/ Technology

Can you depend on your hard drive?

Broken hard drive

It’s insignificant in appearance, but a hard drive is the guardian of your precious files. Losing that data would be a personal disaster, and our survey reveals this can happen more often than you might have hoped.

It’s the safe repository that you trust to look after your photos and music collection among other things. And although you want your hard drive to be fast with vast capacity, the most important factor is how dependable it is. Will it develop a fault? And will that fault lead to lost data?

We wanted to find out which external hard drive brands were the most dependable, so we surveyed almost 2,000 Brits to find out.

Apple hard drives have highest fault rate

The results make for shocking reading. Surprisingly, nearly half of the Apple owners in our survey experienced a fault with their hard drive, compared to an average of 22% across all hard drive brands in the sample. This is worryingly high, especially for a premium brand.

Fortunately, those who experienced a fault with their Apple hard drive were less likely to suffer loss of data than with other brands. Instead, people told us that freezing was the most common fault, followed by the computer being unable to recognise the device, and the device making more noise over time.

Apple told us it was aware of a problem with older devices:

‘Some Time Capsules sold between February 2008 and June 2008 may not power on or may shut down unexpectedly. We repaired or replaced these units free of charge.’

What to do if it breaks down and you want to dispose of it?

If you’re one of the unlucky hard drive owners who’s experienced a fault and you want to get rid of it, it’s important to ensure the data’s properly destroyed first. Even a seemingly broken hard drive is fertile ground for digital criminals on the hunt for personal data.

There are a few methods that you can use to obliterate your data. Try Disk Doctors Data Sanitizer, or to ensure the data is well and truly destroyed, you could take a hammer to it. We certainly couldn’t advise you to use Which? Convo commenter William’s method:

‘When I have needed to dispose of old hard discs (usually because they have failed), I “format’ them with a 12-bore shotgun. One shot blow them to bits!’

Nor Tom’s…:

‘Remove hard drive. Cut in half with angle grinder (knife through butter <1 minute). Put pieces in different bins. Peace of mind achieved.’

Big Bad John’s method might be your best bet (although you leave off the cat litter):

‘The last hard drive I had finished with I attacked with a hammer, then left it in a bucket of water overnight. Before putting it in the dustbin I coated it with the contents of my cat’s litter tray, defying anyone to handle it.’

Has your hard drive ever left you high and dry? And have you got any amusing stories of disposing of your data?

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One thing you can do is format your hard drive with TrueCrypt, an Open-Source free software utility that encrypts the data with very strong encryption as it writes to the drive. That way, even if you accidentally leave your external drive in a café, you have no worries about thieves stealing your data. And you don’t have to worry about how to dispose of it at the end of its life. Theoretically, hackers will be able to decrypt your data, but (as long as you’ve long a secure password) it will take decades of computing time to do so. By the time they’ve cracked it, the data will be worthless.

As for the reliability of external drives, yes it is slightly worrying and they ought to make them more reliable, but at least you already have a “backup” of your backups: the live hard drive inside your PC! Once you’ve discovered the external hard drive has broken down, get a new one and back up your data immediately.

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“As for the reliability of external drives, yes it is slightly worrying and they ought to make them more reliable, but at least you already have a “backup” of your backups: the live hard drive inside your PC!”

But people don’t. They buy a big external drive because the internal one is full up and use it as primary storage. Then big tears when it goes wrong. Or if they just accidentally delete something.

Ian says:
22 July 2013

Damaged or destroyed hard drives are still electronic devices, and have to be disposed of according to electrical recycling rules. Any electronics retailer is obliged to accept domestic electronics and recycle it appropriately. Personally I dismantle drives and scratch the surface of the disc(s) with a sharp tool, then put all the bits into the electronics bin at a recycling centre. I defy anyone to get one of those working again, even though I know it’s possible. PS: I really like the idea of using a shotgun, as it would ease the sense of frustration caused by having to buy and set up a new drive!

Gary says:
22 July 2013

“The results make for shocking reading.”

So do the criticisms added by your readers in the comments.

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I don’t see this as a problem if you have one or more up-to-date backups. The chance of two hard drives failing at one time is negligible.

I have had one LaCie external hard drive and one iMac internal hard drive fail, both at work. I have never had an external or internal hard drive fail on my own home computers but am careful about backups because I have seen the hassles that others have had when they have lost their files and have had no backup.

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You should never ever even dream of depending on it. If you’ve only one copy of your data it may as well not exist. I do IT support. All too often people turn up with a failed disk. Where is the backup, the other copy, we ask. Of course it doesn’t exist – they wouldn’t be in our office in a blind panic if it did – and frighteningly many people think that saving something to an external disk *is* backing it up. And don’t get me started those with their life’s work on a broken USB key.

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Nick,if saving something to an external hard disk is NOT backing up, what is your recommendation for domestic backing up?

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Use two external hard disks and set things up so that one incrementally copies the other every day; or use a cloud service if you trust the CIA with your data. My point is that many people think saving the *only* copy of their data to a single external hard disk is somehow “backing it up.”

