When it comes to hard drives, everyone seems to have a horror story about one brand or another that failed them. But are some brands really more reliable than others?
Sort of…but there’s more to it than that.
The Best Brands, According to Backblaze
There’s no surefire way to avoid buying a hard drive that will fail, any more than there’s a surefire way to avoid buying another type of electronics component that will fail. We’re focusing on mechanical hard drives here, which have a spinning platter and a head that moves to magnetically read the platter. Those moving parts can fail, and some manufacturers may indeed design more reliable parts than others.
You never know when a hard drive will fail. All you can do is buy the type of drive least likely to fail and create good backups just in case it does.
Rather than rely on anecdotes and other one-off stories, it’s best to look at larger tests and see which drives are actually least likely to fail. Backblaze, an online backup company, uses consumer-grade drives in its data centers and publishes ongoing data about failure rates. We wish there were other studies to draw on, as we’re sure Backblaze’s data isn’t perfect, but we’re not aware of any other companies that have published so much data about which consumer drives fail in real usage. Keep in mind that this data shows these drives used in an enterprise data center. The same drives will likely last much longer in a desktop PC where they’re used less heavily.
In January, 2014, Backblaze examined failure rates among the 27,134 hard drives they were using at the time. Backblaze found that Hitachi drives had the lowest failure rate, Western Digital drives had the second lowest failure rate, and Seagate drives had the highest failure rate of the three brands tested.
However, everything is a tradeoff. “If the price were right, we would be buying nothing but Hitachi drives”, wrote Backblaze. But Seagate drives were Backblaze’s preferred brand due to their cheaper price, even at the cost of reliability. After all, if you have good backups, you can always restore any data from a dead drive.
Since then, BackBlaze has seen HGST drives become the most reliable, pulling ahead of Toshiba. 2016 also found Seagate’s drives to be much more reliable than previous models. But if you’re in the market for a new drive and you want the most reliable drive possible, you may want to get an HGST drive, according to Backblaze’s data.
Check Backblaze’s website for the latest hard drive test data if you’re in the market for a new drive. Backblaze publishes new data every three months or so.
It’s Not All About Manufacturer: “Green” and “Low Power” Drives, Explained
Those graphs would have you believe it’s all about manufacturer, but there’s more to it than that. You’ll find that hard drive manufacturers offer multiple lines of hard drives with different sizes, speeds, power consumptions, and prices. Among a manufacturer’s hard drives, some may even be louder than others. If you’re looking for information about how a drive compares in speed, power consumption, or even noise level, you can generally find this information in online reviews.
But it’s harder to find information about drive reliability over time. Manufacturers produce different models of hard drive, and some of those models may be more reliable than others—even from the same manufacturer.
For example, some hard drives are marketed as “green drives” or “low power” drives, so-named because they use less electricity. These are more common in laptops for that reason, but may be included in many power-efficient desktops.
These generally work by “parking” the drive head after a period of inactivity, allowing the drive to use less power. However, the drive will have to unpark the head, and this stop-start behavior could potentially lead to the drive failing sooner. That’s why manufacturers may say these types of drives are officially unsupported in enterprise RAID environments, where enterprise-grade drives are instead recommended.
Backblaze found these drives started accumulating errors almost immediately: “In the Backblaze environment, they spin down frequently, and then spin right back up. We think that this causes a lot of wear on the drive.”
You certainly don’t want to use a “green” drive in a RAID configuration in an enterprise data center, but it’s unclear whether such a drive will actually die sooner if used in a typical home PC or even an office workstation.
It’s probably fine to have a green drive as extra storage, but you may want a beefier piece of technology in a workstation PC that you plan on using more heavily.
Solid-State Drives Are More Reliable Than Mechanical Drives
While we focused on traditional mechanical hard drives here, it’s worth noting that a solid-state drive will be more reliable and less likely to fail than a mechanical hard drive in a desktop PC or laptop. Solid-state drives have no moving parts, hence the name.
A paper that presented data from Google’s data centers found that flash-based solid-state drives found that SSDs were much less likely to completely fail than mechanical hard drives: “The annual replacement rates of hard disk drives have previously been reported to be 2-9%, which is high compared to the 4-10% of flash drives we see being replaced in a 4 year period.”
However, the study did find that “uncorrectable errors”—small sectors of the drive failing and possibly losing data—were more common on solid-state drives than mechanical drives. This means backups are even more important than on an SSD. An SSD is less likely to fail completely, but more likely to lose a bit of data.
Keep a Good Backup and You’ll Never Have to Worry
Overall, SSDs still seem the better choice when it comes to reliability. But you should never skimp on backups, no matter how reliable a drive is. Even if you buy the most reliable brand of drive possible, your drive can still fail. And software problems could result in your data being deleted or corrupted, even if your hard drive is physically fine.
So if you take nothing else away from this article, remember to create regular backups of your important data with something like CrashPlan. With those backups, you’ll be able to recover your data even if a drive does fail. It’ll still be an inconvenience—you’ll have to get a new drive, reinstall your operating system and programs, and restore your files from the backup—but the reliability of your drive matters a lot less when you have good backups in place.
There’s no guaranteed way to prevent a hard drive failure. All you can do is prevent data loss by backing that data up on multiple devices.