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How long does a hard drive last?

If you’re asking how long does a hard drive last, I found this study on hard drive longevity last week.

I take issue with the opening paragraph but the rest of the article is very good. The opening paragraph is a bit deceptive—hard drives were anything but common 30 years ago. Even 25 years ago, they were a serious status symbol. I remember in 1988, a classmate told me his dad had just bought a computer with a hard drive, and swore me to secrecy. Why? Because in today’s dollars, a computer with a hard drive in 1988 cost around $2,000, minimum, and given that his dad was working towards his master’s degree at the time, he probably had a really hard time affording that. If you had a hard drive even in the late 1980s, you were either very rich, or you took your computing very seriously and were willing to make some serious sacrifices somewhere else.

But, like I said, the rest of the article is very good. I’m being a curmudgeon.Read More »How long does a hard drive last?

Happy birthday, IBM PC!

The IBM PC 5150 turns 30 today.

IBM didn’t invent the personal computer, but if your computer has an Intel or AMD CPU in it, it’s the direct descendant of the beige box IBM unleashed on the world on August 12, 1981. Without a huge amount of effort, it’s even possible to run most of that old software on your shiny new PC. You probably wouldn’t want to, except out of curiosity, but you can do it.

I wasn’t one of the people who rushed out and got one. At the time, I was still watching Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. I had my first experience with a computer–a Radio Shack TRS-80–in 1982, and the first computer my family bought was a Commodore 64 in 1984. Even in 1984, there were still plenty of people who questioned why anyone needed a computer in their home. My introduction to the IBM PC and PC-DOS didn’t happen until 1987.
Read More »Happy birthday, IBM PC!

How to clean an MBR and recover drive partitions

Sometimes it’s necessary to recover drive partitions because you accidentally repartitioned a drive you didn’t mean to, or because your MBR got infected or otherwise trashed. Here’s how to recover them, for free.

Infecting MBRs with malware is popular with virus writers again. And I fully expect chaos to ensue, because that’s what happened the last time there was more than one virus floating around that infected MBRs. They quit doing it for a good reason.

So here’s how to clean up the mess when an MBR gets infected, or when multiple infections blitzes the MBR and the hard drive loses the ability to boot, just displaying a message like Missing Operating System or Operating System Not Found.

We’ll be using the Gparted Live CD. Many Linux live CDs have the proper tools, but GParted works well and it’s a small download. You can try to use another Linux live CD, and it will work fine, but the icons might not all be where I say they are.

Read More »How to clean an MBR and recover drive partitions

New life for a Compaq Presario S5140WM

I’m fixing up my mother in law’s Compaq Presario S5140WM. She bought it about five years ago, a few weeks after her daughter and I started dating. It’s been a pretty good computer for her, but lately it’s been showing signs it might be overheating.

I took the shotgun approach, replacing pretty much everything that I would expect to be at or near the end of its life at five years.Since we seemed to have a heat problem, I picked up a better copper heatsink/fan for the CPU. The copper heatsink promised to lower the temperature by 5-10 degrees on its own. Since I rarely get more than 3-4 years out of a CPU fan, this was pretty much a no-brainer.

I also picked up a Seasonic 300W 80-plus power supply. I doubt the machine will put enough load on the power supply to actually get it to run at peak efficiency, but I also figured an 80-plus power supply would probably be better built and more reliable than a more traditional power supply. Seasonic is hardly a no-name, acting as an OEM for a number of big names, including Antec and PC Power & Cooling.

Finally, of course I replaced the hard drive. Being a parallel ATA model, I was limited in choices. I bought a Seagate rather than a Western Digital, because I’ve had better luck with Seagate through the years, and Seagate has also absorbed Quantum through its purchase of Maxtor. Maxtor admittedly had a couple of rough periods, so say what you will about Maxtor, but every Quantum drive I ever bought still works. I have a Quantum drive I bought back in 2000 still working in my computer downstairs. Yeah, it’s slow and loud, but it’s been ticking away like a Swiss watch for 8 years, in almost constant use! Maybe some of those Quantum engineers worked on this Seagate. To Seagate’s advantage, they do offer a 5-year warranty on their drives, which is really good, considering the conventional wisdom on hard drives used to be that you should replace them every three years because they’d fail soon afterward. Unless the drive was a Quantum, that is.

