Hard drive/storage malfunction is one of the more common computer problems. When it happens, it can be one of the most frustrating experiences, not only because of data loss, but because the whole system can stop working if the boot drive is compromised.
Drives can suffer from a variety of issues such as mechanical breakdowns when firmware and controller boards stop working, as well as filesystem structure corruption if input/ouput problems cause an improper write event to the drive. The system is constantly writing and reading from the drive by moving files around, editing them, and tracking changes in the journal. This high level of activity increases the potential of problems and failure for drives.
There are a variety of safeguards against hardware failures and filesystem corruption, including S.M.A.R.T. diagnostics and filesystem journaling, but even with these options it is still advisable to have a robust drive utility handy to ensure the storage system for your computer is healthy. Apple includes Disk Utility, which is a good start and will help people in most cases, but there are also a variety of third-party options. These include task-specific utilities like S.M.A.R.T. reporters that cover more S.M.A.R.T. features than Apple's Disk Utility (see this recent Mac OSX Hints article for proof of concept) as well as defragmentation tools. There are complete drive management utilities like TechTool Pro, Disk Tools Pro, and Drive Genius, which are all credible and recommended options.
Drive Genius 3 is the latest of the utility suites from Prosoft Engineering, and is considered one of the best drive utilities for the Mac. A single license for personal use costs $99, with a professional license allowing for use on customer- and company-owned drives costing $249. A demo version is available for download for those who wish to try the software out.
What it will do
Drive Genius is an all-in-one utility for diagnosing and fixing errors with your hard drive or other storage media. It will fix corrupt filesystem structure (the HFS+ database files used for tracking data on the drive), scan the media for bad blocks, perform testing, and perform benchmarking on the drive. In addition, it will help you optimize your drive by defragmenting it, removing duplicate and unused files, and continually monitoring the media for any issues that may crop up in the future.
Beyond tasks that will directly diagnose or solve problems, Drive Genius has options to help you manage your drives by repartitioning, volume cloning, and options for initializing and shredding files so you can be sure no data is recoverable when erasing your drive.
What it won't do
While Drive Genius can help fix a variety of problems, there are some tasks it will not do. It will not fix hardware errors. If your drive is failing its S.M.A.R.T. reporting, or is making odd sounds and is not responding (usually coupled with system hangs and crashes), then using a software-based utility will not help. For Drive Genius to perform its tasks, the drive's hardware needs to be running properly.
Drive Genius will also not recover any lost or inadvertently deleted files. There are numerous recovery utilities for this, including Prosoft's Data Rescue utility, which will scan media for evidence of missing files and present you with options to recover them But Drive Genius will not do this.
Drive Genius will not double the speed of your system. If an error is causing your system to lag, then fixing that error may return your speed to normal; however, beyond some small temporary benefits from tasks such as defragmentation, you will not notice any appreciable speed increase by having Drive Genius installed. The only real speed benefit is that running the program regularly will mean you can maintain the current speed of your system by tackling errors sooner rather than later.
As with most drive utility software programs, Drive Genius has a simple interface that is essentially a menu of the available tools. The tools are presented in a semicircular arrangement, with the most common or useful ones presented first, and the rest available if you click the "next" arrow. The interface is animated, so when you mouse-over the tools, they will zoom toward you. This is purely for aesthetic reasons and I found it makes the program a bit harder to use, so I turned it off in the program's preferences.
Beyond the tool layout, the program's window is resizable to a point, though, it does maintain a set aspect ratio so you cannot stretch it along the bottom of your screen or otherwise fit it into odd places. Granted this is trivial, but it seems odd that this restriction is imposed.
Each tool in Drive Genius has its own options, which you set up before clicking the "Start" button, but there are a couple of global settings that are convenient. Along with the option for turning off the animated interface is an e-mail notification setting, which can be exceptionally useful. Some of the tasks in Drive Genius can take a long time to complete and it is recommended you do not use your system during many of them for best results. Therefore, having a notification system can be exceptionally useful. This is a global option and is either on or off, so you cannot apply it selectively to only the routines that tend to take the longest; however, you can easily switch it on at any time in the preferences, even when a routine is running.
