15

In ten years, across several different machines, different companies, and different operating systems I've noticed a trend that external hard drives die long before their internal counterparts. Everyone I've spoken to who has used external hard drives for any period of time has shared the same experience.

At first I thought it was because they are moved a lot more than internal drives, but my laptop internal hard drives seem to last as long as my desktop ones, and I've had the same short lifespan when external drives are never moved.

Is this a known issue? Do external hard drives have substantially shorter lifespans than internal drives? If so, what can be done?

  • Moving anything spinning at 5400/7200 RPM around is sure to cause more wear to the spindle over time, although like everything, it all depends how you treat the drive (shutting it down before moving it, etc...). – Breakthrough May 29 '13 at 12:46
  • external hard drive enclosures tend to be more, well, enclosed. Poor airflow = early heat death. – Mokubai May 29 '13 at 18:25
  • I guess the growth of SSD's have changed things a bit now – Django Reinhardt Jun 5 '17 at 11:31
13

If you put an external harddrive next to the server/desktop and:

  • Do not carry it around in your bag like it is a piece of rock.
  • Do not toss it around like a piece of fruit.
  • Do not expose it to cold wet outside weather followed by dry hot (room) temperatures
  • Do not unplug it and pick it up while it still is spinning.
  • And mount it in a proper case with a decent PSU and sufficient cooling,
  • ...

then I see no reason why they should not last just as long as internal drives.

Ofc, there is a reason why people buy external drives. And they often do get exposed to one or more of the conditions I mentioned above.

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  • As I say in my question, I've had the same experience with drives that have never been moved. In fact, I'm sitting next to one right now that is never moved, but which is on its last legs despite being the exact model of its older neighbors. – Django Reinhardt May 29 '13 at 13:22
  • Also, I'm not sure what you mean about temperatures. All harddrives spend a lot of their life being transported in freezing cold cargo compartments, and then stored in warehouses and stock rooms. Before you've even bought one they will have undergone cold/warm room temperatures several times in their life. – Django Reinhardt May 29 '13 at 13:26
  • I have seen several people carry drives in their backpacks. Then connect them (still wet from rain) to a laptop and use them. I can not imagine that being good for them. Neither are they accustomed to wait until a drive has spun down before it was picked up and put away. (Granted, the laptops got the same behaviour, which can't be all that great for their internal drives). – Hennes May 29 '13 at 13:43
  • DO toss it around like a piece of fruit. In the Marine Corps that was SOP for fixing things. PFC: "Hey Sergeant, this PRC9 just went south and the toughbook screen isn't working any more, what should I do?", Me: "Kick the PRC and drop the book" ... 60% of the time, it worked every time! – txtechhelp Jul 4 '17 at 18:56
5

The primary reason I've come across for external hard drives dieing earlier is due to insufficient cooling in the enclosure; heat will kill a drive if allowed to.

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3

Many of the externals I've seen are too cheap (and too light) to be just a regular HDD in an enclosure, so if you want a long-lived hdd, buy the same hdd you would put in a desktop, and an enclosure for it. Keep it in one place, as far away from humans as possible, and it will likely enjoy a full lifespan. Check your SMART stats a couple times a year to ensure its still healthy.

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  • 1
    a decade of personal experience, just as you claim. My externals are all WD Black line drives and I've gotten 4+ years out of all of them (they are many). the ones people bring to me however, are generally factory assembled, and contain the cheapest possible drive the company carries (often in the 2.5" form factor which is less thermally tolerant). – Frank Thomas May 29 '13 at 12:16
  • That particular product line is designed to last 5+ years considering the lengthy warranty. I agree many externals that are not WD or Seagate use cheaper product line of hdds and to reduce their cost and increase the bottom line. – Ramhound May 29 '13 at 12:38
2

Generally the answers here all come together to one bigger answer. All things the same in terms of actual use and care of the drive, I think these would be the biggest reason externals would fail before internals.

  1. Lack of active cooling. Every desktop and laptop has some sort of fan or active cooling. External drives usually don't have any kind of active cooling.
  2. Quality. A lot of external drives are marketed for consumers and based on pricing rather than quality.
  3. More parts, more points to break. I've seen External drives that have failed simply because the board that converts from SATA to USB has fried. The drive inside the case worked just fine, and passed all the tests.

On the note of physical movement. A lot of laptops will shut off a drive when they detect a certain amount of G-Forces, while an external drive may not be that smart. So, even with the same usage externals may be more susceptible to shock.

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2

In my experience most hard drives fails because there's too many spindowns (you can check that parameter in S.M.A.R.T., it's usually called "Power_Cycle_Count". Usually drive can survive few thousands head retractions/lockdowns and then dies. HDD constantly rotates at nominal speed (usually 5400 or 7200 times per minute), until it reaches inactivity timeout and goes to sleep (it spindowns and head is retracted and locked in safe position[it wears head quickly]). It saves power and prevents damages in case of hdd shocks(when laptop is moved, etc), but destroy heads after to many cycles and causes lags(when application/OS want's to access some file, it need to spin-up to nominal speed, unlock head, etc...it takes at least few seconds)

Enterprise-grade disk got longer values (15-20min, but usually), while consumer drives got as low values as 2-5min. In windows 98 it was called 'standby mode' and was activated after 5min by default(it was recommended to change "computer role" from "desktop" to "server"). It was very bad for hard drives. Some drives spin-down by themeselvs after 20seconds: https://community.wd.com/t/wd-blue-2-5-goes-to-sleep-spin-down-after-20seconds/141133

There were even buggy machines, like old, cheap and bulky Acer notebooks with 3.5" IDE drives that had BIOS with hardcoded spindown values for 3 minutes(not sure about value, but it was not-overridlable), and if for example Firefox or Word(or any other app) flushed data every 5 minutes it wass powered on, it's not hard to wonder why HDD were dying every few months. Acer never fixed BIOS or replaced machines under warranty (at least in Poland). The only workaround was to write some data every 2 minutes and people were using it. (and there were much more buggy hardware from different vendors. It's only example)

But returning to topic, albeit rotational speed, inactivity timeout is main difference between enterprise/performance disks vs powerfriendly/consumer/green drives, and it sometimes it was the only difference i.e. between consumer WD Green drives and NAS Red drives. (they modify drive firmware to show in charts it's more reliable/less laggy for perormance/enterprise drives or modify it to have very agressive power-management because people likes now power-friendly/eco drives and it looks better in charts for them[albeit company know it will destroy drive very quickly)

Under linux you can usually change this value(temporarily or permamently) by using sdparm(or hdparm for olders HDDs). In some old machines it was BIOS-controlled and sometimes you must use vendor-dependant tool(like wdidle3.exe from DOS for some WD drives) and sometimes you are out of luck(it's hardcoded in firmware and there's no way). Under Windows you can change that in power-management settings (if drive/BIOS supports that).

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