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All hard drives die sooner or later, but that doesn’t mean they all die at the same rate. At this time, the average lifespan of a hard drive is six years i.e. 50% of hard drives make it to the six-year mark. Sometimes an early death is the fault of the manufacturer, but more often than not, hard drives fail earlier than they should because we don’t take care of them.

For some, that might be a strange concept. Hard drives are tucked away within the computer, aren’t they? Do they really need to be “taken care of”? You’d be surprised. Let’s look at the most common causes of hard drive failure and what you can do to prevent them. Don’t want to suffer through the recovery of a dead hard drive How to Diagnose and Fix a Dead Hard Drive to Recover Data How to Diagnose and Fix a Dead Hard Drive to Recover Data Several years ago, I experienced a hard drive failure. I was at work when my laptop suddenly started to act particularly strange. About half an hour later, the hard drive failed audibly and the laptop... Read More , do you?

Disclaimer: This article is about traditional hard disk drives and does not apply to newer solid-state drives How Do Solid-State Drives Work? [MakeUseOf Explains] How Do Solid-State Drives Work? [MakeUseOf Explains] Over the past few decades, there has been a considerable amount of work in the field of computer hardware. While computer technology is constantly improving and evolving, rarely do we experience moments where we simply... Read More . SSDs suffer from limited lifespans just like HDDs, but for different reasons. Check out how to extend the life of an SDD 3 Top Tips To Maintain Performance & Extend The Life Of Your SSD 3 Top Tips To Maintain Performance & Extend The Life Of Your SSD For years, standard hard drives have been the speed limiting factor in overall system responsiveness. While hard drive size, RAM capacity, and CPU speed have grown almost exponentially, the spinning speed of a hard drive,... Read More instead.

Cause #1: Physical Damage

hard-drive-lifespan-physical-damage

The quickest way to render a hard drive useless is physical trauma. Sounds obvious, I know, but hard drives are more fragile than you might expect them to be – there are several moving parts that can malfunction even at the slightest disturbance. A simple bump while the hard drive is spinning could be enough to cause a problem.

What can you do about it?

For maximum safety, never remove your hard drive(s) from the computer case once they’ve been installed. If you must take them out – and the only valid reason for doing so would be transferring to another computer case – do it lightly and quickly, and use proper equipment 10 Cheap Things to Carry Around in Your Tech Toolkit 10 Cheap Things to Carry Around in Your Tech Toolkit Do you repair computers? If you do, there's a lot of household supplies you can throw in your "computer repair" bag and cheaply replace otherwise expensive chemicals and tools. For example, you can swap expensive... Read More .

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Similarly, don’t move or shake or jostle your computer case while it is on. Keep it in a safe location where accidental kicks and knocks are minimized.

That being said, laptop hard drives are more robust than desktop hard drives and external hard drives. You don’t have to feel like you’re walking on eggshells when moving a live laptop, but do exercise caution. Again, a light bump against a desk or a wall while the disk is active could cause corruption of data.

Cause #2: Excessive Heat

hard-drive-lifespan-excessive-heat

Like many computer components, hard drives are built to operate within a specific range of optimal temperatures. This range will differ on a drive-by-drive basis depending on the model and manufacturer, but as long as you stay within your drive’s range, you should be good to go.

The problem is keeping it within the safe range. If you aren’t diligent about maintaining proper air flow through your computer case, heat can build up inside to temperatures far hotter than the ambient temperature of your room. Even if you feel comfortable, your computer components might not be.

What can you do about it?

First things first, you should open up your computer case (after you’ve powered off) and clean out any dust that might’ve accumulated within. Use a can of compressed air to clean out the tight nooks and crannies. Then, make sure your fans are working. They should be pulling in air from one side of the case and expelling air from the other side, i.e., circulating.

Laptops are even worse than desktops. The tiny case means dust accumulates faster, so cleaning is a higher priority. Also, be sure to always place your laptop on a hard, flat surface to minimize dust intake and maximize air circulation. Neglecting this is the fastest way to destroy your laptop 5 Ways To Utterly Destroy Your Laptop, Slowly But Surely 5 Ways To Utterly Destroy Your Laptop, Slowly But Surely A laptop is one of the most fragile consumer electronics devices you will buy. It’s a complex system packed with fast hardware, yet it also finds itself in constant use, which often mean constant danger.... Read More .

