Is Your Hard Drive SMART Enough?

Category: Hard-Drives

Readers sometimes ask me, 'How long will my hard drive last?' The answer is indeterminate, as I’ve explained in the recent past. But lacking a crystal ball, 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.

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. (On Windows XP, look for My Computer. On Windows 8, it's called This PC.) 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 article Free Backup Software Solutions will get you started, if you're not doing backups already.

 
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Most recent comments on "Is Your Hard Drive SMART Enough?"

Posted by:

John
13 Oct 2017

Does any of this apply to SSD drives?


Posted by:

Mark
13 Oct 2017

Some drive manufacturers also have software available for checking hard drives. Seagate SeaTools is one. I think Western Digital has one, also.


Posted by:

Robt
13 Oct 2017

Is there any net benefit to turning your computer off every night to prolong the life of the bearings?

EDITOR'S NOTE: I've always left my computers running 24/7. What I've read (and this goes back a few years) is that this may prevent harm due to frequent power cycling.


Posted by:

Miger
13 Oct 2017

In all of the many years I have been using hard drives, I have never had one fail. That includes a 1992 one I am still using. One of the prime reasons for lack of failure is that I select hard drives from quality manufacturers. You can always get cheaper drives and usually you get what you pay for which means a shorter mean time before failure. It pays to know what you are buying.


Posted by:

RandiO
13 Oct 2017

Lawyers for SolidStateDrive consortium have contacted FCC, demanding access to Bob Rankin's keyboard, under the "Equal-Time Rule"!


Posted by:

Robert A.
13 Oct 2017

So, If one is building a new computer from scratch, or replacing a dying HDD, would it be prudent to buy an upper series hard drive as opposed to the basic series most manufacturers offer? For example, will a Western Digital Black, Red, Purple or Gold series HDD provide longer life than a corresponding size unit from the basic Blue series?

Also, FWIW, HDD can be killed if the computer suffers a power surge or a close-by lightning strike, although, realistically, its likely the whole computer may have to be replaced, as it's likely all the internal circuitry of the computer would have been fried, too. Events such as those are great reasons to invest in cloud backup storage of all data on a computer.


Posted by:

Phil
13 Oct 2017

Power surges can certainly be a HD killer as well as the whole machine. But you won't find any of my data on anyone's storage system whom I don't know who they are or where it is, that means the cloud. It's just my personal thing. What you will find under my desk though is a good UPS from APC (I do not work for them). I've always been a believer in consistent backups (thanks to Bob) and power protection.

I've had one HD failure since 1980 and it was a cheap model. Not sure that means anything other than a complete sudden failure is fairly rare in my world.


Posted by:

B. Frank
13 Oct 2017

Bob, can you give more detail how to handle the download of Speccy? When I click on "download now", I get an error message "No Support." What do I do then?
Thanks!


Posted by:

MartyB
13 Oct 2017

When I went to either of the download sites for Speccy, I got red flags saying they were known for malware.


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
14 Oct 2017

@RandiO - ROFLMAO!!!

Okay - Power surges can definitely ruin many a good computer, not just the HD. This is why I use Power Surge Protection for all of my computers, TVs, Stereo Systems, DVD units and anything of electronic importance. I don't use the small numbered Joules either - My preference is 3000 Joules and above. They are not cheap in cost, either.

Considering that I have had really close by lightning strikes in front of my homes - I happen to live in an area that is prone to lightning strikes, lots of quarries close by and all over the area that I live in - Yet none of my computers have ever been harmed by these lightning strikes.

Years ago, a neighbor that lived really close by - We lived in a cul-de-sac - Their house was struck by lightning and hit their computer. I heard the caw-whack of the lightning and my daughter saw the smoke. I also had lightning strike directly in front of my house, in the street, several years later. In both cases nothing happened to any of my computers or TVs or DVR units or DirecTV receivers or Stereo Systems and so on.

As to HD failure - Yes, I have had them. In addition to Power Surge units - Keep your machines as cool as you can. This means good fan circulation in your tower and your laptop. Your CPU needs to be kept very cool, as well. However, you can do all that I have suggested and still have an HD failure.

About 2002, I purchased a brand new Western Digital 80 GB HD and it cost me a pretty penny. Within 3 months the HD died!!! Thank goodness the HD was under warranty. I called WD, spoke to Tech Support, gave him the code, I think it was 250, the tech said your new HD is on its way. No questions, no asking for a credit card, just that my HD was on its way. That HD definitely had a manufacturer quality issue. I got the new one and it is still working to this day in one of my computers. Most of my HDs have been Western Digital, I happen to prefer them. I usually get good longevity from Western Digital and I tend to keep my computer running 24/7, like Bob does.


Posted by:

Therrito
14 Oct 2017

I have used Western Digital (WD) hard drives since my first build just over 15 years ago. In my second build, which I currently run, I use the original 74G WD Raptor drive from my first build as my C: drive and it is still running strong. I have had hard drives (storage drives) from other manufacturers and they all quit after only a few years. My oldest Nephew runs two WD 74G Raptors in a RAID array for his C: drive.
I recently purchased a 160G WD Raptor to replace my old 74G (not installed yet) as it just doesn't have the capacity that I need for the OS as well as all of the programs and games that I would like to have installed.
Due to the longevity of my 74G drive I an an avid advocate for WD hard drives and I will continue to buy their products until a) they go out of business, or b) I find a company that manufactures hard drives of equal or greater longevity.
Thank you for this article, Bob, as it allows me the opportunity to let others know about the superior quality of WD hard drives.


Posted by:

Lady Fitzgerald
14 Oct 2017

@John All this pretty much applies to SSDs. I wouldn't worry too much about condition of the drives and worry instead about maintaining a solid backup scheme since any drive can irrecoverably fail at any time without warning. Even though SSDs are less likely to fail, they almost always fail irrecoverably.

@Robt It really doesn't make much, of any, difference to the HDDs if you run them 24/7 or turn them off every night. Needless to say, the better the HDD, the less chance of problems no matter what you do.

@Robert A. In the WD line (my preference while I was still using HDDs), the Blacks are best for data storage use in computers (they can be used as boot drives but SSDs are far superior for that). The Blues were supposed to be a direct replacement for the Greens but, so far, based on user reviews, they've been having higher premature failure rates. The Reds and Golds are for use in RAID configurations and, while they can be used in a home computer, the Blacks would be better. The Purples are strictly for surveillance use only.

Cloud storage rarely is safe. Paid for cloud backup services, such as Carbonite and Backblaze, are much safer and are good for an offsite backup. However, HDDs are best for onsite backups and can be used for offsite backups. It's essential to not connect them to the computer except when updating the backup.

@MartyB Did you try downloading Speccy directly from download.piriform.com? If so, then you need to set an exception your AV and report it as a false positive. I just downloaded it and neither AVAST nor Malwarebytes hit on it.


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