A hidden option in Drive Genius 3 are the "Expert Preferences," which can be turned on by holding the Option and Control keys when choosing the program's preferences. These options enable the program to access system files in some of its tools, and allow for orphaned file search when running the "Drive Slim" utility. No major new features are enabled by turning on the expert preferences.
The tools included in Drive Genius are mostly all you will need to address problems on your drive. The only difference between this and other programs like TechTool Pro and Disk Tools Pro is in the programming, and whether the tool can overcome specific corruption issues. They all perform very similar tasks, though some software packages may have more emphasis on some routines than others. For instance, DiskWarrior is best for directory rebuilding, but not for endurance-testing the drive or benchmarking its performance.
When a tool is selected in Drive Genius, you will see the available drives and filesystem appear on the left-hand side of the window, with indicators as to whether the task can be run on them. If a red stop sign with an exclamation point is presented, then the selected task cannot be run on that filesystem.
The defragmentation utility in Drive Genius will automatically load the fragmentation status of a selected drive and will present the drive's contents in a map showing areas of fragmented files, used files, free space, and reserved space that cannot be defragmented (usually system files). You can also show the list of fragmented files, and sort them by the number of fragments, which can be convenient if you just wish to delete large ones such as movie files or disk images, which might be best stored elsewhere. When viewing in a per-file basis, you can double-click a file to show its location in the Finder. This allows you to easily remove it if it's not needed.
Applications and installation packages may show up as being highly fragmented; however, this may be because a file within the package is corrupted. To see all individual files in packages in file-view mode, you can click the option to show package contents. Unfortunately there is no option to view package contents as a subset of the package itself, so the many files in a package end up being scattered in the list of files instead of being grouped together.
While Drive Genius will allow you to analyze the fragmentation status of your boot drive, it will not allow you to perform an optimization (even a limited one) when you are currently booted off it. You will therefore need to boot off a secondary drive to do this, which can be done by making a clone, creating a diagnostics drive or partition, or by booting off the Drive Genius DVD and running the program from there.
OS X actively defragments files that are less than 20MB in size, but will not do this for larger files. Over time, file fragmentation will occur and if it gets too extensive, then drive access times may suffer.
Repartitioning a drive in Drive Genius offers a new view to managing partitions than Apple's Disk Utility, but performs the same functions. The tool allows you to select a drive and change its partition numbers and sizes, but in addition it allows for a few new options. You can hide partitions so they will not mount directly, and you can rearrange the partitions on a drive. In addition, there is an option for applying a custom icon to the drive (Drive Genius links to iconizer as a source for icons).
In comparison to Disk Utility, the repartitioning tool is a bit limited in that it will not allow you to repartition a drive that contains the start-up volume. Technically, it is is safest to repartition the start-up volume when booted to another device, but having the option is a perk for Disk Utility.
Overall, the repartitioning tool has some uses, but does not offer much over Disk Utility. Nevertheless, it is an option that will work. While repartitioning is used more as a one-time setup option, it will rewrite the partition tables so if you are having trouble with volumes mounting on your system, you can try slightly modifying the partition sizes to see if a partition table refresh will help. Be sure to fully back up the drive's data (on all partitions) before doing this, if possible.
This tool scans the whole drive surface and reallocates any bad blocks that are found. While this is done by the drive dynamically during normal use, the remapping of blocks can cause pauses during use. If clusters of bad blocks are found, or if bad blocks start appearing everywhere, then you may have a hardware problem that will need to be addressed, so scanning for the bad blocks periodically can help determine this.
If there are times when your computer seems to really slow down when loading certain files or programs (sometimes resulting in program crashes), then bad blocks may be to blame and one recommendation is to first try duplicating the files so they will be moved to new sectors on the disk, and if that helps, then run a tool for scanning bad blocks. Apple's Disk Utility will only manage bad blocks when you erase the drive and write to zeros, but Drive Genius's block scanning utility will keep data intact.
If you have a new drive you are installing on a system, one method of breaking it in is to perform an extended scan on it so the system reads and writes to each block on the drive, verifying that it is fully accessible. This will take some time, but will help ensure the drive is fully functional from the start.
