Hard Drive Health: A Prescription For Nursing One Of Your Computer’s Most Important Parts

A few centuries ago, what machines there were most people could readily understand and often fix on their own. These days, though, machines like our computers and their hard drives are so complicated, and yet so user-friendly, that while most of us can use them not so many of us fully understand them.

laptop computer

Image via Pexels

Is there a machine more important than your computer? You use it for work; for entertainment; for communication. When you need to know the location of the nearest pizza joint, where to get your phone screen replaced, or how to unclog a drain, your computer (granted an internet connection) can give you access to all this information instantly.

The good news is that you can understand your computer better and get more out of it, and that starts by learning about its most crucial part: the hard drive.

What Is It?

stack of computer hard drives

Image via Pixabay

When you think about “a computer,” you probably picture the entire thing in your mind. In reality, you could say that the hard drive is your computer. It’s certainly the heart and soul of the device. It stores all the information, allows your device to connect to things, allows you to communicate with it, and drives all the processes your computer performs.

Hard Drive History

vintage ibm computer

Vintage IBM computer. Image by Mat Bergman, CC by 2.0, via Flickr

The early computers didn’t have drives. All the information they needed to use or directions for how to run a process were stored on punch cards or rolls of magnetic tape.

If you’ve ever seen a cassette tape that plays audio, you have an idea of what these computer data systems looked like. They were clunky and unwieldy.

They were so clunky, in fact, that people said nonsense like this about the future of computers:

“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”

Popular Mechanics, 1949

Image via Pixabay

The Drive Revolution

Hard drives changed all this. The first drives were enormous, but they presented a huge change over the old magnetic tape: they could store information in bytes, and you could write over them!

If you’re not sure what a byte is and why it matters to computers, here’s a clear six-minute explanation:

This meant that instead of making a new punch card or recording more magnetic tape for everything, you could just use the same drive space over and over again. The first hard drive was about the size of a small room, but things got smaller quickly.

Modern Drives

open computer hard drive

Image via Pixabay

Today’s most common drives are about the size and shape of a small book, though they weigh more. These fit into a computer case and connect to the rest of the computer with a series of interfaces.

Inside, there are tracks on platters. These platters rotate, a bit like an old-fashioned record, and information gets stored in the grooves in a similar way. A small actuator arm reads the spinning disk and accesses the information. These have been the standard for years.

record player stylus

Image via Pixabay

The newest types of drives are even smaller and don’t spin at all, like the ones on your smartphone. We’ll take a look at the different types of modern drives in a bit. For now, it’s important to understand what the hard drive does, exactly. What’s its purpose?

What Does It Do?

Lots of things! The hard drive is what makes every computer task possible. Here are some of its jobs:

Hold the Operating System

The operating system is the software that lets you run applications on your computer, whether that’s an app that generates cat memes, a word processing program, or sophisticated photo editing software.

Your computer is like someone from another country you need to communicate with in order to accomplish tasks. The operating system is like a language translation program that connects you to all the computer parts and lets you work together effectively.

Storage Space

Once you’ve made your cat memes, you need a place to put them. The drive comes with empty space which you can fill with data. That data is saved unless you overwrite it, and you can access it at any time.

Connections

Your hard drive is made to connect to the hardware in various ways. These connections will affect how fast the drive is, what kinds of hardware it’s compatible with, and whether or not you can upgrade it to add more storage space.

Hard Drive Features

Speed

The speed of your drive is really important. This tells you how quickly you can read or write data to it. The speed depends on the type of connection it has to the rest of the computer. Speed also depends a bit on size.

Space

Space is pretty key: the more space (all other things being equal), the more cat memes you can save and the faster your computer will access them and send them to your best friend.

Durability

The hard drive needs to be able to handle some abuse (not deliberate of course). You have to be able to use your drive in all kinds of environments, including places where they will be exposed to a lot of heat and humidity. Hard drives in laptops or tablets have to be able to take some bumps. Really advanced drives are also hacking-resistant.

