[HARD DRIVES] Is Yours SMART Enough?

Category: Hard-Drives

Readers sometimes ask me, “How long will my computer's hard drive last?” Lacking a crystal ball, all I can say is that some 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 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, “Captain, she’s about t’blow!”

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. So S.M.A.R.T. data alone is 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.

Other Hard Drive Health Tools

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, first open the "Computer" 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.

In my article Is Your Hard Drive Going to Crash? you'll find links to some free third-party utilities you can use to run more thorough hard drive health tests.

I'll also repeat my bottom line advice from that article: Most of the time, hard drive failures happen at unpredictable and inconvenient times. So backing up your data regularly is vital, and is your best defense against loss of data. My ebook Everything You Need to Know About BACKUPS will get you started, if you're not doing backups already.

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Most recent comments on "[HARD DRIVES] Is Yours SMART Enough?"

Posted by:

David Cameron
21 Dec 2018

Where is the "computer" window of which you speak, to locate CHKDSK?

Posted by:

21 Dec 2018

Does this count for SSDs too? Speccy says all is well, but being SSDs, it may be that they'll fail without warning?

Posted by:

21 Dec 2018

David C: "Computer" is also known as "This PC", "This Computer" and, of course, in ye olde PCs, "My Computer." (That's when you 'owned' your computer, not somebody else.)

Stephe: Yup, S.M.A.R.T applies to SSDs also. Anecdotally, SSDs fail with no warning suddenly more often HDDs and data recovery by experts is harder from SSDs.

Regardless of any stats, *any* one storage device can fail at any time, just like anyone that plays the lottery can win. So back up your data with the 321 rule and stop worrying about it. (321 = 3 copies of everything, on at least 2 different devices and 1 copy at another site.)

A read-only pass on both SDDs and HDDs does seem to increase reliability, forcing the drive to read every sector. If there are recoverable errors, the drive fixes the problem itself; that's what the spare sectors are for. Spinrite (though it doesn't run on many new computers) and the afor mentioned CHKDSK /R will do a full read pass on either HDDs or SDDs.

Posted by:

21 Dec 2018

@David Cameron: The computer window is Command Prompt (Start-->CMD). In the command prompt window you type in chkdsk then hit return. If you have multiple disks, enter in the drive letter. This has been there from the early days of DOS.

Posted by:

21 Dec 2018

All drives, no matter what kind or age, can suddenly, irrecoverably fail with no warning so, as Bob has repeatedly pointed out, backups are essential!

I rarely check the S.M.A.R.T. attributes on my drives because even a drive that shows good attributes can fail tomorrow and one that the attributes suggest the drive is on its last legs may last for years. Instead, I just keep my drives backed up to the teeth so I don't need to worry about them. The only reason I retire drives is I outgrow their capacity or they die (the latter being rare). The one exception was when I bit the bullet and replaced all my HDDs with SSDs.

SSDs usually fail irrecoverably, often without warning, but they are less likely to fail than HDDs. Again, it's not worth worrying about as long as you have adequate, up to date backups.

I've had only one SSD (out of over 30) fail in service (it was my first one, a 128GB Sammy that was pushing five years of 24/7 operation. It took me only an hour for me to replace the drive with a 500GB SSD I had outgrown and restore the backup to it. The only reason it took that long was it was located in a difficult to reach location and I had to remove other parts to get to it.

I keep at least one spare for each size and model of SSD I use so I don't have to scramble to get a replacement should one ever die on me before I retire it.

Posted by:

Dave Ruedeman
21 Dec 2018

SMART tends to be useless when it comes to SSDs. And worse yet most of my SSD failures tend to be catastrophic, In my experience you are best off with vertically manufactured SSDs, where the same manufacturer does the flash , controller and software. I like Samsung, Intel and Crucial/Micron in that order. Others, not so much.

Posted by:

23 Dec 2018

Do NOT download the file extension Transit as it gave my computer 36 PUPS as found by Malware Bytes.

Posted by:

Chris R
24 Dec 2018

I use Piriform's excellent Speccy. Its current version (1.32) still has the bug that I reported to them over a year ago: if you connect an external hard drive via USB, Speccy reports its SMART data as an exact copy of the first internal hard drive of your PC. A potentially serious bug, especially if you are diagnosing a disk from another PC.

I hadn't heard of Argus Monitor but there are two interesting things in Argus' licensing that you didn't mention.

Firstly, you can get a 30-day free trial of it.

Secondly, if you buy a 2-PC licence for $8.50, you are entitled to use that version of the software forever but would need to pay for an upgrade.

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