DavidMc says:
26 July 2013

I would love to learn a bit more about data recovery services. I lost a hard drive with lots of pictures, and feel stupid that it wasn’t backed up adequately.
I went to a computer repar shop who managed to recover some (but not all).
So I looked for phorensic recovery, and these services started at £500.
Are there cheaper services around right now? A comparison would be a really great bit of information.

There must almost be no-one unaffected by this kind of failure now, since hard drives fail, and almost everyone has laptops/PCs etc. One would think that the range of recovery options were increasing, and that they are becoming cheaper as a result.

Gerard Phelan says:
10 August 2013

You will not find cheaper recovery services DavidMc because the cost is going mostly on wages fro time spent. IF the drive is mechanically OK and the problem is file corruption, then the free to £50 tools available to the Computer repair shop will recover the data.

IF you were the victim of a virus that deliberately did nasty things to the file, then that would need lots of hours spent by an expert working out what happened and possibly need the creation of a one-off program to recover you data.

IF the drive itself is mechanically failing, such as the bearings or motor or head actuator are out of specification – or dead, then again you need the expert to spend many hours, possibly transferring the metal platters containing your data to another similar drive and doing whatever is necessary to make it work for an hour or so to suck out your data.

It is 1000% easier, cheaper and faster for you to either buy 1 or two external hard drives and run a backup program every day or two – OR subscribe to a Cloud backup service and let the Internet take the strain. THIS is your source of an ‘increasing range of recovery options”.

Ian McQuillan says:
11 August 2013

Back up your most important data to more than one device obviously and for me install Hard Disk Sentinel from Janos Mather. It is not free soft but worth every penny and monitors hard disk health so accurately a failure can be predicted, so no loss of data should happen.

I suppose throwing one out of the window would preclude this but for desktop PC’s where shock/impact while the drive is running a failure is unlikely to happen unless warning signs are ignored.

I have no affiliation with the makers of the software and do not receive any recompense for my positive recommendation of it today.

I am currently monitoring six internal hard drives 1 SSD, 2 SATA III and 3 SCSI drives and the temperature of each drive is visible on my desktop.

If any of the drive SMART reporting show any serious failures beyond the parameters set a notification will appear on the screen.

Detailed SMART information on each disk can also be viewed and testing is available and remapping.

Worth a free download to try and evaluate if you are that concerned, also it’s a lifetime subscription!

Updates when a new version is available, if you buy it a code is given for you to reinstall it on perhaps a newer machine at some later date.

I have personally tested many friends/families drives with this software when they have problems with there computer and replaced there hard drive before it failed.

In my own experience I had not realized how hot your hard drives can get in summer especially in a machine with 8 cores,2 graphics cards and SCSI Cheetahs running at 15.5000 rpm, so for critical monitoring and peace of mind after finding it by accident I purchased it.

I had opened the machine up to add more memory this was in summer and touched one of the drives, it was scorching so I added 2 more fans and cured the problem.

Hope this help to someone!


Dave Penk says:
12 August 2013

“I “format’ them with a 12-bore shotgun.” – Americans lol

Timmy says:
13 August 2013

Do the americans say bore? I thought they used gage as there shotgun measurement, while bore was a British thing. Confirming that when blasted with a 12 bore, things cease to exist.

Gavin McCabe says:
12 August 2013

I E-Mail my pictures etc, to myself, that way if my hard drive gets corrupted, my pictures etc are at my E-Mail address, failing that print them all out and use a filing cabinet, fire-proofed & water proofed in a lead lined bunker that can withstand nuclear fall out, and is in a sterile atmosphere. Failing that, keep your fingers crossed.

Gerard Phelan says:
17 August 2013

My PCs hard disc like the PC itself is 10 years old. My first line of backup is regular runs of the error checking utility to update the ‘bad block’ list. All important files, such as photos. are stored on a network drive. That in turn is regularly backed up to two separate drives, one of which is portable and stored in a different physical location.

The strict answer to the question is that I AM depending on my hard disc, because if that fails than my PC is out of action and whilst I have a laptop as backup and can access all my data, it does not have licensed copies of all my software! That however is not easily soluble, with software licences being tied to machines not users.

Harry B says:
19 August 2013

Apple don’t make hard drives. They sell hard drives made by people like Seagate and Toshiba.

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As you say, Apple don’t make hard drives. Their external hard drives and computers contain ones made by other companies. Perhaps Toshiba computers contain Toshiba hard drives, but most computer manufacturers don’t make their own hard drives.

It is up to the manufacturer to provide equipment that is reasonably durable, whichever company supplies the components. As a long-standing user of Apple computers, I have seen various recall programmes, often covering products that can be identified as at risk of failure from their serial number.

In the mid 90s the university department I worked in bought about 15 desktop Macs with Sony hard drives. There was a problem. Nearly all the drives failed in the first couple of years, and were replaced without charge when they failed. Apple and other companies had problems with Sony laptop batteries in the last ten years. Apple ran a replacement programme for these batteries and I expect that other companies did the same, because of cases of overheating. At least on Dell laptop caught fire.

Nokia did an enormous recall of phone batteries a few years ago and provided me and millions of others with a free replacement.