This tool verifies and repairs the volume structure similarly to how Disk Utility fixes volume problems. In addition, it has a "Rebuild" function for recreating the Catalog B-Tree on the drive, which is the file that contains information on where files are stored. Similar to Disk Utility, this tool also has options for repairing permissions and verifying preference files.
If you are having problems with drives not mounting quickly, or if access times for all files are relatively slow, or if the drive is showing free space but the system is presenting out of space errors when you write to the drive, then you may have problems with the filesystem catalog files and may likely benefit from running a repair routine on the drive.
BenchTest and Integrity Test
Drive Genius has a couple of drive performance evaluation routines, which can be useful to see if a drive is performing under par but also to get an expectation of how the drive actually performs on your system, despite advertised data rates. The bench test runs a series of random reads and writes of various file sizes to the drive, and compares the data transfer rate to that of other drives in a small database. If your exact system is not in the database, just use one that is similar. This tool is useful for getting a baseline performance evaluation of your drive, which you can use in the future to check changes in the drive's performance (expect some variation over time).
In addition to BenchTest, Drive Genius has an Integrity Test tool, which is essentially an endurance test for the drive. You select options such as the file size and reading or writing routine type (random or sustained), and then set a time frame to run the routine (between 1 minute and 1 day). The test will then continually write or read from the drive and plot the access times, showing the average, maximum, and minimum times in various colors. Sometimes a failing drive will perform well at first, but on sustained reads or long-term access its performance will suffer, and this will uncover those and similar situations.
DriveSlim and Shred
This tool's name sounds like it will change the size of the drive, but in reality it frees up space on the drive by locating large files, removing caches and temporary files, finding duplicate files, orphaned files, and numerous others that may be using up space on the disk. The tool has a decent amount of customization for setting the selection criteria, so you can really narrow down the list of files.
I personally enjoy more graphical approaches to finding large files on disk, such as the options provided by Daisy Disk, WhatSize, and Grand Perspective, but listing files can also have its perks. Graphical approaches are best for large files, but lists are the only way to see unused or temporary files that may be relatively small in size but scattered all over the disk.
In addition to managing files on a one-by-one basis with DriveSlim, Drive Genius offers a "Shred" utility for permanently erasing files either by erasing the whole volume or by choosing a specific file or folder to erase. The default erasing routine is a 3-pass random erase, but the utility has options for 1-pass, 7-pass, and 35-pass for the ultraparanoids out there. Apple's Disk Utility will erase free space or the whole drive with these multiple-pass options, and in order to do this on individual files you will need to use the Finder's "Secure Erase" option, which performs a 7-pass erase on individual files and folders.
This tool does not offer much more over Disk Utility or the Finder's options, besides the 3-pass erase option.
Having used several cloning utilities such as Carbon Copy Cloner and SuperDuper, my expectations are a bit high for drive cloning features. Disk Utility has a "restore" feature that does an OK job when it works, but many times will fail with an error. I cannot recommend it as a robust or reliably cloning option. Drive Genius's options are a bit limited in comparison to some dedicated cloning utilities, but will perform a cloning routine quite well.
Drive Genius will perform block-level cloning, which at times may be preferable to file-level cloning; however, the tool does not have an option for file-level cloning at all, which is a disappointment. Despite this, it does have an option to clone on either a volume-level or device-level, so you can duplicate mountable filesystem or even those that are not compatible with OS X. These clones can be directed to a physical device, or to a disk image, which can later be restored to a hard drive.
The interface for this tool could be more intuitive for a cloning utility, but overall works like the other tools in Drive Genius (source drive on the left, and options for running the tool on the right).
Despite its benefits, this cloning tool is missing an option that I have come to expect in robust cloning tools, which is the ability to synchronize an existing clone instead of creating a new one each time the routine is run. Granted, this cannot be done with block-level cloning routines that Drive Genius uses, but file-level cloning is a useful option in this regard and it would be nice to see it implemented in future versions of the program.
