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Does Hard Drive Orientation Affect Its Lifespan?

Many cases allow you to mount drives in vertical or horizontal configurations and external drives can be easily repositioned. Does the orientation of the hard drive affect the performance and longevity of the drive?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-drive grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader Yoosiba wanted to know if hard drive orientation matters:

I’ve noticed on many small PC cases that the hard drives are installed vertically. In midi cases, towers and others of a larger housing, they are in the horizontal position.

What impact on a hard drive does a vertical position have? Does it affect the life? Is it more prone to errors?

(Not SSDs (solid-state drive), just plain hard drive with all its mechanical parts inside.)

What change in longevity, if any, does the orientation produce? Let’s dig into the responses to see.

The Answer

Several SuperUser contributors offered their input; Hyperslug writes:

According to several manufacturers, mounting a 3/5″ hard drive horizontally, vertically, or sideways doesn’t affect the hard drive life significantly.

These are statements taken from the hard drive literature at each manufacturer’s website; it’s four years old but things probably haven’t changed much.

Hitachi:

The drive will operate in all axes (6 directions). Performance and error rate will stay within specification limits if the drive is operated in the other orientations from which it was formatted.

Western Digital:

Physical mounting of the drive: WD drives will function normally whether they are mounted sideways or upside down (any X, Y, Z orientation).

Maxtor:

The hard drive can be mounted in any orientation.

Samsung:

As long as it is securely attached to the chassis, hard disk drives may be mounted either horizontally or vertically depending on how your computer’s case is constructed.

When asked if the drive could be mounted at askew angles, their official positions were:

Manufacturer  Contact method           Response  
-------       ---------------------    ---------------------
WD            Tech support, email      90 degrees. 
Hitachi       Hitachi documentation    90 degrees. 
Samsung       Tech support, phone      90 degrees. 
Fujitsu       Tech support, chat       90 degrees +-5. 
Seagate       Tech support, email      90 degrees preferred,
                                         but diagonal OK. 
Maxtor        Tech support, phone      90 degrees preferred, but in
                                         real world, whatever.

By 90 degrees, they mean vertical, horizontal, or sideways.

A Dwarf threw out a cooling consideration:

It shouldn’t matter which way you do it these days. But there’s one possible caveat of making it vertical:

Under situations where cooling is at premium and you don’t have the means to increase cooling of your system, mounting the disk horizontally with the label facing upwards could be seen as an advantage, since heat rises away from the disk surface more efficiently than if the disk was mounted vertically. But even so, any impact on performance or disk lifetime would only be noticeable in years to come. Just thought nevertheless to make this note.

Finally, Chris Nava notes that historically there was a precedent for maintaining the orientation the drive was formatted in:

At one time (long ago) manufactures advised against changing the orientation of a drive without reformatting it. This was due to the heads being affected by gravity and becoming misaligned with respect to the data. I have not seen such a notice in quite some time.

The bottom line: as long as the drive stays safely mounted in the case and properly cooled there is little concern for excessive wear.


Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 11/8/12

Comments (22)

  1. dima

    Interesting.

  2. infmom

    Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but I have had two hard drives fail and both of them were mounted vertically.

  3. Goldie01

    Ditto

    The only hard drive that has failed on me was a Seagate mounted vertically in an external enclosure.

  4. Colleen Northcutt

    Interesting topic! I would like to add that you’ll also need to have a basic maintenance like cleaning the hard drive because of the dust and others.

  5. Lee

    In cooling fans (case fans, CPU fans etc.) certain bearing types work better, and last longer than others, for specific purposes. i.e. sleeve bearings vs. ball bearings, etc.

    So, I would imagine bearing types matter in hard drives as well, depending on their orientation.

  6. RA

    I just had a hard drive in an old Dell Latitude die on me today, No big deal, I just put a sticky note on it and send it to IT.

  7. Joel

    I’m not too sure if this really answers the question. Sure, there’s no problem installing your hard drive vertically, but in the long run, will there be any effects in term of it’s life span?

    It’s like asking “Should I drop my phone on the ground?” Sure, there’s no problem doing that, your phone would usually survive the fall and still work normally. But would you do that continuously, and what are the possible long term effects?

