Why do hard drives die?

by Andy Turner
Coastal Computers & Design

Any computer component with moving parts inside has, by comparison with parts that don’t, an expected shorter lifespan and sometimes they fail sooner than expected.

I’ve already covered the typical reasons that power supplies fail early in this article, but here’s some information on another computer part that you might find interesting.

Hard drives are made up of two main moving parts – the motor/disk platters assembly and the read/write head assembly. Taking each in turn, the motor/disk assembly consists of a ‘micro motor’ that spins the disk platters in excess of 7000 rpm (faster than most car engines can achieve without self-destructing very quickly). This spinning motion begins as soon as the PC is turned on and continues until it as soon as it is switched off, so as you can see it is important that these parts are well made! The read/write head assembly consists of another small motor and actuator assembly that is manufactured to and operates at incredibly small tolerances – in the order of micrometres (millionths of a centimetre).

While hard drives are reasonably robust, it doesn’t take much to cause a failure. How? Several things can cause damage to drives to occur – namely: by being knocked or bumped while turned on, by running at excessive temperature or by being subjected to a power surge. Other than those events, sometimes drives fail for no apparent reason and because of this a regular backup strategy should be used to safeguard any valuable data stored on them.

What life expectancy can be we assume a hard drive to have? Modern thinking is 3-5 years. Many do go for much longer – I have some drives that are over 7 years old – BUT, they aren’t still in service. They still work but are stored away in antistatic bags just in case they are ever needed again if my other backups fail!

There has been a change to hard drive technology in the last 2-3 years and all new computers are sold with SATA hard drive. This stands for Serial ATA and refers to the method used to connect them to your computer’s motherboard. If you have a system that is older than that, then it will have a PATA or Parallel ATA drive installed in it. PATA drives are still available (but are becoming more expensive now as many more SATA models are sold of course), for how long I can’t say, but we expect for a couple of years yet.

If you have a computer that is around 2-5 years old that you intend to keep going and using for a few more years – I strongly suggest you invest in getting a replacement PATA hard drive fitted. You can keep your old one as a spare/backup. Prices are still fairly good – for example a 320Gb model is currently only around $130 and I consider it cheap insurance!

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