The question is whether I just clone the old drive onto the new drive, or install Windows fresh on it. I know if I do a fresh installation, the thing will run like a cheetah, free of all the useless crud HP installed at the factory. The question is how lazy I am.

After buying a new hard drive, power supply and CPU fan, I’ve sunk nearly $120 into this old computer. But it’s an Athlon, faster than 2 GHz, so it can hold its own with a low-end computer of today. The onboard video is terrible, but I solved that with a plug-in AGP card. It has 768 MB of RAM in it and tops out at a gig, but since she mainly just uses it for web browsing, 768 megs ought to be enough. I’ll keep my eye out for a 512MB PC3200 DIMM to swap in just in case.

And besides all that, since this Compaq has a standard micro ATX case, if 1 GB starts to feel too cramped, I can swap in a new motherboard/CPU that can take however much memory I want. And the power supply is already ready for it.

But as-is, I think this computer has at least another three years in it.

I rebuilt a Dell Dimension 4100 last night

So, I rebuilt a Dell Dimension 4100 last night. I didn’t make any hardware changes other than replacing the Western Digital hard drive inside, which was on its last legs.

Along the way, I learned a few things.I won’t say much about the WD drive except to say it’s the most recent in a long line of bad experiences I’ve had with the brand. I don’t know anything about current WD drives. But this one was loud and shrill, Windows bluescreened when I tried to install to it, and when I tried to run SpinRite on it, it said it would take 140 hours to test. A drive that size (20GB) should take 8-10.

In its defense, that drive was five years old. But I replaced it with a Maxtor drive that’s almost eight years old. SpinRite processed that Maxtor in 3 hours and found nothing worth commenting about. (Just because SpinRite didn’t say anything doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t do anything.)

The Dell Dimension 4100 does have a proprietary power supply (although it looks like an ATX). If you work on Dells, I suggest bookmarking PC Power and Cooling’s Dell cheatsheet. PCP&C power supplies are expensive, but they are reliable, and their prices are comparable to what Dell would charge for a replacement and they are higher quality than what you would get from Dell–assuming Dell will even sell you the part (they’re in the business of selling computers, not parts). I believe newer Dells use standard power supplies.

If you buy a Micron, you can punch in a serial number and get drivers for the machine. With a Dell, you just get guesses based on the options that were available for the machine.

Download the chipset drivers and other low-level stuff from Dell’s support site. Windows 2000 didn’t completely recognize the system’s Intel i815 chipset and I get better performance afterward.

Nlite offers a lot of promise–automating the Windows install, removing components, etc.–but I had trouble getting it to work with the OS recovery CDs I had. I didn’t have enough time (or blank CDs) to figure out how to get it to work for me. I’m sure it works better with a plain old Windows 2000 Workstation CD, but of course I can’t find mine. But if you have a CD that works with it, it’s nice even if you don’t remove the stuff Microsoft doesn’t let you remove, since it provides a nice interface for slipstreaming service packs and hotfixes and removing all of the prompts during installation.

The tricks in Windows 2000 with 32MB of RAM work pretty nicely, even when you have more than 32 megs. Of course, if you’re ruthless with Nlite and can get it to work for you, you probably don’t need that bag of tricks.

I didn’t try to install it without Internet Explorer. I’d love to try that sometime but I didn’t have time for that. At least disabling Active Desktop (see the link in the paragraph above) gives most of the benefit you would get from smiting IE.

The quality of the Dell hardware is reasonable. It didn’t floor me, but I didn’t see anything that made me cry either.

Rediscovering OS/2

So I picked up a surplus computer from work this week. Honestly, I bought it more because it was cheap than because I needed it. But it was a giveaway price for a good-quality system. Micron’s Client Pro line (its business-class line) is as well-built a PC as I’ve ever seen. The machine didn’t come as advertised, but it was still a good price for what I got: a 266 MHz Pentium II, 64 MB of RAM, a 4-gig Maxtor hard drive, a Lite-On CD-ROM drive of unspecified speed (it seems to be at least 24X), an Intel 10/100 PCI NIC, Nvidia Riva-based AGP video, an ISA Sound Blaster, and an ISA US Robotics 56K faxmodem.
Of course my first thought was to put Linux on it. But I have better machines already running Linux, so what’s the point, really? Then a few things sent me hurtling down the roads of my oldschool retro computing past, and a thought hit me: OS/2!

