How long does a hard drive last?

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

SSD myths

SSD myths

SSDs, like most disruptive technologies, face some questions and resistance. People will grasp at any straw to avoid adopting them. Thanks to this resistance, a number of SSD myths arose. Here are the myths I see repeated over and over again, and the truth, based on my experience actually using the things.

Note: I originally wrote this way back in 2010. The drive technologies I speak of as state of the art are rather aged now. But the principles still hold today, and will continue to do so. Hard drives have gotten better, but SSD have gotten better at a more rapid pace.

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First impressions: HP Mini 110

I spent a few hours last night with an HP Mini 110 1012NR. It’s a model with a 16 GB solid state drive (no spinning mechanical hard drive) and Windows XP.

My biggest beef is the keyboard. It’s undersized, and I can’t touch type on it. Try it out before you buy one.

The rest of the system isn’t bad, but there are some things you’ll want to do with it.The system acted weird until I removed Norton Antivirus 2009. By weird, I’m talking not staying on the network, filesystem errors, chkdsk running on reboot, and enough other goofiness that I was ready to take the thing back as defective. The system stabilized as soon as I removed Norton Antivirus, and stayed stable after I installed ESET NOD32.

The system also ran a lot faster.

Don’t believe the hype about Norton Antivirus 2009. Use ESET NOD32. This is the second HP laptop in a month that’s given me Norton Antivirus-related problems.

McAfee is better, but only sufficiently better to use if your ISP is giving it to you for free. I still think NOD32 is worth the $40 it costs. The Atom CPU in the Mini 110 feels like a Pentium 4 with NOD32 installed. It feels like a Pentium II or 3 with something else installed.

The SSD isn’t a barn burner. I have OCZ Vertex drives in my other PCs, and this one doesn’t measure up the Vertex. Reads are pretty quick, but writes can be a bit slow. Windows boots in about 30 seconds. Firefox loads in about five. Word and Excel 2000 load in about a second.

So it’s not bad. But an OCZ Vertex would be a nice upgrade. Drop it in, use it for the OS and applications, and use the stock 16 GB drive for data.

A memory upgrade would also be worthwhile. With the stock 1 GB, it’s hitting the pagefile to the tune of 400 MB.

Unfortunately, to really make the computer sing, you’re looking at spending $200 in upgrades ($40 for NOD32, $40 for 2 GB of RAM, and $120 for an OCZ Vertex). Spread it out over the life of the machine and it wouldn’t be so bad though. And you’ll be paying $40 a year for antivirus no matter what you use.

The build quality is typical HP. I have lots of aged HP and Compaq equipment that’s still going strong. I don’t get rid of HP stuff because it breaks, I get rid of it because it’s so hopelessly obsolete as to be useless. I hesitate to buy from anyone else, except Asus. And Asus, of course, is HP’s main motherboard supplier.

If you can get used to the keyboard, I think the Mini 110 is a good machine. It weighs 2 pounds and is scarcely larger than a standard hardcover book, so it fits almost anywhere. And having an SSD, there isn’t much that can fail. The battery will eventually fail, and probably the AC adapter will too, but I think other than that, one of these computers could last 20 years, assuming it would still be useful for anything then.

How to use compression to help life with an SSD

Since pretty much everyone thinks my love of SSDs is insane, I’ll throw another insane idea on top of it: using data compression. It makes sense. Doing it selectively, you help performance, while saving space. At a much higher cost per gig, that saved space is very nice to have.

Here’s why compression makes sense. Under many circumstances, an SSD can saturate your IDE bus. Then you run into the 56K modem problem. The bus is saturated, but you want more speed, so what do you do? Compress the data. Although data compression makes people nervous (shades of DoubleSpace I’m sure), modems have been doing this for two decades. Why? Because it works.

So while your drive is happily shoving 200 megs per second through your IDE bus, if you can compress that file by 20 percent, guess what? You’ll get 20% better throughput.

CPU usage is the main objection to this. But in my experience, NTFS compression uses 20-40% of a recent (P4-class or newer) CPU when compressing. That’s the hard part. When decompressing, overhead is a lot less. The objections to NTFS compression really date to the days when 200 MHz was a fast CPU.

I don’t recommend just compressing your whole disk. Selective compression is a lot better. There’s no use trying to compress data that’s already compressed, and a lot of our data is.

Use the command COMPACT to do the job for you. Here’s my sequence of commands:

CD \
COMPACT /S /C *.doc *.xls *.rtf *.txt *.1st *.log readme* *.bmp *.wav *.wmf *.bat *.cmd *.htm *.html *.xml *.css *.hlp *.chm *.inf *.pnf *.cat

If you have other compressible files, of course you can add those.

This is a one-time event, but you can schedule it to happen daily or weekly if you want. Just put the two lines in a batch file and create a scheduled task to run it. The command will skip any files that are already compressed. While the compression itself doesn’t take a lot of CPU time, scanning the drive does, so you might want to run it while you’re away if you’re going to schedule it.

Don’t bother trying to compress your My Music or My Pictures directories; that data is all highly compressed already, so all you do is tax your CPU for no reason when you compress that kind of data. Of course the main reason people buy 1 TB drives is because they have hundreds of gigabytes of music and movie files. It’ll be a while before storing that kind of data on SSD is practical. In that case, buy an SSD to hold the operating system and apps, and a conventional drive to hold all that data.

Some people compress their C:\Program Files directory. This can work, but some programs are already compressed. I would be more inclined to experiment with subdirectories on a case-by-case basis. Try compressing one program directory, see if it packs down any, and if it does, great. If not, uncompress it and move on.