Formatting

disk management

Image via screenshot

You can format a drive so that it works with a particular operating system. Once you buy a hard drive, you can normally change the formatting, but most come pre-formatted to work with a particular operating system. It’s usually smart to get one already set to work with the OS you have.

Types Of Drives

Solid State Hard Drive (SDD)

Hard Disk Drive

(HDD)

Performance

15X faster than HDD

Reliability

Failure rate 0.5%

Failure rate 2%

Data Access

20ms request time return

400-500ms request time return

Price

$$$

$

The Hard Disk Drive, or HDD, has been the standard for hard drives for a few decades now and can still be found in many computers: even advanced ones. The newest type, known as the Solid State Drive, or SSD, is superior: however, it is significantly more expensive.

If you’ve ever wondered why your smartphone is so expensive (a brand new smartphone can easily cost more than a new low-end laptop) the SSD is a big part of that. SSD tech makes mobile devices possible; but in computers, where space is not such an issue, the HDD is still a viable option.

As SSD technology improves, costs are falling. Here’s what you need to know about each:

HDD

server room

Image via Pixabay

An HDD uses a magnetic disk, as described above, and works like a record player. It has moving parts and has to spin in order to be read. The speed of an HDD is expressed in terms of how fast it spins.

HDD tech is fairly old, which means an HDD is much cheaper than an SSD drive. This becomes especially significant when talking about building enormous servers and databanks, so HDDs are still widely used for these purposes.

HDDs are slower than SSDs in part because the drive head has to find the area of the disk it needs to access before reading or writing data. The disk spins and the arm aligns with the correct spot, which takes a moment.

Today’s CPUs are extremely fast. The CPU is effectively the brain your hard drive doing the calculations that allow the drive to work.

Since an HDD has to move, it can never match the incredible speeds of developing CPUs. CPUs can do things in nanoseconds; HDDs can only do things in milliseconds.

SSD

There aren’t any moving parts in these drives, so they can come closer to matching the incredible speeds of modern CPUs. SSDs store information on transistors in the form of electrons that are either charged or not charged.

By changing the charge, the SSD’s semiconductors are able to access information at lightning speed. They also expend less energy while doing so, generating less heat in the process, and they almost never wear out.

The primary downside to SSDs is the expense, but that is slowly changing. For now, large servers are still going to use HDDs; but in a few more years SSDs will probably become standard. For the average computer user, getting an SSD will increase the price of a computer by a couple hundred dollars.

For a step-by-set visual of how each type of drive works, and the differences between them, this three-minute video will give you the lowdown.

Parts Of A Hard Drive

HDD

SDD

labeled exploded anatomy of an sdd

Image: Jules

How To Back Up Your Drive

computer backup

Image via Pixabay

The info on your computer is essential. If you’re not backing it up, you’re risking a lot of heartache (and possibly a lot of expense) if the drive fails, you get a virus, or a power outage wipes you out.

You need to back up your computer both locally and remotely. A local backup will protect you from a drive failure, sure: but it won’t help if your computer is stolen or melts in a fire.

computer connections

321 rule for computer backups

Back Up a PC

There are plenty of options for getting a copy of your PC’s drive stored in the cloud, and at various price points. Take a look at Google’s Backup and Sync, Microsoft’s OneDrive, iDrive, and Acronis True Image. Look into each to decide what’s best for your cloud needs

You should also have your own local backup of your PC’s hard drive. We’ve provided step-by-step instructions for Windows 10:

Open File History

file history

Image via screen capture

Add a Drive

You’ll see a + next to the Add a Drive option. Click this and choose the external drive you’ve chosen. File History will now update your data to the external drive.

Choose Automatic

If you want to make sure you never lose your data, slide the “Automatically back up my files” bar to On. As long as your external drive is hooked up, File History will by default make a new backup every hour.