What I consider my first real job involved installing OS/2 literally a couple hundred times. That was version 3, on 50 MHz 486s. But by the time a Pentium-166 was a hot machine, I wasn’t using OS/2 much anymore. I realized I’ve never really seen OS/2 on something as hot as this P2-266 before. And I used to know how to optimize the living daylights out of OS/2, so this could turn into the best computer I’ve ever owned.

I had to patch my OS/2 v4 installation disk 1 to deal with the drive in the machine (download IDEDASD.EXE and unzip it, then follow the instructions in the README file) but once I got that going, installation was smooth. I need to track down device drivers for the NIC and video card yet. But I got a basic system up and running in about 35 minutes. That’s not bad.

I can’t wait to see Mozilla Firebird on this thing.

What brand of hard drive should I buy?

LinuxWorld posted an article today on how to install another hard disk in Linux. The guide’s pretty good from the software side.
The advice is slightly questionable from the hardware side. Author Joe Barr states that it doesn’t matter which connector on the cable you use, as long as one drive is jumpered master and one drive is slave. For years that was true, but you’re actually supposed to put the master on the end and the slave in the middle. Usually it doesn’t matter. But the newer your drive is, and the newer your controller is, and the longer your cable is, the more likely it is to matter. You also shouldn’t attach a drive to the middle and leave the top connector hanging. Again, you can usually get away with it–and people have gotten away with it for more than a decade–but the likelihood of not getting away with it increases with every passing day, as hard drives get faster and faster, and thus more and more touchy.

What happens when you do it wrong? Usually it works anyway. Sometimes it’ll be flaky. And sometimes it won’t work at all. Don’t you love predictability? So it’s really best to follow the rules unless the layout of your case makes that impossible.

But the main reason I’m writing is because the usual expected flamewar erupted in the discussion thread. Barr bought a Western Digital drive. Predictably, someone responded that Western Digitals are junk. Then someone responded to the response and said Maxtors are junk but Seagates are good. Then someone responded to the response to the response and said Seagates used to be junk. Before you knew it, every brand of hard drive on the market–IBM, Samsung, Seagate, Maxtor, Western Digital–had been trashed. Curiously, except for Fujitsu. But Fujitsu recently had a big scandal with a failure rate on one particular model of drive higher than 90 percent. (Meanwhile, my own experience tells me Fujitsu SCSI drives are fantastic.) And lately, Samsung drives have been getting praise all over the place. So what gives?

The problem with these statements is there’s a degree of truth to all of them. There was a time when Maxtor hard drives were the worst thing you could buy. Ever heard this joke? Fast, reliable, and cheap: Pick two. Well, in the early to mid-’90s, Maxtors weren’t fast, they weren’t reliable, and they weren’t consistently any cheaper than any other brand. The only reason to buy them was because the familiar red boxes were everywhere. The only place you couldn’t buy them was the corner gas station. Well, in St. Louis at least.

During the same time frame, Seagate had similar troubles. Their drives were expensive, but they weren’t fast. I didn’t see enough of them to get any kind of handle on reliability because I was so turned off by their price and underachieving performance that I wouldn’t go near them, and neither would anyone else I knew.

In the mid to late ’90s, it was Western Digital’s turn to go 0 for 3 on fast, reliable, and cheap. From 1997 to about 2000, I saw more dead Western Digitals than every other brand, combined. And I saw a lot of drives come across my desk.

With its GXP series a couple of years ago, IBM had the fastest drives on the market, and they were also among the cheapest. But they were exceedingly touchy, and became notorious for premature failure.

I bought a handful of Samsung drives over the years, never willingly, because of their terrible reputation. They’ve been reliable. And when you look at reviews of their recent drives, they run cool and they’re reasonably fast. They’re not necessarily the fastest on the market at any given time, but they may very well be the best combination of fast, reliable, and cheap right now.

I’ve been around long enough and seen enough that every time I see unqualified statements like “Western Digital drives are junk,” or “Maxtor drives are junk,” or “Seagate and Maxtor drives are the best,” whether it’s from some end user in a discussion forum or a professional hardware reviewer, I get suspicious. The end user is probably basing those conclusions on a too-small sample size, and the professional reviewer probably isn’t doing the necessary homework.

Let me tell you why.

