March 30, 2009

Big Hard Drives = Big Failure Rates? How Safe Is Your Data?

Consider this post as a public service announcement.  I've recently been shopping online for a nice big capacity external hard drive, as well as a larger capacity notebook drive.  Over the years, I've seen the major hard drive manufacturers go through major problems with quality control and drive failure issues.  So naturally I headed on over to Amazon and Newegg to check out the feedback on various drives.  It's good to know which zone they're in at the moment before buying.

Since my last 3.5" drive was a Seagate that has performed exceptionally well in one of my desktops, I checked the Seagate drives first.  However, after reading about their failure rates in both their external FreeAgent series as well as the internal drive models, I would recommend staying away from them for some time, especially in the 1 - 1.5TB range, and even their previously acclaimed Barracuda series.  I also read some negative feedback on their 500GB notebook drives - that users have experienced serious performance issues with audio or video media stuttering while trying to play back from these hard drives.

I thought I'd share my online findings as a "Buyer Beware" post, based on the following numerous sources:

Slashdot:

Newegg User 1-Egg Reviews:

Amazon User 1-Star Reviews:

In my book, when the 1-star reviews (the worst rating) constitute the first or second highest category of customer feedback for each drive on multiple sites, this indicates a serious problem, which is backed up by the Slashdot articles and postings above.

You see, a number of the 3.5" Seagate drives were/are affected by a firmware issue that makes the drives inaccessible after a very short period of use.  While Seagate has issued firmware updates, the feedback from users on their effectiveness is not encouraging at all.  In fact, it's downright miserable out there, and I wouldn't be surprised in the least to hear of a class action in Seagate's near future.  [3.31.09 - I figured I wasn't the only one, see this law firm's site.]

Supposedly the data stored on the drive is still intact, it's just rendered inaccessible.  Gee, just what I want to experience with a brand new drive!  Others reported the dreaded "click of death" within just days or weeks of use - a sound that usually signals drive failure is imminent.  So while Seagate's firmware recommendations page states this "affects a small number" of drives, it would seem that the above Slashdot and negative user feedback pages provide more insight into the scope of the problem(s).

So until we hear of users being more successful with a firmware update, it's probably best to steer clear of those drives for a while.  Even if Seagate should release an effective firmware update, the average purchaser probably won't know which dealer stock has the fix, and which ones won't.  To have to flash a hard drive right out of the packaging is ludicrous, and who would feel safe trusting their data in this context?  Our data is worth far, far more than the drives themselves.  As I said, I've had good luck with Seagate drives previously, so it's a shame to hear all the negative feedback with their latest drives.  I sincerely hope they're able to turn things around for everyone's sake.

Seagate Not Alone:

That's not to say that Western Digital doesn't have its issues as well.  A number of their 3.5" large capacity external "My Book" drive models have received significant negative or mixed feedback online as well, which makes me question why we're seeing such poor or mixed reliability in the 1TB and 1.5TB drive range.  Technical issues?  Cost-cutting?  Quality control issues?  Bueller?  Bueller?

For a nice in-depth review of several external 1TB drives, see the following at Tom's Hardware:

"External Storage: Terabyte Drives Compared"

WD Scorpios in the Notebook Spotlight:

Moving on to notebook drives, the bright spot seems to be the Western Digital Scorpio Blue and Black 2.5" SATA drives, which have received very good feedback on the above sites.  FYI, WD's marketing folks made it very easy to understand the product line:  the Scorpio "Blue" notebook drives run at 5400 rpm, while the "Black" drives run at the faster 7200 rpm speed.

The difference is that currently, WD offers a 500GB notebook drive in the Blue series, while the faster Black series maxes out at 320GB, forcing one to choose between larger storage and faster performance.  However, looking at the in-depth performance testing over at Tom's Hardware, it appears that the 500GB Scorpio Blue drive provides a very nice balance of high capacity notebook storage, better performance than smaller capacity drives from even a year or two ago, and reasonable power consumption.  Because the Scorpio Blue 500GB drive has received overwhelmingly good feedback at several major sites (Amazon, Newegg, Tom's Hardware), this is the one I've selected for a swap for my laptop's 200GB drive.  I want a bit more room for my many projects, photos, and other media, without sacrificing battery life, and its user reviews are overwhelmingly very positive.

SimpleTech to be Acquired by Hitachi:

It was recently announced that SimpleTech (by Fabrik) is being acquired by Hitachi Global Storage Technologies.  While SimpleTech's base-level offerings have never appealed to me,  I was very much intrigued by their Pro Drive external hard drive line, particularly the 1TB and 1.5TB models with the quad interface (USB, FireWire 400, FireWire 800, and eSata).  That's when I saw the acquisition announcement.

I'm informed from both their sales and tech support departments that while their previous Pro Drive external hard drive products were multi-sourced with drives from several different drive manufacturers, their newly manufactured Pro Drives will contain Hitachi drives only.  No surprise there, given the acquisition.  So far the limited online feedback I've seen on the 1TB Hitachi drive appears to be fairly good in balance, although I've never tried a Hitachi drive yet myself.  But given the mixed feedback on both Seagate and Western Digital 3.5" external drives, it's enough to make me consider SimpleTech's Pro Drive line instead.  It's certainly more versatile in the connection department, and it received a good recommendation in the Tom's Hardware article listed above.

Another option is to roll your own external drive, by buying the drive you prefer along with an external drive enclosure.  Just make sure that the enclosure is rated for the drive.  Because of power and potential chipset limitations, though, many enclosures are not rated for these big capacity drives, which is why it's nice to buy a ready-made external drive in the first place.

[Update 3.31.09:  I should also note the external V2 ABSplus USB 2.0 & eSATA drives offered by CMS Products.  Their bundled backup software, BounceBack Ultimate, has some interesting features, including full drive restoration including partition formatting, continuous data protection, versioning, synchronization, and support for backing up open files.

It also backs up your files in their native format on the drive.  Native file format is nice for the fact that you can simply copy the backed up files from the external drive to another drive without having to first install or use the proprietary backup software on another PC.  You can also use the BounceBack software to restore them too, it's your choice.  The trade-off with native file storage is that you lose some of the space savings that comes from backing up in a compressed format, but I really like that you aren't handcuffed to the backup software to restore it.

By the way, CMS Products is based in California (est. 1983), their sales and tech support people both answered the phone quickly, and were very helpful and pleasant in answering all my questions.  It was soooo nice not having to deal with outsourced tech support, so score one for a domestic tech company with great customer service.

I'm informed that while their external 1TB V2 ABSplus drives were using drives from Western Digital and Hitachi, their 1.5TB drive was indeed the exact same model number as the Seagate Barracuda drive I listed as the third one under the Newegg heading above.  Thus I shared with them my concern over the Seagate drives at the present time.

Notably, their 1TB drive recently won the top "Best Buy" category in PC World's "Top Ten External Hard Drives" list.  Unlike most other 1TB external drives that have a plastic enclosure, this drive comes in an aluminum case - which makes it far more durable and protected, and the metal case also serves to dissipate heat.  I also like that it has a power switch on the back, something most consumer brand external drives lack these days.  So I ordered a 1TB V2 ABSplus unit, and am looking forward to putting it through its paces.]

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets
Posted by Jeff Beard