Are Hard Drives Getting SMARTer?

Category: Hard-Drives

Readers sometimes ask, “How long will my computer's hard drive last?” Lacking a crystal ball, I’m tempted to reply “Do you feel lucky?” What I can say is that certain factors can be monitored to provide you with early warnings that it’s time to get serious about making frequent backups and shopping for a new drive. Learn more about S.M.A.R.T. and other tools to monitor the health of your hard drive…

Hard Drive Health Check

Over time, hard drive makers have learned that there are traits of a hard drive that change as it approaches failure, providing tell-tale signs that a data disaster may be approaching. The industry standard for hard drive “failure anticipation” is called Self-Monitoring And Reporting Technology, or S.M.A.R.T. for short. In this article you'll learn how it works, how you can take advantage of it, and if it's a reliable indicator of the condition of your hard drive.

If you missed my earlier article How Long Do Hard Drives Last?, I encourage you to read that first, to learn about hard drive life expectancy and why I think that's really the wrong question to be asking. That said, let's continue to the question at hand: hard drive longevity.

Hard disk failures arise from two general types of factors: 1) sudden, unpredictable catastrophes such as falls onto concrete floors, a lightning strike, or zaps from cosmic rays, and 2) gradual, relatively steady deterioration of mechanical components until one of them fails. About 60 percent of disk failures are due to the latter, predictable sort of factors; these are what S.M.A.R.T. monitors.

SMART failure warning message

Traditional hard drives employ spinning magnetic platters, and S.M.A.R.T. monitors the rate at which the bearings under them are wearing, for instance. Using that rate, S.M.A.R.T. predicts when a bearing will be worn to a specified degree, called the “threshold value” for bearing wear. When S.M.A.R.T. determines that a bearing is X days from that threshold value, it generates an alert that effectively says, “She can’t take any more Captain, she’s gonna blow!”

It’s not just bearings. Dozens of such factors can cause a hard drive failure and are written into the S.M.A.R.T. standard. Every drive manufacturer is free to choose which factors it wants to monitor and what the failure threshold values will be for its drives. S.M.A.R.T. has evolved through three phases. The current phase goes beyond monitoring and reporting to actively attempt to prevent or forestall drive failures. Modern S.M.A.R.T. drives will try to “heal themselves” by reallocating data from disk sectors that are near failing to reserved “spare areas.” They still can’t change their own bearings, though.

How Can I View My S.M.A.R.T. Reporting?

For a quick look at your hard drive's S.M.A.R.T. status, try the free Speccy utility. In the Hard Drives section of the Speccy results, you'll see some technical gibberish under the S.M.A.R.T heading. If it says "Status: Good" at the bottom, that's about all you need to know. The only other info there you might want to check out is the Reallocated Sectors Count. If that's greater than zero, you may have some defective sectors on your hard drive.

For a more detailed look, you can monitor S.M.A.R.T. factors using software such as Argus Monitor for Windows or Disk Utility for Mac (in the Apple App Store). But before you shell out money for either program, you may want to know just how reliable a predictor of drive failure S.M.A.R.T. really is.

How Smart is S.M.A.R.T?

Google spent nine months monitoring over 100,000 drives back in 2007. A paper entitled Failure Trends in a Large Disk Drive Population reported the results. Four “strong” S.M.A.R.T. factors were identified as the best predictors of drive failure; the bad news is that 56 percent of the drives that failed did so without reporting a threshold level in a single one of these factors. Granted, that was 14 years ago, but it’s safe to say that S.M.A.R.T. data alone may be of limited value in predicting when a drive is going to fail.

Another issue is that S.M.A.R.T.’s implementation can (and does) vary widely from one manufacturer to another. There are dozens of S.M.A.R.T. factors that can be monitored, but a manufacturer need only implement one in order to legally call its drive “S.M.A.R.T. compatible.” Some removable drives cannot be monitored at all, or only with certain proprietary software such as Argus Monitor.