Consider investing in a laptop cooler. They’re great because they provide a hard, flat surface and they improve air intake.

Cause #3: File Fragmentation

hard-drive-lifespan-file-fragmentation

File fragmentation itself is not a direct cause of hard drive damage. However, it does cause your hard drive to work harder by making it more difficult to find all the pieces that comprise a particular file (as files fragment, these pieces scatter across the hard drive instead of all being located in the same place). By working harder, the hard drive experiences more wear and tear.

The evidence of increased wear and tear might not show up for a while, but it does add up.

What can you do about it?

Short answer: defragmentation. While fragmentation is less of an issue with NTFS drives than FAT32 drives of the past, it’s still an issue that shouldn’t be overlooked as part of computer maintenance. Not sure how to defragment? We recommend these awesome defragmentation tools 3 Excellent Defrag Utilities & Why You Still Need to Defragment In 2012 3 Excellent Defrag Utilities & Why You Still Need to Defragment In 2012 Accessing files from the hard drive is a speed limiting step in operating a computer. Hard drives used to be a major bottle neck and fragmentation of data slowed them down even further. With the... Read More .

However, be aware that defragmenting too often 7 Common Computer Mistakes You Can Avoid 7 Common Computer Mistakes You Can Avoid Nobody is perfect. Despite all the advice available online, many of us make silly mistakes. Don't want to be caught acting like a computer noob? Consult this list of usual slip-ups to avoid. Read More is a common computer mistake that users make. Only defragment your drives when they reach 5-10% fragmentation.

As a bonus, defragmenting will speed up your computer since files can be loaded off of the hard drive faster. Plus, if you’re ever in a position where you need to recover a lost file, defragmentation can help make that easier as well.

Cause #4: Frequent On-and-Off

hard-drive-lifespan-power-on-and-off

The most demanding actions for a hard drive are booting up and shutting down. More specifically, the act of frequently spinning up and spinning down can cause additional attrition on top of the wear and tear of regular use.

What can you do about it?

There’s a careful line to walk here. On the one hand, you don’t want to keep your hard drives on all of the time, but you also don’t want to turn it on and off multiple times per day.

Where do we mark the line? As a general rule of thumb, if you’re stepping away for more than a day, shut it down. If you’re going away for a few hours, consider sending the computer into standby or hibernation mode. Any less than that, you can either leave the computer on or send it into sleep mode with powered down disks.

Cause #5: Power Surges

hard-drive-lifespan-surge-protector

Electricity isn’t always constant. There are times when voltages spike above normal levels – even for just a few nanoseconds – and these are called surges. What’s bad about this is that surges can cause damage to electronic devices, which includes computer components. One badly-timed electrical surge could fry your hard drive.

What can you do about it?

Use a surge protector Do You Really Need a Surge Protector? Do You Really Need a Surge Protector? A surge protector is not the same thing as a power strip! Here's how they're different and why you need surge protectors instead, as well as how to choose a good one. Read More . This nifty device will detect surges of electricity and divert it away from the devices that are plugged in. Are surge protectors infallible? No, of course not. Depending on the one you buy, you’ll only be guarded against certain surge strengths. It’s a good idea to invest in one if you want to keep your computer safe.

Final Thoughts

It’s entirely possible for your hard drive to fail even after you’ve taken care of it. However, we’re talking about probabilities and likelihoods here. If you’re careful to heed the good practices outlined above, your hard drives (current and future) will last longer and give you fewer headaches.

What have you done to extend the life of your hard drives? Share your tips and advice and hard drive failure stories with us by commenting below!

Image Credits: Simon Yeo Via Flickr, Battered Hard Drive Via Shutterstock, Melted Hard Drive Via Shutterstock, Shattered Via Shutterstock, Power Button Via Shutterstock, Surge Protector Via Shutterstock

  1. Drew
    August 8, 2016 at 4:52 am

    I have an 85M CDC "Wren" with a DTC 16-bit ISA controller that has a massive (for the time) dedicated 2MB Cache from 1986 that still performs flawlessly and is defect free (yep, 31 years old). ;-) It's not fast by today standards, but it runs a 1:1 interleave, has a 16ms seek time and average transfer rate of 1.5M sec (on a 286) - quite zippy for it's age. No, it's not exactly a heavily used drive any more (although the hard drive and controller was use very heavily for many years)... Yes, those tips work.