Choose a Time Frame

backup history

Image via screen capture

By clicking the More Options link in Backup, you can choose to have the computer backup your files less often or more often. You can also choose how long the backups remain. In most cases, you’ll want to choose the option to keep files Until Space is Needed. For more details, check out this five-minute video:

Back Up a Mac

As with PCs, you can back up your Mac to the cloud using a variety of paid services, like Apple’s own iCloud, Carbonite, iDrive, or Backblaze.

You should have your own local backup of your Mac, though. Here’s how to do it:

computer monitor

Image via Pixabay

Plug in An External Drive

With Mac, you should do this first. If the drive hasn’t been formatted to work with Mac, you’ll need to do that with Disk Utility (read on to learn about formatting for PC and Mac). Make sure it’s formatted to Mac OS Extended (Journaled) for any Macs before High Sierra, and APFS for anything using High Sierra.

Once you pull in a properly formatted drive, the computer should automatically ask if you want to use Time Machine. Click “Use as Backup Disk,” and the app will open.

Access Time Machine

This is Apple’s own backup software, and if it doesn’t open automatically, you can find it in System Preferences. Once it’s open, choose the disk you want to put your backup on.

Decide on Encryption

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Time Machine gives you the option to encrypt your files. If you choose this, no one will be able to read your external drive except you. However, it will take a lot longer to make your backup, and you’ll need your password to access it.

Choose a Time Frame

As with Window’s File History, you can choose how often you want Time Machine to backup files. Once the main backup is done, it won’t take long to do future backups as Time Machine will only rewrite files that have changed since the last time.

How To Format Your Drive

disk partition

Image via screen capture


This is a basic maintenance task everyone should be able to do. You might need to format a drive before you use it the first time, wipe an old drive clean to start over and get rid of viruses or software errors or switch a drive from one computer to another. 

Always backup your files before you format a drive. Formatting erases everything, and you have spent a lot of time collecting those cat memes!

Format Using a PC

  1. In the search box, type “Control Panel”
  2. Click “Control Panel” when it pops up
  3. Click “Administrative Tools”
  4. Click “Computer Management”
  5. Click “Disk Management”
  6. Right click on the drive you want to format
  7. Click “Format”
  8. Set the type of file system you want to use
  9. Click “Ok”

Format Using a Mac

  1. Go to Spotlight Search and type “disk utility”
  2. In the left sidebar, click on the drive you want to format
  3. Choose the “Erase” option
  4. Disk Utility will choose the format automatically or choose another from format types
  5. Give the drive a name
  6. Click “Security Options:
  7. Move slider to desired balance between Fastest and Most Secure
  8. Click “Erase” 

Choosing a Format Type

mac format

Image via screen capture

APFS

This is Apple’s newest file system. It works very well and is easily encrypted, but it cannot be read by a PC or Linux machine or by any Mac without the High Sierra operating system.

MacOS Extended (Journaled)

The previous default Mac system, this is a stable system that you can encrypt. Windows computers can read this system but cannot write to it.

MS-DOS FAT (FAT32)
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This is an older Microsoft file system and can’t do files over 4GB in size. It also can’t be secured and is rather susceptible to errors. However, any computer and read and write to this file system, so if you’re sharing something with a Mac or Linux user, this might be a good choice.

ExFAT

Just like the above, but it can store larger files.

NTFS

Not to be confused with NSFW memes, this is the current default Window’s file system. As with MacOS Extended, only a Windows computer can both read and write this. Macs can only read them.

How To Defragment A Drive

What Is Defragmenting?

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In the old days of hard drives, they would get slower and slower as time went on. The drive would write information on itself and end up sticking files in weird places, resulting in tiny “holes” too small for a file but still taking up space in storage.

Defragmenting is basically forcing your hard drive to maximize space use. Once you do it, your computer will usually run more quickly.