We know how to build a completely reliable hard drive, one that will run for 10 years and never have problems. But it would cost too much money, its capacity would be too small, and it would be too slow. The technology in hard drives changes with each generation, and the company with the best technology is generally the one that produces the most reliable drives. But the most advanced technology isn’t always the best technology, as IBM found out with its GXPs. The GXPs were too far ahead of their time.

It should come as no surprise that when Maxtor was producing junk drives, they weren’t in very good shape financially. There wasn’t much money for R&D. When Maxtor’s financial situation improved, its R&D improved, and its drives became faster and more reliable.

There was a time when someone could ask me what hard drive to buy and I could give them a brand and model number that would give them the best combination of fast, reliable and cheap. But my newest computer at home was built in the summer of 2001 and I very rarely work on desktop systems anymore–I’m a server guy these days, and I have been for the past 18 months. If I’m honest with myself and with the person asking the question, a lot can change in 18 months. In 2001, as far as I could tell, the best drive to buy was a Maxtor and the worst to buy was a Western Digital.

I can go with my old prejudices and continue to dispense that advice indefinitely. But there was a time when that was reversed. And what about Samsung? They’re quiet and they run cool, which is a good sign, they’re very affordable, and while they’re almost never the fastest, they never get blown out of the water by benchmarks.

The best thing to do is to talk with someone who actually works with the equipment on a regular basis, and in large volumes. I want the opinions of someone who speaks from recent knowledge and experience, not someone speaking from old prejudices or a gravy train of free hardware. That means I’d call up a couple of former coworkers who still do some desktop support, or who at least handle the RMAs for subordinates who do desktop support. I’d ask them whose drives have been failing the most lately, and if they notice much performance difference between brands. Benchmarks are more precise, but they can also be fooled. If you can’t notice the difference in the real world I really don’t care about it. If you do notice the difference, I don’t care much about percentages. It’s subjective, but as long as I trust the people whose opinions I’m soliciting, that doesn’t matter much to me.

And after talking to a couple of people who actually handle a few drives a week, I’d go plunk down my cash.

I just built a PC

It’s late, so I’ll save a lot of the gory details for tomorrow, but I built a PC over the course of the last couple of days. I did it a little bit differently than the last couple I’ve built.
All prices quoted are from as of last weekend when I ordered this stuff.


I used a Foxconn PC115. It’s a two-tone case that looks like the cases the big brands use. Since a lot of the big brands buy from Foxconn, it’s probably a derivative of the designs Foxconn sells to them. It’s heavy enough gauge steel that you won’t hurt yourself with it. The mounting points are labeled. It has 11 drive bays. The included 350W power supply is honestly labeled. It’s a lower midrange case. I absolutely wouldn’t buy any less case than this–c’mon, the thing costs 30 bucks–but it’s nice enough that nobody’s going to be embarrassed with it.


I used an AOpen AK75. It’s an AMD board, with a SiS 745 chipset. I’ve never had troubles with VIA chipsets, though to hear some people talk they make Yugos look reliable. I maintain that if you know what you’re doing, VIA chipsets are fine. But SiS has a great reputation of late so I thought I’d give a SiS-based board a try. It’s a nice board. It’s fast, and getting Windows to recognize and utilize the chipset is much nicer. Install the AGP driver and you’re in business.

One note about the board: Part of the Windows installation goes so slowly that I thought the board was defective. Right after the system check, it pauses for a long, long time. I’m talking longer than a Pentium 166. It seemed like minutes, though it probably wasn’t much longer than a minute in reality. Once it gets over that hurdle, it’s fast. This was with Win98 and 2000. I didn’t try XP. I had a legal copy of 98 for the system; I started to put 2000 on it in order to see if it ran into the same problems I thought 98 was having.

I only had a few hours’ experience with the board, which is anything but definitive, but it didn’t raise any red flags, and in my experience, most boards don’t wait until the second date to show their bad side. Usually the problems will show up either on the first day or sometime after the 366th.

I looked at an integrated Intel i815 board and very nearly bought it, but the supply dried up before I could pull the trigger. Buying AMD promotes competition, and the AK75 gives a lot more upgrade options in the future, so I’m not terribly sad about it.


I used a stick of Kingston DDR. It was on sale, I’ve never had a problem with Kingston memory, and back when I was working in an IBM shop, the IBM field techs trusted Kingston memory as much as the stuff IBM used from the factory.

