How Long Do Hard Drives Last

How Long Do Hard Drives Last

By Bob Rankin

Details regarding the life expectancy for a hard drive.–PC Pitstop

Hard Drive Life Expectancy (and the Right Question)

Whenever I am asked, “How long can I expect a hard drive to last?” I reply with, “How often do you back up your data?” This seeming non sequitur perplexes people, but I have found that the answer to my question is, almost invariably, the reason the first question is asked. The questioner is wondering how much longer he/she can get away with not backing up data.

Technobabble about MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure) in the 50,000 to 100,000 hour range is useless. Those hours are active hours during which the read/write head of the drive is moving. You have no way to monitor and record read/write head activity and you don’t want to be bothered doing so unless you’re a test engineer for a hard drive manufacturer.
Hard Drive Life Expectancy

Furthermore, MTBF measures mean (average) time before the hardware fails catastrophically, as in “won’t spin anymore.” That is the very last thing that will go wrong with a hard drive, akin to throwing a rod in your car’s engine. Long before the hardware fails catastrophically, you will be experiencing losses of data, and you might not even notice that it’s happening.

When data is written to a drive, the magnetic charge of tiny areas of the physical disk is altered. One magnetic state means “0” or zero, the other means “1” or one… or on/off, if you prefer. The patterns of this binary code store your data as a collection of magnetized spots in one state or the other. In order to make the disk reusable, the magnetic state of each spot on it must be changeable.

A lot of things can change that magnetic state beside the drive’s read/write head.

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Excerpt shared with permission from Bob Rankin.

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22 thoughts on “How Long Do Hard Drives Last”

  1. Backing up to the owner PC is not that safe. I thought it was a good idea. My laptop has 2 Western Union HDs & windows makes the back up or image to the ‘other’ drive. That was fine until I ran out of space on the main HD & began using the 2nd one. What then?

    I have always used the premium Seagate external HD full image back up software as an extra backup & used to also use Gentoo to a 3rd HD but that was until I got this 64bit laptop.

    Then I heard that the Seagate image backup was not all it is cracked up to be & is not a full image of the PC plus the Gentoo bootable disc that also created an image was only 32bit.

    So what now?? I have previously had a HD fail & was lucky I guess in transferring the data from it before total failure. I never totally lost my PC.

  2. I thought the MTBF was astronomic for SSDs, but my first one failed in less than 3 yrs. I use a combination of Western Digital magnetic drives along with SSDs and back up to each other. After the SSD crash coupled with years of other traditional failures I don't trust anything. Carbonite takes too long, so I prefer to back up internally.

  3. People need to adjust how they think about computer costs. A decent backup system is well worth the investment and should be a part of owning a computer, if you value your data. I recommend having at least 2 backups, and don't leave the backup drive(s) connected other than during backup. I'm a big fan of separate partitions for the operating system and data. I backup my operating system with an image, and simply copy/paste my data to a backup drive. Some people prefer file replication programs, personal preference. It takes minutes to reload an image, but can take months to get everything back the way you want it manually should your drive fail or become corrupted. It can take a bit longer to copy back your data, depending upon how much you have.

  4. Christopher Ryan Gehlke I know. I've been a system builder/repairer/networker/virus removalist/etc. for almost 20 years. I try not to get too technical as most people find it confusing. 😉

    1. Christopher Gehlke

      @David Wendorf: i work in IT myself. So i get all sorts of PC’s in to fix. I’ve seen from dead motherboards, to power supplies that caught fire, to HDD’s that have the click of death. Once i seen a PC that had a dead PSU, dead motherboard , dead video card, dead sound card, dead ram, both HDD’s were dead to, the PSU looked like it had been BBQ’q.. Needless to say the PSU died first, sending tons of overvoltage to every component in the PC. It was a TOTAL loss. Even the DVDRW was burnt. The HDD’s couldnt be recovered without changing the PCB (which requires the exact firmware from the old PCB). He lost data (he was a lawyer) But he let a kid build the system. (he used a cheap PSU.. something you NEVER do when building a system for a business). So yeah…I’ve seen it all. Even hard drivs that work fine for a bit then start choking on bad sectors (oh that lovely noise of static mixed with click click click click). So i tend to recommend BACK IT UP! or maybe even a RAID 1 setup, battery backup also is a nice investment.

  5. Christopher Ryan Gehlke

    David Wendorf Yep called Reallocated sectors (there is a spare area on all drives that get reallocated to when sectors start going bad). Those diag tools just read the S.M.A.R.T. area of the drive and just give you what it finds.some drives just die out of the blue without S.M.A.R.T. even showing they are dying.

  6. You got the best answer that you could get. There is absolutely no way to predict when a hard drive will fail. It could be days or decades. SSDs have a high failure rate, and totally random. Some die within a week of use, some are still performing well after several years. SSDs haven't been around long enough to know if the expected life for reads/writes is accurate – or total rubbish. Bottom line is that SSDs are no more trustworthy than mechanical drives, they just have no moving parts to fail. Manufacturers list "life expectancy" in their specs for each drive. Expectancy is not a guarantee, it's simply a marketing term based upon mathematical formulas.

  7. Identifying bad sectors is totally different from estimating when a drive will fail. Many new drives come with bad sectors. They may last for decades or days. There's many reasons hard drives fail, and no HD monitor tool can predict failures with any accuracy.

  8. I thought it was an interesting article, and one that most users can benefit from reading. My 6 yo hard drive just started having problems. I usually find and fix problems myself, and I assembled this one. I finally took it to a local computer shop and they immediately found the problem.

    I was luck in that I had backed up important info about 6 months ago. I replaced the 400GB with a 1TB. Works great. I also bought a Thermotake External HD Enclosure and an external WD 500GB My Passport. I’ve been able to access a lot of the date/programs in the HD and transfer them to the My Passport disc.