  8. steve

    A couple of things to think about:
    1: the heads “fly” over the surface of the platter. or under. Mounting the drive vertically should cause it to be easier for the heads to do their flying, and hence, slightly less strain on the system.
    2: with the top heads flying, the bottom heads are going to have negative lift. If that is compensated for, and it would almost have to be, horizontal has a vote going for it.
    3: the arms move, effectively, side to side. That should mean that a vertical orientation, with the plug side either up or down, should cause less strain as well.

    Be interesting if Google, with their hundreds of thousands of drives, have thought about it.

  9. kelltic

    My hard drives are old. One I’ve had for 8 years, the other six. Both are mounted horizontally. I once had a WD external hard drive that sat vertically. It died after three years. And that, folks, is all I know on the subject.

  10. spike

    To the ones on here saying that they had vertically mounted drives fail; this can’t be considered proof (I know nobody is saying it is), but at this level of statistics, you would need hundreds or thousands of cases of failed drives, and details of how they were mounted, before it would enter the realm of ‘proof’. Personally, in the machines I support, I have only seen horizontal drives fail, but that’s mainly because 90% of the drives I have to do with are horizontal. It doesn’t mean anything.
    However, interesting topic.

  11. paulc

    Back in the dark ages….

    Manufactures always stated that mounting a drive was not an issue, but stated that once mounted and in for a certain time (no manufacturer would give a stated amount of time) that re-positioning the drive would be detrimental to the drive mechanisms.

  12. Riddle

    Well, I wanted to comment , but Joel already said it all !

  13. JVN

    ” the heads “fly” over the surface of the platter. or under. Mounting the drive vertically should cause it to be easier for the heads to do their flying, and hence, slightly less strain on the system”.

    No, the lift is caused by air pressure which is in turn caused by the very high speed off the platters. Gravity would be in the equation if you want to calculate this, but when you do you will see that the number is so small compared to the others that you can leave it out.

    “mounting the disk horizontally with the label facing upwards could be seen as an advantage, since heat rises away from the disk surface more efficiently than if the disk was mounted vertically”

    If this was true than I should turn my tower CPU cooler 90 degrees to make it more efficient. But off course it isn’t.
    Heat doesn’t “rise” away from a harddrive. Air that is flowing around “takes” from it and gets hotter. This depends on surface to air contact. The more surface and/or air(speed) the better. Orientation is not relevant.
    And why must the label be up? ( Readability for sure but thats not the issue here:) )

  14. john3347

    Since the mid 80s, I have experienced 2 harddrive failures while running up to 7 computers at any given time. During this time, I have had two harddrive failures. Both were Western Digital drives. One was under warranty and was replaced by the manufacturer, the other was a hand-me-down harddrive with an unknown history. Several of these computers have been laptops that traveled in my car and motorhome with me. This is to say that harddrives are built able to withstand moderate abuse.

    A poster in the main article suggests specifically to mount a harddrive flat with the label up to promote cooling. If cooling is, or were, a notable concern, one would not want insulation (the label) covering the top of the device. A typical harddrive certainly has some finite lifetime, but the typical lifetime far exceeds the useful lifetime of the computer. Orientation of the harddrive cannot be considered a realistic factor in computer life expectancy.

  15. williambaugh

    Hello, not sure if this helps.
    been in computers since late 70′s, still have 2 ibm 5170′s, radio shack tandy model 11, radio shack trs-80, a few no-name-brands from pawn shops, a hp 550w, dell 660s.
    except for the 660s, I have hard drives wired in through the case and hanging on a wall, been there for years and except for dusting now and then, they all still work just great.
    the model 11, runs window 3.1 with 2 floppy a 5.25″ and a 3.5″ and 4 hard drives the smallest being 125 mb, the largest being a 500 mb monster.
    the hp runs windows me with 3 gb internal and 500 gb western digital external.

    I do keep a fan (20″ box) blowing toward the wall when all the computers are on. :)

    I have never (yet) had a hard drive to fail on me or a crash for that matter.
    Thank you.
    very nice site here. :)

  16. Phil

    Off the shelf commercial laptop hard drives are in use every day aboard the International Space Station. Not for critical 1 applications like orientation, power generation, thrusters, etc. but on the laptop computers the astronauts use for their day-to-day activities including email, flight plans, tracking their location in space, collecting data from experiments, video conferencing, surfing the web (yes you can now do that from space), etc.

    In space they’ve got no convection (microgravity) so additional fans are added to the computers. In addition the RTC battery and normal battery are removed, and the power supply is replaced with a specialized power supply designed to work with the space station’s power supplies.

