Saturday, December 08, 2007

More HDD woes ... and some from DRM :)

As a result of some of my previous posts I now got a name in my circles as the 'guy to ask about notebook HDD problems' - which resulted in actually seeing a number of weird HDD problems and even being paid to solve such problems for other people - and this short post will be about small tricks that I have learned with a number of such disk operations.

First a short note on the actual HDD brands - it is VERY hard to say in advance that a specific HDD model will be better over time than another similar model - generally each company might have good models and bad models and even good batches and bad batches, but almost always the 'verdict' can only be seen after more than a year of use and the statistical data is very thin or very late - I really don't care that today we can say quite clearly which was the best 8 GBytes notebook HDD since nobody will want to buy one (or be able to find a new one). Some clues can be taken from feedback on sites like but anything with less than 30-50 feedback can be very misleading and even more upsetting can be the fact that many models were replaced and as a result there is no statistical trace of some of the worst models - like Toshiba MK1032GAX. Another important thing to remember might be that 'revolutionary first models' very often have unsolved problems - you can see that today on some of the first 'perpendicular recording' models. Obviously when picking a new HDD to replace an old one inside a notebook you must pay attention to the bus/connector type (SATA vs classic ATA) and also remember that 120 GB is a safer bet than 160 GB for older BIOS versions.

Copying the old information can be very easy or very hard - if the old disk is good and you already have some decent software and hardware tools you are in the first scenario but with a bad or partially bad old disk things can be a nightmare. You obviously need a way to access BOTH the old and the new disks at the same time - so you might need at least an external (cheap) enclosure - but in extreme situations you might need adaptors and a way to place the disks inside a desktop. A simple copy without any 'partition moving/resizing' from a good HDD should be the safest choice - and almost any software should be able to handle it.

However it is a lot more difficult to copy bad disks - even partially bad that have the bad sectors already marked as such - PartitionMagic used to be among the best programs for custom disk copying but it will fail with incredibly cryptic errors when seeing a NTFS partition with bad sectors - and when you get to that point and you don't have a huge amount of money (or time) a Linux solution might be the best alternative - a LiveCD with GParted (with Clonezilla as an alternative) - and even in that case you might actually need to use ntfsclone from the command-line. Generally in my recent experience I have found that GParted/ntfsclone are the best for a 1:1 copy, PartitionMagic can be very good AFTER the 1:1 copy to extend a partition and keep it in a bootable state (but even it can often fail on shrinking partitions). A wise idea is to run Windows CHKDSK as soon as possible on the new copy - and in case the old partitions had bad clusters a very handy tool might be a Vista bootable install DVD - you can get to the command prompt and the Vista CHKDSK can now check and eliminate previously bad sectors with the new /B switch !!!

After a successful copy you might want to check first the bootable status (and if you have a more complex booting scheme just marking a partition active might not be enough and some extra effort might be needed) and eventually then take a look at how DRM/protections have 'survived' the copy - one of the absolute worst offenders in that regard is the full Acrobat 7 which you might need to reinstall - and as I have recently seen while helping a friend, you will need to - 1) uninstall + restart, 2) install 7.0 + restart, 3) install 7.05 update + restart, 4) install 7.07 update + restart, 5) install 7.08 update + restart, 6) install 7.09 update + restart = 6 RESTARTS for a fu**ing 'PDF corrector' !!!

After you get everything running you might also want to think on the long-term HDD-error-prevention, and that might involve a number of things:

  • useless load-cycles prevention - that is very important in certain versions of Linux, also very likely in OSX; what makes things worse is that different drives will show different results, but things are certainly not good if you hear the disk heads parking every 2-3 second or so ...
  • if you are very good with respecting 'planned administrative maintenance' then Spinrite is certainly a major option - and running a full test every month or so will keep your data alive for a loong time; however most people are not that good with 'regular maintenance' and in that case you should at least activate SMART on the hard-drive and eventually activate "automatic offline data collection" (with smartctl -o on) - that will sometimes result in strange HDD activity when there should be none, but with that enabled problems might be detected / self-corrected at much earlier stages.

What can you do with the old disk ? Probably nothing that involves important data, but in a not-so-surprising way a clean 'reformat' might show something that looks like a perfect disk - since on write the HDD firmware will force the reallocation of the bad sectors - but the SMART data will show the actual number of bad sectors (and give a better idea of the extent of the problem). A small problem might be that no USB enclosure that I know of will pass SMART commands, so for such advanced use you will need to have the disk on the ATA/SATA bus ...

I will end the post with an interesting link to an article by a Mac fan which in turn links to some other posts - I guess now the image behind the 'marketing curtain' no longer looks so rosy ...


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