Monitoring the Health of a Backup Drive
Q. I’ve been backing up my computer to two different external hard drives — one made by Seagate and the other by Western Digital. The backup drives are now six years old. I know hard drives fail after a while, so when should I replace these drives with new ones?
A. The life span of hard disk drives, both internal and external, can be difficult to predict. The mechanical state of the drive’s motor, the number of hours the drive has been in use and its environmental conditions are just a few factors that could alter its condition. Manufacturer warranties on the hardware — often two or three years for consumer-focused products — are no guarantee of the drive’s life expectancy, either.
While it may not be possible to predict exactly when an external drive will fail, closely monitoring the device for grinding noises or other erratic behavior (like unusual slowness) can offer clues to its health. Many manufacturers, including Seagate and Western Digital, offer utility and diagnostic programs in the support areas of their sites. You can use these programs to periodically test the health and file systems of your drives.
Backing up the computer is vital if you have your digital life stored there in documents, photos, videos and other files. If you are getting concerned about the age of your backup drives, swapping them out for new hardware might provide peace of mind. Wirecutter, a product review and recommendation site owned by The New York Times, has done extensive testing on external desktop hard drives and currently favors a 4-terabyte Seagate Backup Plus Desktop model.
Mixing in cloud-based backup along with alternating external drives also adds a layer of data protection. Depending on your system, you might be able to back up your photos and files to services like Apple’s iCloud, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive or another third-party file-sharing service.
Dedicated online backup services are another option to supplement your data security. Backblaze, in addition to being Wirecutter’s pick for best online backup service, has been running an independent study on hard drive reliability since 2013. The Hard Drive Stats survey can get a bit technical, but it does provide a snapshot of drive failure rates over a period of several years — if you want to see one attempt to collect information about the life of the average hard drive.
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