What Not to Do

woman holding up her hand

Image via Pexels

If you have an SSD, don’t defragment it. These drives don’t need it like the old HDD drives did and you can actually ruin them with a defrag program. You also don’t need to worry about defragging a modern Mac. Apple ships their Macs with software that defrags the drive automatically as you work.

Defrag Windows

You can get all kinds of defragging software for older versions of Windows, but if you’re running any of the newer versions, Microsoft has provided defragmentation software for you. Just enter “defrag” into the search bar and select Defragment and Optimize Drives. Then select the drive you want to work on and click Optimize.

How To Replace A Drive

computer technician

Image via Freepik

Replacing your computer hard drive is useful, but it is easy to mess up if you don’t know what you’re doing. You might need to replace your drive if it’s too old, if you need more space, or if you’ve gotten viruses or malware you can’t get rid of.

Most of us should be hiring a professional to do a drive replacement; but if you’re determined to do it yourself, here’s a step-by-step guide for replacing a hard drive on a PC.

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If you want to try it on your Macbook, here’s a thorough rundown on how to do it. 

How To Clean A Hard Drive

When we speak of “cleaning” a drive, we’re not talking about opening up the case and vacuuming it out (though if you live in a dusty climate, you might want to take it in to be cleaned once in a while). We’re talking about cleaning up your hard disk to keep it running quickly and smoothly.

A cleanup deletes temporary files that are taking up unnecessary space, shuts down processes that aren’t actually needed at the moment, frees up space, gets rid of log files you don’t need, and identifies non-critical files you might want to get rid of.

Cleaning a PC

Microsoft has made this pretty easy in Windows 10. Here’s how to do it:

  1. In the search bar, type Disk Cleanup and select it from results
  2. Choose the drive to clean and select OK
  3. When prompted, choose the File to Delete that you want to get rid of
  4. Click OK
  5. Choose Clean Up System Files
  6. Select the files you want to clean up
  7. Click OK

Cleaning a Mac

    1. In Spotlight, type Disk Utility
    2. Choose the drive you want to clean from the left sidebar
    3. From the choices at the top, select First Aid
    4. The software will automatically look for errors and fix the

    Other Things to Know

    Your Mac is pretty efficient at keeping itself clean and organized, but you can do a lot with CleanMyMac 3 and Gemini. CleanMyMac will help you find old and large files you don’t need. Gemini will help you identify duplicate files and get rid of them. 

    How To Partition A Drive

    If you’ve just installed a new drive, you must partition it. This just refers to separating the space on the hard drive for whatever reason. You might do this because you want to create multiple operating systems to boot up or to use a partition after reformatting the hard drive.

    As with formatting, always back up your drive before you partition.

    Partitioning in Windows

    hard disk drive inside with free and data diagram 3d render

    Image: TDHster

    1. In the search bar, type Disk Management and choose it from the options
    2. Look for a pop-up message instructing you to Initialize Disk
    3. Choose the partition style you want (GPT for 2TB or larger and MBR for less than 2TB)
    4. Click OK
    5. Choose the hard drive you want to partition and click on it
    6. Choose New Simple Volume
    7. Look for the New Simple Volume Wizard and click Next
    8. Choose Primary Partition (unless you are making five or more on one drive: if so, choose Extended Partition)
    9. Choose Next
    10. Choose a volume size and click Next
    11. Choose a letter or path for the drive and click Next
    12. Choose the format you want and click Next
    13. Verify your choices and choose Finish

    Partitioning in Mac Mojave or High Sierra

    mac hard drive partitioning

    Image via screen capture

    These computers don’t need to partition: you can simply create a new volume.

