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Buying a new hard drive? Expect it to die

The best way to treat a hard drive is as something that's built to fail.

When building a PC, people often ask me which brand of mechanical hard drive they should buy.

I tend to keep things pretty simple:

  1. It doesn't matter what brand
  2. Stay away from "green" drives, as the speed deficit isn't worth the energy saving at consumer scale
  3. Get the one with the largest warranty
  4. Expect it to fail.

The last point usually shocks. Am I recommending something that will die?

Well, yes. It's not that I want to; it's just that the odds are good that at some time in your tech life, you're going to suffer from a failed hard drive, more so than anything else in your system. It also has the biggest ramifications of any failure in your system. Documents gone. Photos lost forever. That epic video library, wasted away.

Saving yourself time and pain

Thinking about storage as something that's built to fail helps to reframe people's ideas about backup. Whether they get a NAS and some sync software, or even use something like Time Machine on OS X, if people expect their hard drive to fail at any time, they tend to be more careful with their data.

Heck, as much as it isn't backup, I'd settle for people thinking about RAID, if only for that tiny bit of extra data security.

You can tell those who don't have a backup plan; instead of realising it's their fault, they choose to rant, "I will never buy [brand] again!"

Admittedly, like all technology products, there have been some bad batches of hard drives. IBM's infamous DeskStar GXP problems caused enough of a reputation issue that users started calling its drives "Death Stars". Shortly after, IBM sold its hard-drive division to Hitachi, when it became a money-losing enterprise.

Western Digital green drives don't like playing in RAID. Seagate has released dodgy firmware that stopped a computer from detecting some models of its hard drives. You name the brand, and it's likely to have had a problem drive in its history.

Add to this Google's 2007 study on hard-drive life spans, which found that particular brands fail more often than others, but didn't release names. It also turned up a lot of other incredibly useful information, although more for the enterprise than for the home consumer.

Have a plan

Ultimately, though, the savvy user transcends the brand and model of their hard drive by making sure that their data is in more than one place at one time.

There are myriad storage services now that can help — DropBox, Box, Skydrive, et al. You could even image your hard drive regularly and in an automated fashion if you wanted to use something like Acronis True Image. After all, mechanical storage is cheap — you could always buy an external hard drive for the express purpose of backing up. Copy files, then leave it on the shelf.

That's where the biggest warranty comes into it; if your hard drive fails, and you have all of your data elsewhere ready to recover, at least you get a free replacement hard drive out of the equation.

Just a word of note: expect that one to fail, too.