Ensure your drive lasts longer by following our health regimen
magine what would happen if your hard drive failed. It's a sobering thought, especially when you consider just how important to your computing life the drive is. It doesn't just contain Windows XP and all your system and program files, which can, after all, be replaced from their original discs; it also hosts all your personal files and documents too, most of which cannot be replaced.
Did you know a hard drive's average life is three to five years? That means you're sitting on a time-bomb, which is why if you still haven't implemented a back-up plan, check our Features section to rectify the situation immediately. Thankfully, you can monitor - and even improve - the health of your hard drive, ensuring it lives longer and that you're not caught short as it approaches the end of its life.
The annotation below reveals how a hard drive is put together. The drive's moving parts work at incredible speeds writing and reading data to and from the drive, and so will eventually wear out. When that starts to happen the only warning you might get - if you're lucky - is that the drive may start to make funny noises. If this happens failure could be weeks, days or even seconds away. If your data isn't backed up, you may be forced to pay a data recovery specialist like Ontrack hundreds or even thousands of pounds to recover it. The importance of keeping an eye on your hard drive's condition cannot - therefore - be overstated.
Are there any tools out there that can safely test my drive for evidence of failure or physical damage?
Yes. Many hard drive manufacturers - including both Seagate and Western Digital provide free tools that you can download and install on floppy disk or CD. By booting from the floppy or CD you've created, a diagnostics tool will safely check your hard drive to check its physical condition.
If your hard drive manufacturer doesn't provide such a tool, you can download a free version of Data Advisor from Ontrack (click here), which works in the same way.
The time to download and install these tools is now - while your drive is still working. If you suspect your drive is failing, you should create them on another PC and run them immediately.
Annotation: A hard drive exposed
This part of the hard drive is normally sealed shut with a cover to protect it from damage - even a single grain of dust could destroy it completely.
Data is stored on both sides of an aluminium or glass disk that is coated with magnetic material and then polished to mirror-type smoothness.
C. DRIVE MOTOR
The drive's platters are spun by a motor at incredible speeds to enable super-fast access and data of the transfer stored on them.
D. DRIVE ARM
The arm contains the read/write heads that enables the drive to function. These can move into the centre and out to the edge of the spinning platter up to 50 times a second.
E. MULTIPLE PLATTERS
To increase a drive's capacity, drives can contain more than one platter and each arm has two read/write heads per platter, enabling it to read data from both sides.
F. DRIVE CONTROLLER
The electronic circuitry found on the underside of a hard drive makes up its drive controller, which serves as an interface between the computer and the data on the drive.
Look after your drive
There are two ways in which you maintain your hard drive: the first is to look after the files and folders that are on it. If files aren't saved properly - for example, a program or Windows XP itself crashes while the file is being saved - then corruption can occur, which might have long-term consequences for the rest of your files if not rectified.
The easiest way to fix this problem is to make sure your hard drive is formatted using the NTFS file system. The key advantages of NTFS for your files is that if your PC crashes, the NTFS file system is capable of automatically fixing problems with files that arise from those crashes. It's also capable of detecting and isolating bad sectors on your hard drive automatically.
To find out if your drive is using NTFS, open a My Computer window and highlight the hard drive icon. Look in the Task pane under Details, and you'll see which file system your drive is currently using. If it's FAT32 you can convert it to NTFS without losing any data - see here for details.
Although NTFS drives perform automatic checks on your files and hard drive, it still pays to use Windows XP's Error Checking tool periodically to just make sure everything's running smoothly. The step-by-step guide below reveals how this - and other - tools work to keep your drive healthy.
Defragment your drive
As files and copied to and deleted from your hard drive, a process called fragmentation starts to affect performance and - especially if you're running FAT32 - stability. Large files find themselves scattered all over the drive, and the hard drive has to work harder to locate all the different fragments. Excessive fragmentation can lead to prolonged bouts of "thrashing", a term used to describe your drive when it's forced to go searching all over your drive looking for the files it needs, resulting in slow performance, a wildly flashing hard drive light and extra stress on the drive components.
Thankfully you can reverse the effects of fragmentation with Windows XP's aptly titled Disk Defragmenter tool. You'll see the effects on a badly fragmented drive instantly, so get in the habit of running the tool every month or so to keep your hard drive in tip-top condition. Alternatively, use a free tool like Smart Defrag (click here), which can do the job automatically for you.
Another way to reduce the load on your hard drive is to remove redundant files and programs, freeing up more hard drive space in the process. You'll find the Disk Cleanup tool on the General tab of your hard drive's Properties dialog; launch Add or Remove Programs from the Control Panel. Defragment your drive immediately after cleaning it to gain maximum benefit from the freed up space.
If you want a quick at-a-glance status at the condition of the files on your hard drive, take a trip into the Disk Management Console. To do so, click Start, right-click My Computer and select Manage. Choose Disk Management under Storage and you'll see a graphical representation of your drives appear.
In the vast majority of cases, the drives should be described as "Healthy", meaning they are all functioning correctly. Other statuses may indicate problems with the file system (but not necessarily the drive itself). Find out more about the different status levels and what they mean by choosing Actions > Help. Most people will be using basic disks as opposed to dynamic disks, so the key statuses to consider are "Healthy" and "Unknown".
Give your drive a physical
You've discovered how to keep the files on your hard drive in good working order, which does have benefits for the drive's physical condition, and this neatly leads us into looking at the second way in which you need to look after your hard drive.