  2. jesse0135
    May 20, 2016 at 3:34 am

    My hard drive in my laptop has lasted me 7 years. I just barely move it, keep it on a laptop cooling pad with a huge fan, and not run while carrying the laptop or something, because that can shake the hard drive and cause damage from what I've heard.

    • Joel Lee
      May 27, 2016 at 1:34 am

      Nice! That kind of care takes very little effort yet obviously pays off in lifespan. Thanks for sharing, jesse. :)

  3. Rick
    March 3, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    None of you know the real best way to protect against surges.
    It's a called a POWER CONDITIONER!!!!!

    The power coming out the wall fluctuates all day long. This fluctuation is NOT how electronics are designed to run, so it degrades the components over time. A POWER CONDITIONER splits the signals and then gives you 115v @ 60hz CONSTANT, all day long, all the time. This alone increases the life of all electronics. Musicians generally know this stuff. Most of them use Furman power conditioners, and they talk about them like they are the best invention since chocolate.

  4. BOb
    February 25, 2016 at 11:53 pm

    I'm pretty sure frequent on and off is not an issue. Leaving a hard drive working all night, when there could be surges, is a bad idea. Off course leaving it on all night will cause damage!

  5. Swapnil Singh S
    August 12, 2014 at 11:35 am

    Hey Joel! It is really amazing article and helpful for me because till now my 3 Hard drives became dead.
    Thanks for Sharing this.

  6. John Li
    August 11, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    a useful way to speed up your hard drive is to partition it into two separate drives a faster drive and a slower drive. the faster drive only uses the storage on the rim of the hard drive disk while the slower drive uses the inside this works because the outside edge spins slightly faster than the inside

  7. yochanon
    July 29, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    Someone already mentioned UPS's. A UPS is the only *decent* way to protect your system from all the electrical/power problems except it *cannot* provide protection from a power supply from dying and/or blowing up (I've had three in the past 20+ years actually die by suddenly making a loud 'pop' (about like a .22 from a pistol) and seeing some smoke drift up from behind the tower.

    Me, I personally have *always* left my systems running 24/7/365 (except of course when the power is out and I don't let the UPS keep it running unless I'm sure it's just a short spike or something). I've got 10+ year old hdd's that still run but since they're slow and have small disk space (one is 40GB and the other is 20GB that's how old they are), I've got them in the bags they came in sitting on a shelf gathering dust for use as backup drives...I just plug one in real quick letting it sit on the bottom of the tower and do my thing and then unplug it and put it back on the shelf. I also backup onto 25GB BD's, this way I've got redundancy in two completely different kinds of medium (if we got hit by an EMP, the hdd's would be useless but the BD's would/should be fine still, but the hdd's can take heat a good deal better than the BD's so that if there's a fire, I might get lucky and save the hdd's but the BD's might be warped and useless).

    Defrag? Man, it's been 14 years since I've had to worry about that abortion! Muahahahaha! What a PITA that always was, and I still hear, it still is apparently from reading this article. Bill Gates and his ilk don't have enough money put together to *pay me* to use that pile of defecation ever again, but hey, they say it has its uses.

    And yes, the smoking-in-the-same-room-as your-system *IS* a really bad idea. I used to smoke, about 2 packs/day. Once, within a month, I opened my case to do something and the tar that had built up on everything inside was nasty. It's sticky and hot water only makes it get gooey, like some glues. The only easy way to clean it off of things is to use alcohol (or I like brake parts cleaner...*NOT* 'carburator cleaner'! Brake parts cleaner evaporates *very* fast so there's no mess. Regular carburator cleaner doesn't evaporate very well and so it puddles everywhere and then has to be sopped up and still leaves a mess).

    Last, but not least...Joel, the e-mail you sent out that had the article line and link to this, was "You need to be weary of five different things...". Get a dictionary and start using it. I've kept one that I got as a b-day present when I turned 10 years old (42 years ago), and ever since I started using computers I've always kept it right next to me on a shelf where I can reach over and look something up. 'Weary' means you're tired, worn out. You meant to use 'wary' or 'leery'

    • Joel L
      July 31, 2014 at 6:10 pm

      I don't handle the emails so "weary" was not me.