    1. In Spotlight, type Disk Utility and choose it
    2. Click on the disk you want to partition
    3. Click the + button above Volume
    4. Name your volume
    5. Set a storage limit is desired
    6. Click Add

    Partitioning Older Macs or Fusion Drives

    1. In Spotlight, type Disk Utility and choose it
    2. Select the drive to be partitioned
    3. Choose the Partition tab under the toolbar
    4. Click the + button below Partition Layout
    5. Choose the size you want
    6. Give your partition a name and choose Mac OS X Extended (Journaled) format
    7. Click Apply

    How To Recover Your Drive

    Few things fill the modern person with cold-sweat panic as easily as a hard drive crash. With the prospect of losing all your work/family pictures/cat memes staring you in the face, here’s what you need to know about recovering your data.

    Recovering a PC

    ​Try the BIOS Utility

    Sometimes a key file has a glitch, and your PC doesn’t boot up: but it’s not actually dead, and the information is all still there. Here’s what to try to see if that’s the case:

    1. Connect a USB Windows Installer media disk to the PC and press F12 to choose it as the boot disk
    2. Click Repair your computer when Windows Recovery starts up
    3. Click Troubleshoot and then choose Automatic Repair
    4. When repair has finished, reboot

    Try Making the Drive External

    You might be able to get the info from your dead drive by connecting it to another Windows computer.

    To do that, you’ll need to use a SATA to USB converter or a hard drive enclosure. You may have a drive that’s not SATA compatible, in which case you’ll need a compatible disk enclosure to make the connection. You can see more about how to do this here.

    Once you’ve connected your hard drive, open Disk Management and see if the system recognizes your drive. If it doesn’t, double check all the connections and try again. Assign the drive a letter name and click OK. Use data recovery software to get the file you need and then try formatting the drive to make it useful again.

    Recovering a Mac

    Of course, we all hope you’ve backed up your files and don’t actually need to recover data from a dead drive. But just in case you didn’t, here’s what to do with a Mac.

    Try Repairing the Disk

    Sometimes in life, we get very lucky. If today is your lucky day, you’ll be able to repair the disk:

    1. Open in recovery mode by holding down Command + R as you restart your Mac
    2. Release the keys when you see the Apple logo or globe
    3. In recovery mode, choose Disk Utility
    4. Click on the disk in question
    5. Click First Aid
    6. If repairs are successful, reboot the computer and get your files off, pronto
    tiny figures working on computer hard drive

    Image via Pixabay

    Try Taking it to Apple

    The bitter truth is that most of the recovery tools you might splash out your hard earned cash on are not any more effective on an HDD than Mac’s own disk utility; and if you have an SSD, they will be totally ineffective.

    If you really need the data on there, then take our advice and seek out the wise ones.

    How To Erase A Hard Drive

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    If you’re ready to pass off your computer to someone else, or even throw it away, you need to make sure you’ve thoroughly erased the hard drive. Otherwise, someone is going to find out about all those cat memes.

    If you just want to make some room, it’s simple to do a quick erase of your drive or a file. In this guide, we’re assuming you want to make sure not even the NSA can find your data. Don’t forget to back up anything files you want before you nuke it.

    Wiping a PC

    Just partitioning, erasing, or reformatting a disk does not guarantee your data is completely gone. To do it thoroughly, you’ll need special software and a couple of hours. The process will depend on the software you choose.

    Choose your data destruction software program and follow the instructions. We recommend DBAN as a great free choice for HDD drives. For SSD, we recommend Eraser.

    Wiping a Mac

    Mac has its own software for secure erasures, and that’s very cool. If you have an HDD, here’s what to do:

    1. Turn on Mac while holding down Command + R
    2. Release keys when the Apple logo or globe appear
    3. Choose Disk Utility
    4. Choose the disk to be erased
    5. Click Erase
    6. Choose your Security Options
    7. Click OK
    8. Click Erase

    To really, definitely, totally, completely, erase everything, choose the Most Secure option. This erases the info and then writes 0s all over the disk seven times. It takes a while, but the end result conforms to Department of Defense 5220.22-M specs for security.

    warning

    CAVEAT

    If you have an SSD drive, you can’t erase it with the super-secure 0 method. Now Apple says that’s all fine; that SSD drives are secure with just a standard erasure.

