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[ The PC Guide | System Care Guide | System Care: Protecting Your PC | Care of Specific Components ]

Hard Disk Drives

Before discussing the care of hard disks, I should point out that in this section I am considering the physical device itself. The actual data that is on the hard disk is a different matter; protective measures and backup techniques for data are discussed here.

The hard disk itself does not generally require much maintenance, since it is a sealed unit with most of the components inaccessible. Most of the care of hard disks boils down simply to "don't abuse them". In particular, you want to watch out for the following issues:

  • Heat: Hard disks, especially newer ones that run faster, generate quite a bit of heat. You will want to make sure that this heat is kept under control. This is best accomplished by ensuring that the interior case has adequate cooling and ventilation and ensuring that the hard disk isn't rammed between other hot components. You also want to prevent excessive dust buildup on the unit.
  • Vibration: Some hard disks vibrate more than others, especially newer ones that run at high speed. If a hard disk begins to vibrate more over time than it did before, this can be a sign of some sort of a problem. Vibration can also cause mounting screws to loosen, although this is not common.
  • Shock: Hard disks are delicate, especially when in operation, due to the minuscule air gap that separates the heads from the platters. Banging or dropping a hard disk, especially while it is running, can damage or destroy it.
  • Acclimation: Cold components should be allowed to rise to room temperature (roughly) before using them. The hard disk is one component that is sensitive to this problem.
  • Power Management: The use of power management is a policy decision you have to make based on what is important to you and how you use your system. However, even if you do decide to use power management, take care not to let the hard disk spin down too quickly; having the disk spin up and down several times per hour really isn't very good for the disks.

I recommend that when the PC box is opened for annual cleaning, that the hard disks be checked, especially for heat and vibration levels. To check for heat, make sure the PC has been running for at least a half-hour before opening the case.

Note: I would also point out here (again?) that it is not necessary to low-level format a modern hard disk under almost all normal circumstances. Older, pre-IDE hard disks, did require occasional reformatting because they had unsophisticated stepper motors that in time would become misaligned with the locations of the tracks on the disk. This is not a problem for modern disks that use voice coil actuators.

Next: Floppy Disk Drives

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