Spinrite 6: An overdue review

Spinrite 5 is an old friend. It got me out of some jams in the late ’90s, but as new versions of Windows that defaulted to NTFS came into my life, Spinrite 5 ceased being an option, since it only worked on FAT-formatted drives.

I’ve had occasion now to use Spinrite 6, its successor, which still runs under old-fashioned MS-DOS but now understands a multitude of filesystems. Other than that, it hasn’t changed much: It’s an obsessively thorough repair and maintenance tool for hard drives.

SSDs will eventually make Spinrite unnecessary, but there are still a lot more conventional hard drives being shipped each year than SSDs.

spinrite review
Using Spinrite can cure odd problems with a conventional hard drive and in some cases can be an alternative to more expensive data recovery.

When you run the executable from within Windows, it helpfully offers to create media containing FreeDOS and itself. It can make a boot floppy, create an ISO image, or attempt to install to USB media.

Boot off the media, and you get an introductory screen. It gave me the option to run in mode 2, for data recovery, or mode 4, for maintenance. I chose mode 4, since I was trying to exercise an old drive and make sure it doesn’t have any problems. It warned me that SMART was turned off for some reason, told me that it enabled it, and suggested I look in the system BIOS to make sure it was enabled there as well. Fair enough.

From there, it proceeded to its familiar sector map screen, which if you haven’t ever used it before, resembles the sector map that the old DOS version of Scandisk displayed. You can use the arrow keys to cycle through screens with other information, including the raw sector data it’s writing, the program’s internal buffers, and how many errors of various types it’s found and corrected. From these you can get an idea of just how healthy or unhealthy the drive is.

After about five minutes, it gave me an estimated time of completion. In this case, it was over 7 hours. Reading and analyzing drives over and over takes some time. This is why I’ve always balked at using Spinrite really frequently; it almost always takes at least overnight regardless of the drive’s speed or capacity, and it ties the machine up while it’s doing it. Running it once or twice a year probably is a good idea if you’re really concerned about the drive. If you have multiple computers at home, you can probably tolerate one of them at a time being tied up overnight a couple of times a year. If you support a large fleet of machines, you’re not going to be running Spinrite for preventative maintenance. It’s just not practical. You’ll be running it to do minor data recovery in hopes of not having to send a drive off to Ontrack.

What Spinrite does is read every sector on the drive, invert the data, write it back, read it again, invert it again, and write it back. This forces every single bit on the drive to be read and written to. If there’s a problem somewhere, this process is likely to find it. And when Spinrite finds a problem, it remaps the data safely.

Bad sectors? Usually not a problem. It can usually recover data from bad sectors (known and unknown) and remap it. If you see too many bad sectors, that’s the classic indication that you need to replace the drive ASAP, but in my experience, Spinrite can extend the usable life of even those drives. In the past, I’ve contacted GRC to ask whether I should replace a suspect drive based on Spinrite’s findings, and their tech support was prompt and helpful. More importantly, they didn’t lead me to make a decision I later regretted.

I have heard the claims that if you run Spinrite on a regular basis, you won’t have hard drive problems. That’s overblown. I used to rarely have hard drive problems, but I see drives failing all the time these days. It’s one reason I was so quick to migrate to SSDs. But there’s no question that it can fix and prevent a variety of problems, so at the very least, you’ll have a lot fewer problems if you use Spinrite 6. The trouble with claiming you’ll have no problems is that if the drive has an electrical problem, or a mechanical problem with a motor or head, no software can fix it. What it can do, and does very well, is prevent or fix problems with the magnetic platters. And I’ll buy the argument that sometimes that can keep problems with the magnetic platters from causing other problems.

As for what the software works with, I threw everything I had at it. An old NTFS-formatted Quantum Fireball lct drive was no problem. The SCSI Quantum Viking II drive out of my old web server, containing multiple partitions of various Linux filesystems wasn’t a problem either. If the drive is reasonably modern and you can connect it to your PC, it seems to work. It made me wish I had an Amiga-formatted drive still hanging around, just to see what it would do with that.

So, don’t expect Spinrite to do miracles. Running it on a brand-new drive is a fantastic idea. Running it on the drive when you’re refurbishing a PC is a fantastic idea–it will either head off problems, or cause the drive to fail spectacularly. It’s much better if the drive fails spectacularly before the sale, rather than after. Running it occasionally as preventative maintenance seems like a good idea. And running it if you get bad sectors is a very good idea.

At $89, it’s not a cheap piece of software, especially when hard drives cost as little as $35, but I recommend it. Your data is worth a lot more than $89, and if the drive fails, it will cost a lot more than $89 to get the data back.

I know a lot of security professionals aren’t fond of Steve Gibson because of the amount of time he spends hawking Spinrite on what’s supposed to be a weekly security podcast, and some of his security advice is certainly questionable, but Spinrite, used for what it was originally intended to do, works well.

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