DDR is cheaper than PC133 now, so if you’re building a new system, now’s the time to buy DDR instead. DDR-capable mobos are still more expensive, but they’re faster and you’ll save money in the long run by going with DDR now. DDR is the future. PC133 will stick around a while yet, but it’s headed to the same place EDO memory went.


I used the cheap Radeon flavor of the week. When you don’t do 3D games, video cards don’t matter much anymore. This one was a genuine made-by ATi and I think it cost $29. It’ll stink up the joint if you’re waiting in line to buy Doom 3, but for the rest of us, it’s more video card than we’ll ever need, for a fantastic price.

I don’t have anything against Nvidia, but lately it’s easier to find a full-featured Radeon in the $30-$40 range than an Nvidia offering.


I used a USR 2977. It’s a real hardware modem and it’s PCI so it’ll fit in modern boards. At $35, it’s not that much more expensive than a Winmodem. And Winmodems steal anywhere from 10-20% of your available CPU power. People go to great lengths–either doing lots of time-consuming and sometimes downright foolish stuff, or spending lots of money–to achieve much smaller performance gains, so it’s stupid not to buy something like the 2977.

Hard drive

I used the flavor-of-the-week 7200-rpm 20-gig Maxtor. It cost $65. At that price I’m not going to be too picky, especially because I was working on a tight budget.

Operating system

Windows 98. Why? It was legal and adequate. Linux would be fine except for a few apps the new owner needs to run. There’s definitely enough hardware here to run XP, and XP might even outperform 98, but when you’re building a $300 system, spending $100 on an operating system when you’ve already got one doesn’t make a lot of sense.


I stole the CD-ROM, floppy, keyboard, mouse, and monitor from the PC this one was replacing. Along with all the cables.

Quieting a noisy PC

Just as PCs seem to (or sometimes really do) get slower as they age, PCs also tend to get louder as they age. Considering many of them are plenty loud when new, that’s not good.
When a PC is loud, it’s due to one of two types of components: hard drives or fans. The key is to isolate the noise. To do that, your best bet is to open the case, then power the computer on. Running your PC long-term with the cover off isn’t exactly good for your computer, but running it that way for a few minutes won’t hurt anything.

But before you turn the PC on, blow the dust out of it with a can of compressed air. Resist the temptation to just use a small vacuum cleaner attachment; those are static magnets. In some rare instances, just blowing the accumulated dust out will quiet the PC. In nearly all instances, it will make the PC run cooler, and it’ll make you feel better to not have all that crud accumulated inside your expensive equipment.

Loud buzzes are usually caused by failing fans; clunky noises are usually caused by a loud (and often not long for this world) hard drive.

Oiling a fan will usually quiet it and dramatically increase its life expectancy. As long as the fan hasn’t completely died, this is a good bet. It’s certainly cheaper than replacing a fan, and sometimes it’s easier. Don’t ever try to replace the fan in a power supply–oil it, very carefully, and if the noise doesn’t go away, replace the power supply. There are voltages inside power supplies that will throw you across the room, if they’re in a good mood. If they’re in a bad mood, they can potentially kill you, and I really don’t want that.

You can test a fan by stopping it with a pencil or a similarly shaped object. If the noise goes away, you’ve found your culprit.

There’s not much you can do if the hard drive is loud. I’ve heard of people taking hard drives apart and oiling them in efforts to quiet them. Don’t do that. You might well quiet the drive. You also will certainly prevent it from ever working again.

Instead, replace the drive. Modern drives run pretty quietly. Most retail-boxed drives come with free software to copy your old hard drive to the new one, making the upgrade painless. If you’ve never done this before, buy a drive at retail–an OEM drive from a clone shop or mail order outlet may be a little bit cheaper but won’t have any instructions or software–and set aside a Saturday afternoon. Even if you’ve never undertaken anything like this before, it generally doesn’t take more than a couple of hours. As of this writing, a 20 GB Maxtor drive costs $69.99 at CompUSA. The OEM version of the same drive costs $68 at As you get into bigger drives, the price gap tends to increase, but for many people, 20 gigs is plenty.

Once you’ve oiled or replaced the fans and/or replaced the hard drive with a newer, faster, and quieter model, your formerly loud PC ought to run pretty quietly.