  8. CJ Cotter
    July 29, 2014 at 4:24 am

    Cause #1: Physical Damage
    There are people on eBay who sell protective antistatic HDD plastic boxes, if you must store them and/or move them around.

    Cause #2: Excessive Heat
    For tower computers, everybody and their brother sells HDD cooling fans that attach underneath the hard drive. For external storage drives, only get enclosures that have a large fan on them.

    Cause #4: Frequent On-and-Off, and
    Cause #5: Power Surges
    Surge protector? Is that the best you can recommend? C'mon. How about a battery backup? It's an absolute MUST! Protects against power surges and abrupt power outage shutdowns.

  9. Patrick S
    July 28, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    Every time i've defragged a hard drive, Windows would brick itself within a week. Happened on multiple PCs at different times. Frankly i don't really trust it as a solution.

    • Godel
      July 28, 2014 at 11:02 pm

      I defrag approximately monthly, when the fragmentation exceeds 5%, using Auslogics Disk Defrag. I just checked and I'm up to 6.15% fragmented, so I'll defrag on the weekend. Obviously my experience does not match yours.

      I've heard of someone who did not defrag their drive for years and ended up about 90% fragmented. Their computer was running so slow that they thought they had a virus.

      BUT, isn't Windows 8 supposed to defrag automatically on its own?

    • Andy
      July 29, 2014 at 5:12 pm

      Both Windows 7 & 8.x, automatically defrag, I think every Wednesday at 200am or something like that. (But not SSDs)

    • sonylisation
      August 17, 2014 at 6:02 pm

      I have no idea what you do when you defrag your disks. Defraging does not equal computer + frag grenade :)

      Try re-installing windows and give us a detailed log of your hardware, installed os's and what you do with your computer.

      Might be bad sectors that have been out of use and not indicated as bad(windows sucks at disk check) and then been written to after the defragging. Try booting your pc with ubuntu live cd and do a smart disk check. (No installation required and you can get the cd for free at ubuntu.com)

  10. Me
    July 28, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    Partition your drive for both system usage and data storage. Have things like photos, important paperwork, etc, (stuff you CAN'T loose) off of the system partition so you can easily access it even if you have to reformat the system partition because of a malware infection or other software issue (which tends to happen a lot more for windoze users IME than hardware problems.)

    Also, as stated previously, back up regularly to an SSD (if you've got the money) or to something like silicon power's line of nearly indestructable external drives (search "silicon power drive test" on youtube or use this video ID - watch?v=QcFm4YKtVy4 - and prepare to be impressed!) I don't trust external drives that aren't specifically created with longevity in mind. I've wasted far too much money on drives that break down within 6 months from major, well known manufacturers.

    I clone and switch out my main drives every 3 years, regardless of how they're performing at that time. I wipe them securely and then donate them to a computer-based non-profit near by.

    • TH
      July 29, 2014 at 3:50 am

      Hue at wipe them securely. If only you knew. Also I wouldnt backup to a solid state drive that's probably a worse idea actually. The system part idea isnt bad and is actually commonly done. Personally I don't do it for reasons. (WinPE can "refresh" windows files) But it's a good idea. But major Hue at thinking data cant be recovered off a securely wiped drive

      Also I wish I had enough money to constantly switch out drives ha ha.

  11. Vhong
    July 28, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    How about resetting the computer? Does it count as "shut down" (as per number 4)?

    • Joel L
      July 31, 2014 at 6:08 pm

      As long as you aren't doing a Hard Reset (e.g. holding the power button), it should be fine.

  12. Boyd Carter
    July 28, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    Surge/Spike protection is not enough. Use a voltage regulator to eliminate power surges, spikes and brownouts. Brownouts will slow down the hard drive and allow the head to touch the disk.

    • pmshah
      July 29, 2014 at 3:12 am

      I don't know what part of the world you live in but here in India we have extreme fluctuations. The service is supposed to be 240 V but more often than not it is between 250 and 255 V. The SMPS can handle input ranging from 170 to 240 V. So brownouts have to be really serious for the power supplied to the system really slowing down the hard disk.

      In my case I have taken a 245 -> 20 V, 400 VA isolation transformer and connected the 2 windings in autotransformer mode. This essentially clips off about 20 V from the incoming supply. Since the transformed current rating is 20 A I can run equipment up to cumulative 4800 watts with the transformer getting just warm.