    So, the article, imo is quite interesting, and useful. By the way, both my computer servicemen said that insofar as they know no one really could predict how long a given HD would last, but that everyone should learn to back up their information, and also to look at possible hard drive malfunction if problems occur with it is over 4 years old.

  9. Amost every time I want to read… “Article Continued Here”, and then read it all over again. Why? Why not have the article all on the first page? I would just like to know as to the why,”Article Continued Here” is always at the mid of the page?

  10. Christopher Ryan Gehlke

    Evidently the person didn't get it. There is no set time on which a hard drive can fail. It can be a week, a month, a year, or 6 years down the line.. Its mechanical it doesn't have a set failure time. It's random. Just remember to ALWAYS back up your data, and ALWAYS back up your backup (there are other ways of backing up, USB drive, CD's, Ext. HDD, or even the cloud, Carbonite is one). SSD's are becoming more popular but i heard they do have limited read/writes as does all flash memory. Now it is getting better i agree. But just remember to treat your data as if you are going to lose it. Having 3 backups is better than 1 backup and that backup failing.

  11. Christopher Ryan Gehlke

    No one can actually give you a set lifeline on a hard drive's life. I have seen new hard drives last a couple months and then fail. Just like you buying a new car and driving it down the street and guess what, a week later it decides to throw a rod thru the engine, or the transmission slips a gear and fails. Hard drives have moving parts. You probably don't even know how close the read/write heads float above the surface of the media when it is powered up?. So close that if a strand of hair got in between the media and the heads that it would cause a catostrophic head crash therefore destroying your data. Some manufactures were to blame for HDDs being around the 15% failure rate area. (IBM and Maxtor to name a few). But even I've seen brand new drives out of the box that were bad right when we go to install them and run tests. (that is why the manufacturer provides utilities to check said drives). Some hdd's last a year, some last 5-6 years. I have a Seagate 1.5TB that has been thru 15 pc's 3 shipments back and fourth ( i sold it and then later on bought it back ) and 2 pc's that just fell over. To my luck it is still running 100% today. (its in a file server). That is why you should ALWAYS back up and ALWAYS treat your data as if it is VERY important. Who knows, you could have a power outage and that could take your server's hard drives with it. HDD's do have early warnings built into them (SMART for example). This monitoring software inside the drives' PCB monitors all the attributes of the drive and when they change, it can detect on how hard drive will fail or not, therefore giving the Motherboards controller a early warning sign to back up. But some drives don't fail like that. If you are going to come on here bitching about not getting a straight answer, then you are just wasting your time. Long story short- this guy cannot tell you exactly how long they last because with all mechanical devices they fail different ways.

  12. I have to agree with Steve Conklin. This article doesn’t give any useful info.

    I’ve seen some HDDs fail in less than a year, while others in the same product line have lasted over 10 years. When my customers ask me “what is the best brand of hard drive to buy?”, my answer is “The manufacturers have all been making drives for decades now, and they all know what they are doing. Which brand have you had the best luck with in the past?”

  13. Most replace there hard drives in 3 to 5 years due to the fact they by that time are larger and have changed… but its all down to use like yr tv or millage on a car… so avg 75,000 hours is a long time but still its down to use… Ive got a hdd that’s 10 years still goes but i would not trust it as had ones even die within months…

  14. You guys didnt read the article properly. Bob Rankin said “Those hours are active hours during which the read/write head of the drive is moving. You have no way to monitor and record read/write head activity…”
    So, unless a pc has a counter/timer showing the number of ACTIVE hours the hard drive has been in use, theres no way of telling in real-world time, how long a hard drive will last. Some people use their pc once a day, others use it 24/7, and there are those in between. So a hard drive owned by a once-a-day person can last umpteen number of years, maybe decades. The 24/7 hard drives might last just a few years. But even that isnt cut & dried. Ten hard drives of the same brand and model, made the same day, pushed out the door precisely the same minute and bought by 10 identical type of users in 10 different locations, can have totally different life-spans. One might last 1 day or 1 week or 1 month, the others maybe 1 or 5 or 10 years. Its just bad luck when some hard drives pack up in a short space of time.

  15. I agree with the other comments. We didn't get areal answer. You should also remember there are SSD's. what is the average for a drive that doesn't have any moving parts?

  16. I came to this article needing to know how long my server might last. It was produced for me in 2008. I back up my laptops to it with all my work. However, instead of being given facts, I have been read a sermon! First and last time I waste time clicking on a link from your emails!

  17. I think you may be reading more into that question than is required. When I have asked it I want to know roughly how long a hard drive will last in years on average. 2 years, 5 years, 20 years? Are they making them better now or worse? I have mqny hard drives, some going back over 20 years. I hate it when a writer fails to answer a simple question, you can leave all the other technical jargon in the answer, but come on give a simple answer too.

      1. Christopher Gehlke

        @David Zabriskie:

        There was a time when Seagate had major troubles with the 7200.11 and 7200.12 sets of hdd’s (mostly firmware). However i have a 5900 rpm version of their 1.5 tb model, and it has been through hell even in a PC that fell over twice and it is still working with NO problems whatsoever. However in my file server, in which it resides, there is a huge 120mm fan blowing on it. there is a lot of different things that can extend/ or shorten a life of a hdd.. I have had 2 of their hard drives that were the hybrid version.. and they both worked (one had bad sectors, i just rewrote zeros’ to it, and it sprung back to life). But your mileage may vary.. Sometimes manufacturers have a bad batch that gets sent out. Someone may have slipped on the Quality Assurance testing… SSD’s are the way to go because of reliability (no moving parts) but they are also expensive still (but getting better).

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