Friday, June 26, 2009

Computer tip of the day

I was at the office supply store yesterday, looking whether any computer equipment was on sale (as with the Sears of old, no one buys at list price).

I spent most of my time looking at external disk drives, as my wife has filled up her hard disk with digital photos and I’m looking to buy something under $100 either to store the overflow or (more likely) to backup all her data so I can move the overflow to her existing backup drive. The store had 2.5" disk drives in the 160-500 Gb range, and 3.5" disk drives with a terabyte or more.

In front of the disk drives was a guy with an official-looking polo shit who turned out not to be a store employee — nor even a customer — but just someone from the disk drive industry doing competive research.

Given the latter information — and where we were standing in San Jose — it was pretty trivial to figure out he was from the old IBM disk drive group on Cottle Road. (You might have heard of them, since they invented the disk drive in 1956 and also the floppy disk in 1971).

Alas, the historic building was destroyed by a fire, and the giant Cottle Road facility is going to become a strip mall and houses. IBM merged its disk drive business with Hitachi in 2002 as a way to exit the business. Since then, I meet Hitachi engineers now and again, particularly when they serve as a fellow science fair judge dispensing awards the IEEE Santa Clara Valley chapter. Some of the Hitachi engineers worked for IBM 8 years ago, while others are new to Hitachi and its San Jose disk operations.

My new acquaintance from Hitachi Thursday was proud of the fact that their reliability (e.g. one year failure rate) was better than the other companies on the shelf. If company “H” has a 0.8% failure rate, then company “S” is next best at 1.2%. It’s hard to set a reliability for company “V,” since they don’t make their own spindles and buy from other companies on a product-by-product basis. (We didn’t mention company “M” because they were not on the shelves, nor company “B” or “I” or “ST”.)

However, the market is being driven by company “W,” which is although lowest reliability is driving demand and market dynamics through an aggressive price war. (Here we call that commoditization.) My engineer acquaintance seemed wistful about having to match price while maintaining quality, but he was also pragmatic that consumers want to save that last $10 for something they’re eventually going to throw away.

Because, as my acquaintance made clear, all of these disk drives are going to fail. However, I learned a few things about when and how.

Although power supplies can and do fail (and can often be replaced free), the main failure to worry about is when the head stops floating over the platter. (I think he was referring to what we 35 years ago called a “head crash”). Some disk drives will beep — warning that failure is imminent — which means that an immediate backup is imperative.

The #1 way to increase the odds of a head crash is heat. People stack their disk drives with other electronic devices, magnifying the heat beyond the original design spec. Or perhaps (as I do) they use them in an un-air conditioned residential room in California in the summer. (From now on, my backup HDD’s will stay turned off until the interior temp drops below 80° F).

The other point — which surprised me — is that the 2.5" HDD are more reliable than the 3.5" HDD. They are made from higher quality materials, which makes sense since they need a higher recording density. (Since most of them go into laptops, I would imagine they also need to be more rugged.) Of course, for external HDDs, today they are powered by the USB port which means there’s no power supply to go wrong.

So I guess my next stop is to go to Fry’s and buy a 2.5" hard disk drive made by company “H”, such as the 250 Gb external they have for sale at $60.