    If you are a cynical person, you might doubt this (full disclosure: we are such persons). Attempting your own full erasure is At Your Own Risk, but if you’re interested check out this tutorial: 

    Hard Drive Maintenance

    Everything runs better if you take good care of it. Here are a few tips for keeping your drive in good shape:

    Keep the Operating System Updated

    A surprising number of people neglect this, but regular updates protect you from HD failure and virus and malware vulnerabilities. They also ensure you can keep using the newest programs and software.

    Get Rid of What You Don’t Use

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    Holding on to large files and programs you don’t need will task your drive unnecessarily. Uninstall any programs you aren’t using and be sure to occasionally look for large files (often video) that you no longer need or which are duplicates.

    Don’t Trust Everyone

    hacker

    Image via Pixabay

    When you download software, make sure it’s safe. If you’re on a Mac, only get software from the App store or from well-known third-party sellers. Whatever type of computer you have, if you’re not familiar with the name of the software designer do a quick Google search.

    Type in the name of the software and the term “virus” or “malware” and see what pops up. If someone has had problems before, people will probably be talking about it online. Also, a word to the wise: many people advise avoiding apps from Chinese developers entirely.

    Shut it Down Occasionally

    Your computer wants to rest, too. Modern computers don’t need to be shut off as much as their older counterparts did and shutting them off all the time can be hard on the drive.

    But if you’re going to be away from your computer for a whole day or more, go ahead and shut it down. The full restart will sometimes clean things up and give your drive a chance to breathe.

    Protect it from Surges

    Power surges are one of the biggest hard drive killers. They can happen anywhere and anytime, and in the process, they can destroy your beloved electronics completely. Make sure you invest in a good surge protector, so you never lose your drive to an unexpected change in power.

    surge protector

    Image via Pixabay

    Troubleshooting Your Drive

    man fixing computer hard drive

    Image via Pixabay

    Every hard drive is slightly different, depending on the manufacturer. That said, the type of problem you’re experiencing can tell you something about the underlying cause.

    The Drive Is on the Fritz

    Any of these are signs that your computers hard drive is actually experiencing a significant problem. Try running a utility program to detect and fix errors:

    • Noises in the drive
    • Failure to read or write data correctly
    • A particularly file system constantly needs to be “repaired” when you run utility programs
    • Apps lock up for no reason you can identify
    • Boot drive won’t boot up
    • Drive ejects itself
    • Drive won’t mount
    • Drive seems to shut itself off
    • System doesn’t recognize the drive
    • Blue screen of death

    Software Bugs

    These symptoms are most usually caused by software issues or viruses rather than your hard drive:

    • Periodic delays in the system
    • “Stuttering” in your programs
    • Annoying pop-up ads
    • Spike in Internet traffic
    • Computer runs too warm
    • Browser errors
    • Computer runs slowly

    Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know for sure whether the problem is hardware or software related without a more in-depth check of the system. Using a utility program may flag up hardware or drive issues.

    If you’re desperate, re-installing the operating system on a wiped drive should fix all software issues. If you still have problems, the issue is likely with the hard drive.

    hard drive error data loss

    Image via Pixabay

    Don’t Wait!

    If you’re like most of us, your computer is essential to your life. You need it for work, for keeping up with family, and for a dozen little tasks each day that you don’t notice until your computer stops working.

    Keep up with hard drive maintenance and address problems as soon as they arise. Keep your hard drive backed up and upgrade every few years to make sure your hardware isn’t falling behind.

    If you do all this, you can be sure your hard drive will be there for you whenever you need it.

    Featured Image: CC0 via Pixabay

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    Paul

    Digital Poet at BurnWorld Inc.

    I am the Team Leader here at BurnWorld. I am an audio/video enthusiast and have been in this industry for over 10 years. I love testing DVD/Blu-Ray and Video software.


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