup system. :)

Posted by:

17 Dec 2013

Ok here goes, Bob you sound like a sellout . . . in that, you are "selling" the idea of the cloud. There's one thing the cloud is organize all your data so everyone that wants has access. Just think how many virus we have all endured. Now we give our info away thru' the cloud. Good luck with that.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Oh no! You caught me -- a greedy sellout. In fact, a consortium of Seven Evil Cloud Service Providers agreed to pay me ONE MILLION DOLLARS for every time I mentioned the word "CLOUD" in this article about the unreliability of hard drives. Let's see... that would be... ONE MILLION... multiplied by... What?? Zero??? I forgot to use the word "CLOUD" even once? Dang it.

Back to reality, what I actually did "sell" was the idea of buying MORE hard drives, more often, and using backup software (on yet another local hard drive). Not sure where you got the idea that I was pushing everyone onto the cloud.

Posted by:

02 Jan 2014

It seems the "Hidden" message here is "Don't rely soley on an external HDD to back up your really important stuff."

A while back I read that the data retention life of a CD R or DVD R is about ten years, after that the dye starts to bleed.

Even Paper is subject to dacay due to its acid content.

So if its really important (Photos/treasured memories etc.) don't just back it up, make multiple copies then check and refresh, often.

Posted by:

03 Jan 2014

The HDD has evolved so much in the last 3 decades... from composite head, to thin film head and to the present GMR head. The interface has evolved from ESDI, to IDE, to PATA and to the current SATA. Even SCSI is now SAS. There are a lot of other evolutions as bit density, track density and data transfer rate increase. These step up the storage capacity and speed of the device and at the same time reduce the physical size. We will always be hungry for more storage space and speed of retrieving data.

The amazing thing is that the evolution of HDD technology has helped HDD survives the on-slaughter of other new storage technology, most notably the flash memory in the form solid state device (SDD). HDD finds its way to coexist with them by having a low cost per gigabyte storage and reasonable speed and reliability. Others like floppy drives are completely replaced by flash memory in the form of thumb drives.

How long HDD will stay, we still do not know. maybe 5 years? The reduction of cost of flash memory storage will continue to be a threat to HDD.

Traditional HDD company like Seagate Technology is not taking any chance. Seagate has made its own SSD to add on to their rotating disk HDD products line up. They call themselves the storage company, instead of HDD company to better alignment its business direction for the future.

Posted by:

03 Jan 2014

Talking about hard disk failure... I find out for myself that even Solid State Device (SSD) has no guarantee it won't fail.

I use an SSD as my primary drive to store the OS and programs in order to enhance speed. After 2 years, it failed and system consistently hung immediately after system booted up. I had to reformat it and painstakingly re-setup windows and programs. It worked fine after that. I guess that some system data, or whatever it is, got corrupted for unknown reason.

Yes, I find out the hard way that even SSD do fail randomly. So backup or make a clone of the system drive, even if it is SSD.

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