UPX does an outstanding job of packing down program files but it’s not completely transparent. I found enough programs didn’t run afterward that I gave up on it. NTFS compression is a lot less effective, but a lot more transparent. As long as you don’t compress your swap file or hibernation file (and Windows will warn you incessantly if you even try to do that), you won’t break anything with it.

If you enjoy tinkering with things, by all means feel free to experiment with UPX. There was a time when I would have probably done it, but given a choice today between playing with data compression or playing with metalworking tools, I’d rather play with my metalworking tools.

But I do really like this SSD. For the first time in a very long time, I can sit down at a computer running modern software and it still feels fast.

This could be the one… SSD for the masses

Anandtech released the most thorough article on SSDs I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure exactly what it set out to be. It’s a review of the new OCZ Vertex SSD, but it also explains virtually every SSD technology on the market today, and the strengths and weaknesses of each–over the course of a 30-page odyssey.

The takeaway is this: The OCZ Vertex, which sells for as little as $128 at Newegg for the 30 GB version, gives the much more expensive Intel X25 series a run for its money.I’m not an out-and-out performance guy nearly so much as I’m a bang-for-the-buck guy. I want an SSD in the worst way, and it was clear when the X25s came out that Intel had a real winner on its hands, but $600 is a lot of money to pay for a disk drive. I don’t pay $600 for entire computers anymore.

The Vertex delivers performance nearly as good, at a budget price. It’s still far more expensive than a conventional hard drive on a cost-per-gigabyte basis (for $128 you can have a terrabyte conventional drive), but find me a conventional drive that consistently boots Windows in 48 seconds and loads Photoshop CS4 in less than five seconds. But the real beauty is that you can have a full virus scan running in the background and the effect on performance is negligible.

Some 24 years after Commodore introduced the first personal computer with pre-emptive multitasking, the full promise of pre-emptive multitasking is made complete. The hardware has finally caught up with the software.

Although I’ve been dreaming of solid state drives for literally years, I’ve been hesitant to buy one because of the problems associated with them, and the general lack of understanding behind those problems. Now, the problems are out in the open: They’re caused by the compromises necessary to give the drives good life expectancy.

The big problem with inexpensive SSDs from last year, such as the OCZ Core, Supertalent Masterdrive, and other similarly priced drives was that while their sustained read and write speeds were very good, their random write performance falls off a cliff. If the system has to write to two different files at the same time, the drives start performing like floppy drives, or at least the really low-end hard drives of the early/mid 1990s. Remember JTS or Quantum Bigfoot hard drives?

A lot of power users will sniff at the 30 GB capacity of the entry-level model. That’s fine; the drive comes in capacities up to 240 GB. But I look at it this way: 30 GB is more than enough room to hold the last version worth having of anything Microsoft ever wrote (or will write)–Windows XP and Office 2003. One could get a mid-range motherboard and CPU, max out its memory, install a 30 GB Vertex with Windows XP and Office 2003, and have a computer with a life expectancy of 10 years. And not only that, the computer will still be worth using in 10 years too.

It’s almost too bad I’m not in computer sales anymore (I haven’t been since 1995). I think I could sell a lot of these.

A Readyboost alternative for XP

I found a reference today to Eboostr, a product that adds Readyboost-like capability to XP. Essentially it uses a USB 2.0 flash drive to speed up your system, although it’s unclear whether it’s using it for virtual memory, a disk cache, or both.

I found a review.I don’t have a machine that’s an ideal candidate for this. The product, from everyone else’s comments on the blog, works best on machines that have less than 1 GB of RAM. If you’ve maxxed out the memory on an aging laptop, this product will extend its usefulness.

My ancient Micron Transport laptop would be a good candidate, since it maxes out at 320MB of RAM and none of the 256 MB sticks I’ve tried in it work, so I’m stuck at 192 MB. But there are two problems: It’s running Windows 2000, and it doesn’t have USB 2.0 slots. Any machine that came with USB 2.0 slots and Windows XP probably can be upgraded pretty cheaply to 1 GB of RAM or more.

I could put XP on the laptop, get a PCMCIA USB 2.0 card for it, and a $20 USB stick so I can use a $29 product to give me Readyboost. But by the time I bought all that, I’d be more than halfway down the road to a newer laptop.

I think a better solution for me would be to replace the hard drive with a solid-state drive. It would cost less than $200, boost the reliability (the latest I’ve heard is that solid state IDE drives will last about 10 years, which is about double the expectancy of a conventional drive), and then everything is on a device with a fast seek time. Plus the drive in that machine is getting old anyway and probably ought to be replaced. I could probably get a solid state drive for about the cost of a conventional hard drive, a USB stick, and this software.

I’m not going to dismiss the software entirely, since it clearly is helping some of the people using it. If you run lots of heavy applications side by side and you’re running up against your memory limits, it can probably help you. And if you can get a good deal on a flash drive (either you have one, or grab one on sale for $20), then there’s little harm in downloading the demo and trying it out for 4 hours. Make sure you stress the system before and after installing to see if you can notice a difference.

If you don’t see much difference, you’re not out much. USB flash drives are incredibly useful anyway. Use it as a cheap and fast backup device. If you do see a difference, then you’ve extended the useful life of your machine.

The mixed results don’t surprise me, frankly. Vista’s Readyboost gives mixed results too. It really helps some people. It has no effect on others. And in rare cases it may actually make things worse.

If you want to try to get some of the benefit for free, you might experiment with redirecting your browser cache, Photoshop scratch disk, and temp files to a USB flash drive. It almost certainly won’t hurt, and could help a lot.

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