The task of monitoring your drive's physical status is helped by the fact that the vast majority of hard drives feature SMART technology. This consists of a series of tests that are continuously carried out to measure the drive's performance, condition and even its temperature.
Some PCs are able to monitor your hard drive's SMART information when you first boot up, giving you advance notice of possible failure before the hard drive has been accessed. Sadly, few systems support this - you'll see a status screen flash before Windows XP loads if your PC does.
Thankfully, you can check your hard drive's SMART status with the help of a free tool within Windows XP itself. Download and install the Standard version of HD Sentinel from here - it'll rate all of the drives (internal and external) out of 100 and alert you to any possible problems or imminent failure.
Because hard drives are full of moving parts, manufacturers have gone to great lengths to improve their robustness, especially in laptops where the drive may be buffeted around on occasion. One such example of this is Hitachi's drop-sensor technology (which it calls Extra Sensory Protection, or ESP), which is being pioneered in its new micro 1.8-inch hard drives. When the drive senses it's falling, it immediately parks the drive heads away from the drive platters to prevent them damaging the disk surface on contact.
Check your hard drive's health
1. SET UP A DISK CHECK
Open My Computer, right-click your hard drive and choose Properties. Switch to the Tools tab and click Check Now. Tick both boxes to allow Windows to try and fix any problems it finds and then click Start. If prompted click Yes to schedule the check for the next reboot.
2. RESTART YOUR PC
When you next restart your PC you should see the above screen appear telling you that the process is underway; when it's finished your PC will reboot and you'll be returned to the desktop, your hard drive checked and fixed of any file-based errors.
3. CHECK DRIVE'S HEALTH
Download, unzip and install HD Sentinel from here - choose the Standard version after clicking Agree. After installation, the program will run and give you an immediate overview of the health of your hard drives. If any show signs of wear and tear, take steps to back up the data on them immediately.
4. DEFRAG YOUR DRIVE
If you're running Windows XP and the drive checks out, run Disk Defragmenter by launching it from the Tools tab of the drive properties dialog (see step one). Click Analyze and - if recommended - Defragment to let XP reorganise your drive to improve performance. Both Vista and Windows 7 run the Disk Defragmenter automatically, so don't need configuring.
Keep it cool
One of the biggest threats to a hard drive's wellbeing is its temperature. The inside of your case can soon heat up, and your hard drive may suffer, especially if it's housed in cramped conditions. Laptop hard drives are more tolerant of heat than their desktop cousins, but even here you can damage the drive by letting it run at too high a temperature over a sustained period of time.
An overheated hard drive is usually caused by lack of ventilation. Maybe the fans in your case aren't powerful enough, or the case's vents are clogged with dust, trapping heat inside. With your PC powered down, carefully open one side of the case and examine its contents. If there's an excessive amount of dust, use a soft brush to carefully remove it - concentrate on removing dust from vents, fans and around the drive itself.
You might also find that your hard drive's position in the case is causing it to heat up, especially if it's placed right next to other drives - if there's space to spare, try moving it to a different bay to increase the airflow between the drives.
If moving the drive is out of the question, you should invest in some specially designed cooling equipment for your hard drive. The cheaper options cost around £5-10 - Amazon stocks the Akasa AK-HD-BL for just £4.95 - click here for details and to order. See the step-by-step guide below for instructions on fitting it.
HD Sentinel displays each drive's temperature prominently on its main screen. Consider 50 degrees an uncomfortable maximum for your desktop drive, or 60 degrees if you have a laptop - anything from 35 to 45 degrees is a more sustainable figure.
Eventually, even the most trusted hard drive will fail. Many fail before their time, and while you can easily replace a hard drive under warranty you can't replicate your precious files and data so easily. This is why you should have a back-up plan in place.
Ideally you'll already use a back-up tool that automatically updates your backups on a regular basis. This backup will be stored in a separate location, whether that's on a second hard drive or removable disc like CD, DVD or flash drive. Again, check out the Features section for a complete guide to backing up if you haven't yet got a back-up plan in place.
If you don't regularly back up your data, then the moment HD Sentinel warns you that your drive is close to failing, buy a replacement and immediately copy all of your personal files to it following our guide here. If you don't, you'll only have yourself to blame when disaster strikes and you discover the true cost of your lost data.
Fit a new drive cooling device to your PC
1. REMOVE YOUR HARD DRIVE
Switch off your PC and earth yourself before removing the case. Carefully disconnect the wires connected to your overheating drive, remove the screws holding it in place and gently slide it out of the case.
2. FIT THE COOLING FAN
Place the hard drive on a soft surface, and turn it over so its base - the bit with the electronics - is visible. Fix the HDD cooling fans in place over the bottom of the drive as shown in the photo above, then screw it into position.
3. REPLACE THE DRIVE
Place the drive back inside the case - you should only need an additional 20mm of clearance beneath it. Screw it back into position then reattach the cables, remembering to plug in the fan's power supply to a spare power cable too.
4. COOL YOUR LAPTOP
If you want to cool your laptop's components - including its drive - invest in a special laptop cooler, a flat device that sits underneath your laptop and which plugs into a spare USB port. The advert below gives you a choice of products to choose from - if you have a 17-inch widescreen laptop, make sure you select a product that will fit your laptop,such as the Zalman NC2000B, which Amazon sells here.