Beyond those listed, Drive Genius has options to quickly initialize a drive (though this can be done in the Finder or in Disk Utility), and an information tool that shows numerous statistics and drive setup information both on the disk level as well as the volume and partition level. This information will not be useful for the average user, but if you are experiencing problems and need to communicate some details about your drive to a technician, then this information may come in handy.
The final tool in Drive Genius is the sector editor, which allows you to edit the raw data stored on the drive. If you do not know what you are doing with this tool, then leave it alone. It takes understanding of raw data presented in hexadecimal format, and slight modifications can result in data or drive corruption. Sector editing can be done on the drive level, the volume level, or on a per-file basis; the last option being very handy for extracting data from files that otherwise will not open.
Drive Genius 3 comes with one more feature, which is Drive Pulse. This is a continuous monitoring utility that runs a system menu extra and lists the mounted filesystems along with the status of each (fragmentation, consistency check, and S.M.A.R.T. status). This feature seems very promising; however, after having the feature installed for numerous weeks, so far I have not seen it list any status besides "Pending" for any device. The tool is supposed to continually perform these checks in the background, so perhaps the "Pending" status means these are running and if errors occur then the status will change; however, Drive Genius has found fragmentation problems on my computer's drive and the Drive Pulse feature has not changed or presented any status updates.
Thoughts and insights
Whenever I look at system utilities, the key question is if it will work. Interface designers and artists can make a program look pretty and appealing, but if it will not fix errors or even detect them, then the utility is not worth the drive space it's using. Luckily, Drive Genius does not fit in this category, and it works quite well at many tasks. In running the program I've had a few observations that stand out.
It works with disk images
Many of the tools allow for interaction with disk image files, which is a major plus. Many programs and files these days are distributed on disk images, which can sometime suffer similar volume corruption as physical hard drives. If you mount the disk image, it can be run in a variety of Drive Genius's tools, but in addition a few, such as the cloning tool, can clone to a disk image as well as to another device.
Some tools could be combined
Drive Genius has a nice array of tools, but some of them could be lumped together. The Initialize, Shred, and Repartition tools could all be in one tool, and the BenchTest and Integrity Check tools also perform very similar functions. Having them separate is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes finding some functions a bit cumbersome.
Limited function on the boot volume
While Drive Genius has a number of repair routines, many will not run on the boot drive when there is room for them to do so. Repartitioning and defragmenting and cloning the boot volume can be done, but Drive Genius requires you to boot to a different volume. The program does include a boot DVD for running these routines; however, that can be cumbersome. While it is understandable that a full defragmentation or filesystem repair cannot be done on a boot volume, a limited defragmentation of non-system files certainly can, and would be beneficial to many people.
System slowdowns during routines
While it is expected for the system to at times pause or lag during drive testing and repair, Drive Genius can cause the whole system to lock up without indication that the task is still running. The program does give advanced warning that this may happen, but similar routines in other utilities do not result in this behavior. It also would be beneficial if Drive Genius kept a warning on the screen to remind the user that an extended hang is to be expected.
Updating problems and limitations?
Finally, updating the program caused a hiccup. The install disc contains version 3.0.0 of the program, but when updating to the recently released version 3.0.2, the updater downloaded the file but could not apply it because of an error stating "Hash failed: the file may be corrupt or invalid." Re-downloading the update resulted in the same error, so I had to manually download the update from the Drive Genius Web site.
Even with the program updated, there still remains one problem: replacing the boot DVD with the updated version. Granted, most updates just fix small interface problems or features like Drive Pulse, but if a major bug in a cleaning or repair routine is found and fixed, then the update should also be applied to the DVD. Prosoft Engineering does provide a $5 option for downloading a boot DVD image that contains the latest versions of the software. Another option is to install OS X to an external drive and run the latest version of Drive Genius from there.
Finally, while Drive Genius is a great suite, drive problems tend to happen more on older systems, and the software is only compatible with Intel Macs. There are older versions of Drive Genius that run on PowerPC systems, but many people still run PowerPC based computers. Luckily, you can still repair drives in PowerPC systems by attaching them to an Intel Mac via FireWire Target Disk Mode. This will require you to have access to two systems.