    • pmshah
      July 29, 2014 at 3:14 am

      I forgot to mention one thing though. The way I have connected the transformer it can handle inputs up to 265 volts without any problems.

  13. Compumind
    July 28, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    I have been in IT for over 30 years and here are my top two suggestions:

    Use a UPS that has Surge/Spike protection, not just a surge protector.
    Clean your case internally every four months with a vacuum and dust-off.

    I have drives running 8 hours a day six days a week that are 7+ years old.

    One more thing - Backup, Backup, Backup!

    • Joel L
      July 31, 2014 at 6:06 pm

      Good point on regularly cleaning out cases. It's amazing how much dust can collect, even in clean environments.

  14. Brent T
    July 28, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    Don't smoke around your computer (when it is running) as the smoke will gunk up the moveable parts after lots of exposure.

    Similarly, don't create a lot of dust around your computer (when its on) as the dust will get sucked in and gum up parts. For example, don't have a cat's kitty liter box in the same room as your computer(s), or at least don't clean out the kitty liter when the computer is running because cleaning a kitty liter puts lots of dust into the surrounding air.

    • bill
      July 29, 2014 at 3:01 am

      This was an issue in the 1960's, 1970's and into the 80's with removable cartridge drives and vented Winchester drives. Almost all drives mfg after 2002-2004 have hermetically sealed platter cases. Welcome to 2014!

    • Andy
      July 29, 2014 at 5:04 pm

      Blimey Bill, aren't you old! (Nearly as old as me.)

  15. Bobbie T
    July 28, 2014 at 4:52 am

    Joel, you may know computers but be careful of statistics.
    "the average lifespan of a hard drive is six years" does not mean that 50% of hard drives make it to the six-year mark.

    • Alan
      July 28, 2014 at 3:31 pm

      He is describing the median lifespan.

    • Joel L
      July 31, 2014 at 6:05 pm

      Sorry, I did mean median. Thanks for catching that.

  16. ReadandShare
    July 27, 2014 at 11:28 pm

    I've been using computers since the early 80's. The average life span of my computers is between 3-4 years. Thanks to the power of advertising -- I've never had a chance to wear out a computer -- and have never experienced any hard drive crashes.

    Hope I didn't jinx anything by stating the above!!

  17. likefunbutnot
    July 27, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    Want to know how to make drives last longer?
    Don't let them spin down. Ever, if you can help it. Just like lightbulbs, they pretty much don't fail except at power-on. Leaving them on all the time really does extend drive lifespan in my experience. If you're uncomfortable leaving a desktop on all the time, invest in some kind of low power NAS unit or the like.

    I also don't think heat is a huge deal and Google agrees with me. Most of my personal drive collection is in a pair of Norco 24-bay chassis. They're both full of 3 and 4TB 7200rpm (read: HOT) drives and kept in a poorly ventilated closet. I've kept the vast bulk of my data storage under those conditions for nearly a decade and I've seen on average one drive failure every two years.

    With regard to Henry Lahore's issue, I strongly suspect that it wasn't his hard disk that was overheating but rather some other component in his laptop. Laptops, especially poorly constructed consumer models, often have all kinds of problems with ventilation.

    • JC
      July 31, 2014 at 1:48 pm

      Likefunbutnot... I beg to differ I have had to replace two hard drives on my HP TouchSmart IQ526 because of overheating heat issues. We don't have central air and it can get hot here in VA Beach so I have placed a fan behind the PC and monitor the hard drive temp and it has lasted longer the both the others.

  18. Khai
    July 27, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    with the heat, I found moving back to 5400rpm drives solved that. ok, they are slower... but they last longer.
    need the speed? get a SSD.

  19. Henry Lahore
    July 27, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    Buy an external laptop cooling fan - $5 to $20

    My hard drive was causing a blue screen several times a day.
    Dell diagnostics showed me that the Hard Drive was failing self test.
    Found that it would run OK for a while, then stop.
    Borrowed a laptop cooling fan - it Worked! No more bluescreens.
    Have purchased a laptop cooling fan for use while moving data to a new, cooler laptop.

    • Joel L
      July 31, 2014 at 6:04 pm

      Maybe it was clogged with dust and needed extra cooling. In any case, glad that the fan worked for you. After having so many laptop overheating issues, I always use an external fan when I can. Good advice!

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