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What kind of hard disk drive (HDD) is the best?

This is a little like asking what car  is the best. You may get the answer of Toyota from one person or a “minivan”  or “pickup” from another.   Sometimes it is best to understand what you are buying.   Most studies show that most hard drives have very good reliability.  At Absolute Computers, we do like Western Digital (WD) drives. In addition, they have a naming convention which is easy to understand.   and I will use them as part of my examples of what to consider when looking at hard drives. But almost all drives will give you good reliability when used appropriately.

A little history: Hard disk drives first were introduced in computers  by IBM in 1956. Most drives are now manufactured by Seagate, Toshiba and Western Digital.  All computers, be they from Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo or Toshiba will have their hard drives from one of the above three companies.  The hard drive industry represents about $35 billion of revenue worldwide per year spread across  these three companies.  The overall demand has been falling over the last couple of years as solid state drives are starting to replace mechanical hard drives in some applications.

First ,  there are two primary kinds of hard drives.  2.5″ drives are used in laptops and 3.5″ drives are used in desktops, servers and network attached storage.  The number refers to the diameter of the platter inside the hard drive.

Western Digital uses a color scheme to describe their families of drives which makes this discussion easier to understand.   The lowest cost WD drives are “Blue”.  They have decent reliability and are the most popular.  Next up in expense are the “Green” drives. Other companies may use terms like low energy usage or power efficient.  They are designed to  power down quickly when not needed.  In general, we would advise people to avoid these types of drives.  Many people are using their hard drives on occasion throughout the work day and the constant startup / spin down process seems to reduce the reliability of these drives.  In particular, they should never be used in any type of server application – some studies shown that 50% of these drives will die in less than six months!

A higher level of reliability for WD HDD’s are the “Black” family. These drives are used in many applications and just provide better reliability. We recommend these drives or their equivalent from other companies  for our customers.  Finally WD has a “Red” family of drives specifically for server applications.  These drives or their equivalent will have the highest reliability for server and desktop applications – consider it for your more critical applications.  The “Red” drives have enhanced bearings and other features that make them last longer.  However do not use “Red” / “server” HDD for an external portable hard drive.  These drives are designed not to spin down as soon as other drives and are more susceptible to being damaged if bumped or dropped.

We like Western Digitial and Toshiba drives.  Seagate drives in some studies show higher failure rates.  You may see other brand names, for example Hitachi’s 2.5″ hard drive business was sold  to Western Digital, while Hitachi’s 3.5″ hard drive business went to Toshiba.  Most drives will exhibit a failure rate of perhaps 1% per year of use.  However at a certain point, this starts to jump up as the drive approaches its end of life. Usually hard drives in desktops will  start to fail after about 8  years and almost all desktop drives will fail after 12 -14 years of use.  (Note that if the desktop was sitting in a closet for 5 years – that does not count toward its life).

We typically say that laptops will start to see failures of their hard drives after about 5 years and most laptop hard drives will fail after 10 years of use.  The reason is that laptops get bumped and that causes the hard drives to fail earlier than if the hard drive had been sitting in a desktop under your desk for the last ten years.

The main concern is that you need to be aware that hard drives do not like to be dropped.  There is more technology in laptops that “park the head” of the hard drive to allow the drive to survive drops better (actually surviving the sudden stop at the end of being dropped).  However dropping them can result in a catastrophic failure of the drive.

Drives can totally fail, usually when dropped but usually sectors will go bad due to age.  We can perform a test of your hard drive to determine if any sectors are starting to fail. If a sector is failing, we recommend replacing the drive because other sectors will sooner or latter also fail. A sector of a hard drive is exactly what it sounds like – just a portion of the overall drive.  Normally sectors that have been accessed the most will be the first to fail. Typically that is the operating system.  It is not uncommon when a person brings in a laptop that has stopped working to find that part of the operating system has “disappeared” because it was in a hard drive sector that had failed.  The good news about normal hard drive failures is that usually ones data is still good.  Your emails, presentations, music, family pictures are probably all still recoverable.

Modern SATA hard drives can contain between 320GB and 4000GB (4TB) of data.  Prices for drives that hold more data are a little more expensive that those that hold less but expect a 1000GB drive to be only 35% more expensive than a 320GB drive.  Drives offer different speeds.  One way to improve performance is to have the platter turn faster – you will see different numbers for RPM (revolutions per minute).  The other trick is to have some silicon memory in the hard drive to cache data to allow it to be accessed faster by the cpu once it has been read off the platter.  Most typical laptop users that are reading emails, surfing the web, etc probably do not need to pay much attach to “performance”.  But you do need to understand how large a drive you might need.  The operating system and typical software on a computer may use 40GB of hard drive space, the rest is used for storing user data.  Videos, music and pictures take up quite a bit of space while Word documents, spreadsheets and Quickbooks files are typically quite small.  We have seen some customers that use less than 80GBs of their hard drive while others use over 1TB for family photos.  It is always helpful to understand how much data you have currently on your computer’s hard drive.  When buying a new hard drive or new computer, consider buying a hard drive that is 2 ~ 3 times the size of the data/programs you have stored on your current computer to allow for future growth.

So to answer the question in the title:  We typically recommend Toshiba and Western Digital hard drives.  We usually stock mostly 320GB and 500GB  “Black” WD drives in our inventory for our typical customers.  But it is very much a question of how you plan to use your hard drive.  For example, our company has network attached storage which contains 3TB WD “Red” drives that we use to back up customer data in a RAID array.  Feel free to call or email us at Absolute Computers to better understand what might fit your needs the best.

Other topics for another day include:

How does one recover data from a failing hard drive  ?   Here is a link to what we offer: http://absoluteraleigh.com/services/data_recovery/

Do I want a Solid State Drive or a Hard Disk Drive?

How can I make my data safer from drive failure (or tell me about “that RAID stuff”)

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