    So if a hard drive can operate in space – I’m pretty certain it can operate at any angle.

    Some tests with early laptops on the shuttle showed that the seek time was a little bit faster, possibly because the seek motors didn’t have to move as much weight.

    and then there’s the laptop which had an unplanned exposure to vacuum when it was in a module which an uncrewed Progress cargo craft crashed into. The computer was recovered and returned to Earth. Amazingly they were able to recover the data from the hard drive!

  17. Bernard

    In seventeen years I have only had one hard drive fail. That was horizontal.

  18. Don

    After reading all of the posts, I noticed that almost all of the failed hard drives are Western Digital and only one was a Seagate. In my experience the only hard drive failures I have had were Western Digitals too. I don’t think I’ll be buying WD’s any more.

    I lust thought I would share my observation with you

  19. Menace

    Up till now, ALL vertically mounted drives have crashed within the waranty period. I never had a drive crash of a horizontal mounted drive.

  20. Squarepants

    Only hard drive to fail on me…I dropped. I had it on top of the PC case connected with a USB cable trying to back up the vacation trips I had on it. I wasn’t finished. :-(
    I have seen “how-to’s” on taking them apart to try and fix the arm that has stopped moving but a little nervous of trashing it. Any idea’s or thoughts on doing a repair myself?

  21. ITFT.co.uk

    I have been in the IT industry for a long time and I’ve seen a lot of hard drives in my life -)

    My personal opinion that for a hard drive it wouldn’t make a lot of a difference if it’s mounted vertically or horizontally. In fact I have a hard drive (Samsung 1 Tb) which I was travelling with and carried it on the plane with me in the hand luggage, in a plastic case only. I’ve given it a lot of stress over time. And it has been always reliable and even now after so many years and almost 4000 hours of work it’s perfectly fine. A LOT depends on the MODEL, not even a certain MAKE, I’m sure every manufacturer made at least 1 model of a hard drive which will last for 10 years with no problem. I have quantum 2Gb HDD which still works, I’ve seen a 212 Mb HDD which has been running 24/7 since 1995 and it’s perfectly fine and it’s doing the job still as we speak -)

    Also I remember when I was a PC shop manager in 2004 and I had to deal with the RMA, During the 2 year time I’ve seen hundreds of different hard drives to fail, all of different manufacturers but one – SAMSUNG, just 2 of them failed.

    Conclusion

    The hard drive is a lottery, you get lucky and sometimes you have no luck!
    Personally I like Samsung Hard Drives, even though I had bad sectors with 1.5 Tb models (the Green ONE). My Personal opinion is – buy the hard drive with a maximum warranty available and stay away from the Green Ones no matter the manufacturer. 7200 RPM so far has been the most reliable models. Also when you buy a new HDD (any make) give it a good stress and download the SEATOOLS and run all the tests.

    Regarding the cooling – if you google a bit you can find an article when Google says that Forced HDD COOLING actually makes the hard drives FAIL more often – according to their own research… I know it’s hard to believe it, but who knows…

    May be it’s because of the Air Filter which is behind the little hole? AS if you constantly blow the air it will get blocked over time… Also the old hard drives (pre 2000 I think) didn’t have a hole at all, but it cost more to produce them.

    Paul
    ITFT Computers

    P.S. Very good site, love it!

  22. Erik

    Well, from my experience and what I’ve seen online, running optical drives vertically can lead to damaged discs. I realize hard drives are much different, but basically in both types of devices you have some sort of circular objects being spun extremely fast. If operated horizontally, the gravitational pull on the spinning force of the discs/platters is evenly spread. Vertically, however, would cause more pull on the upward spin. I’m sure some physicists could disprove my theory, but I think it makes sense. I’ve always run horizontally. My experience with hard drive failures is this: certain brands I know have been proven to produce far more faulty drives than others (I won’t mention names here – but any experienced tech will know what I mean). Get the drives with the longest warranties. Keep them cool in an environment which doesn’t experience extreme temperature changes (I’ve seen non-climate controlled warehouses wreak utter havoc on hard drives). Important: have fans blow air ACROSS the drive surface, not directly at the surface (as most forced HDD coolers do). Use good-quality power supplies. And most importantly, do not subject the drives to any sort of movement while in operation. Letting them fall off a table onto the floor is definitely not good either ;-)

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