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Quick tip: give your hard drive a physical

24 November 2010, Nick Peers

Imagine 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 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.

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. There are also ways and means of reducing the stress on your drive, ensuring it lives a long, happy and fruitful life.

Test your 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 in Windows: one of the best free tools for the job is CrystalDiskInfo: once downloaded and installed, it’ll enable you to see your drive’s SMART status, which is a series of tests that help determine how healthy the drive is. If it’s in poor physical shape, CrystalDiskInfo will throw up a warning and you should make it your priority to back up the drive and replace it with a new model as soon as possible.

Keep your drive healthy
The harder your hard drive works, the quicker its components will wear out. One way to reduce its workload is to keep it defragmented, so the drive’s motors and arms do less work tracking down the files on your hard disk as they’re loaded into memory.

Windows has its own built-in defragmenter, but if you want to keep things ticking over nicely in the background try a third-party utility such as Puran Defrag Free.

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.

CrystalDiskInfo allows you to monitor all your drives’ temperatures, which you’ll notice increase the longer your PC runs. Make a careful note of their temperatures – consider 50 degrees an uncomfortable maximum for your desktop drive – 40 degrees or less is a more sustainable figure. Add another 10 degrees on to these figures for your laptop drive.

If your drives are running hot, what can you do? Laptop owners should invest in a laptop cooler – this sits underneath the laptop and helps drive heat away from all of its components, not just your hard drives, helping to extend the laptop’s lifespan.

Desktop owners have a few options: an overheated hard drive is 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. This is a fan that sits underneath your hard drive, plugs into your PSU and again helps draw the heat away. You’ll need about 1-2cm clearance underneath the drive before this can be fitted – expect to pay around £6 plus postage for the privilege (search Google for “hard drive fan”).

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