The bottom line is that S.M.A.R.T. won’t give you warning of impending drive failure with a high degree of reliability. I would not spend much time monitoring S.M.A.R.T. factors, and I definitely would not spend any money to do it. That said, it does predict failure in some cases, and if you do see a S.M.A.R.T warning along the lines of "SMART Failure Predicted on Hard Disk. Failure may be imminent" it should be taken seriously.

One factor that should always be given immediate attention requires no software at all. If you hear a clicking sound coming from your hard drive, that's definitely a bad sign. See my related article [CAUTION] Hard Drive Clicking Sound? for details on what do if that happens.

Another Hard Drive Health Tool

A disk checking utility called CHKDSK comes with Windows, and it's pretty good at detecting bad files and physically damaged sectors. It will lock damaged sectors so that the computer will not attempt to write to them. To run CHKDSK on Windows 10, first open the "This PC" window. Right-click on the icon for the hard drive you want to check, and select Properties. On the "Tools" tab, click the "Check Now" button under Error-checking.

For additional reading, check out the latest Backblaze Hard Drive Stats report which details their experience and failure rates for over 175,000 hard drives currently in service. I found the discussion of whether SSD drives fail less often than HDD drives particularly interesting.

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Most recent comments on "Are Hard Drives Getting SMARTer?"

Posted by:

11 Jun 2021

Downloaded and ran TestDrive (elevated admin) and access denied, "inadequate permissions"
WTF Bob?

Posted by:

11 Jun 2021

One major factor in performance and life of your hard disk drive is the manufacturer. Some drives are simply built cheap and you can expect early problems. Major manufacturers build quality into their products and lead in research to continue to be the best. Pay attention to who's drive is inside your computer and your odds of a longer performing drive are improved.

Posted by:

Paul S
11 Jun 2021

Interesting Google article. My scan of the article and references suggests that process analysis techniques available at the time the article was written were not employed. Specifically multivariate analysis over time of the process data might have been able to better classify imminent failure. An important challenge is due to the several failure modes possible and that as manufacturers bring out new drives the modes will likely change. Truly a moving target - pun intended.

Posted by:

Daniel Wiener
11 Jun 2021

Thanks for the article. It prompted me to download the Speccy utility, which showed my hard drive to be "good". Considering that my Dell Inspiron 3000 (Windows 7) computer is almost seven years old and the hard drive has been running pretty much continuously (2465 days according to Speccy), I was relieved to learn that all is well.

I previously took your advice to purchase (via your site) an iDrive subscription, so if my hard drive ever does fail I'll still have all my files backed up. I always hope for the best, but I employ multiple redundancies in case of the worst.

Posted by:

12 Jun 2021

I already had Speccy on my desktop computer but had not used it for a while so I ran it today.

At the bottom of the "gibberish" it does say Status: Good but near the top it says S.M.A.R.T. not supported..what does that mean ?

Posted by:

Larry F Crowell
12 Jun 2021

SMART shows my C: drive as "Unfit" because it has 1 sector marked as "Current Sector Pending Count". It has been that way for quite a while and the sector is in an unused area.

Supposedly Windows should correct this on startup, but no.

Supposedly CHKDSK can correct this on Windows startup, but I can't get CHKDSK to work on C: drive at boot.

Any suggestions on how to get CHKDSK to work as advertised?

Posted by:

16 Jun 2021

Preventive measures:
1. FULL provision of EVERY new HDD
a. LONG format (not quick)
b. Full checkdisk: chkdsk drive: /x /v /f /r /b
c. StableBit Scan (paid program)

2. Constantly monitor HDD temps: Hard Disk Sentinel (paid program - packs available). It's on every computer. Monitors temps and health - will take actions based on temp parameters you set (e.g. audible alarm, shutdown)

3. Periodic surface scan with StableBit Scanner (paid program). Schedule to run periodic (you set the period) surface scans.

The biggest thing is the provisioning. My experience with a LOT of HDD's: it's DOA, it runs for a couple of months, or it runs for years. Yes, the full provisioning takes HOURS (4tb drive 18 hours), but now I know the HDD is "robust".

Monitoring temps is the other important thing. Heat is the enemy of electronics - just walk into any server room...

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