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Which is the most reliable brand . . .
of hard disk drive?
Discussion on the most reliable brand or best make of hard disk drive:

Over many years of experience and witness by MicroCom within the data storage equipment industry, one particular question has been more repeatedly asked than most of the other common ones:  "Who makes the best drive?".  Questions such as "What's the most reliable brand of disk drive?", or "What's the best brand of hard drive money can buy?"; or others of a like nature, are heard un relentingly, again and again, year after year.  Then there's the permutation "Wouldn't you agree that '-you-fill-in-the-brand-' hard drives are just about the worst, most unreliable make of hard drive?"  These and other questions of similar intent are often put to experts in the field, and represent an entire class of inquiry used for probing into this one, single issue.

A direct ancestor of today's hard drives: and, from the late 1970's to early 1980's, one of the most reliable and popular "flying head" computer disk drives on the planet.  These CDC (Control Data Corp.) 9427H Hawk "floor models" (rack-mount versions came next), as shown clearly in the lower two of the above three images, stood roughly 3 feet (1 meter) high; the round, blue object in the upper image is the outer removable cartridge containing a 14-inch diameter platter; additional 14-inch "fixed" platters (up to three) were located directly beneath the removable cartridge. This series of CDC Hawk drives were available in capacities from 3Mb to 12Mb, and even the low-capacity version cost many thousands of dollars. Too heavy to lift, as you may have guessed these drives were not available for use in laptops.

The short answer to this last question is the same as the shortest possible English language answer to any question: "No."  Okay, strictly speaking, that doesn't make much sense — but it does convey the right idea.  Asking which brand of hard drives are the best is something like asking the same thing about cars made by Audi, BMW and Mercedes.  Especially without definitive criteria, there really is no simple, tellingly informative answer.  On the other hand, in an interesting sense, the question is actually getting easier and easier to answer; speaking of brand names, as of the end of the year 2011 there were only three possible options! (SEE BELOW).

The more complicated answer (but also more informative) from an expert in the field (such as MicroCom) is that every single maker of hard disk drives has manufactured certain models that are in every way best of class, and superior to their competition.  And it's also true that every single one of them has put out a model or two (at least), that would make a lemon tree cower with embarrassment.

A truth that should be owned up to by every computer user who uses that computer to store data having value to them is that no matter what brand of hard drive is installed, sooner or later it will fail and block your access to the data that has been recorded on it.  The hard disk drive, with its physically rotating magnetic recording disk platter media and air-bearing enabled flying heads inside, has always been, and for as long as they continue to be used, always will be, the most unreliable component of everyone's computer.  The most appropriate means to deal with this reality is to have backup copies of all valuable data.

There is probably only one point upon which helpful guidance might be given in this vein, and here it is – the best and most concise information you'll ever find on this topic, and it's an admonition that applies equally well to all high technology products (feel free to apply liberally wherever you shop for computers or electronics!):

The Best Answer for
      Buying the Most Reliable Hard Drive:

Beware the most advanced, latest, greatest, "bleeding-edge", high technology products.  A hard drive that is, while not the cheapest you might find, and at the same time, not the most expensive – from the standpoint of statistical reliability, will tend to provide the best, longest lasting service.

      For some independent, recent, sound & specific advice, dated October 2013, CLICK HERE.


Extant Brand Names & Hard Drive Legacy

From the legacy of the 1980's, in stark contrast with today's reality, there were numerous competing "micro-computer disk drive" manufacturers, well over three dozen that included such legacy Legacy Hard Disk Drives - from 8in. to 1.8in. sizes brand names® as Micropolis, Rodime, Lapine, NEC, Tandon, CDC/Imprimis (Control Data Corp.), Microscience, Shugart, Conner, CMI (Computer Memories Inc.), Kyocera, Miniscribe, Priam, Kalok, Areal Technology, Megavault, Integral Peripherals, JT Storage, Ministor, PrairieTek, as well as others.  Most of these names are hardly recognized by anyone now, just two decades later; indeed, only a few computer hardware buffs can even remember if they've even heard of them (For a much longer, more inclusive list of defunct hard disk makers, CLICK HERE).  Every single one of the currently existing manufacturers (see list below) were also in the business back in those same early days, and the fact that they are still with us now is strong testimony to each vendor's fierce commitment to data storage technology and the building of a high quality product.  All are excellent brand names, and in general, provide reliability you can trust — up to a point, an unknown point.  The key term here:  "unknown" is a distinctly important point.

Hewlett-Packard ceased their disk drive manufacturing in the 1990's.  Hard drive manufacturers Quantum and IBM, historically two of the greatest names® in the business, only since the dawn of the new millenium now fail to qualify for the elite group below.  And even more recently Maxtor, another historic and venerable name in disk drive technology, came under the specter of industry consolidation; in May of 2006 they were acquired by Seagate Technology (it was Maxtor who acquired the Quantum disk drive business in April of 2001; in prior history Seagate acquired CDC/Imprimis in 1989, and Conner in 1996).  On October 1, 2009 Toshiba acquired the Fujitsu disk drive business.  Most recently of all, and in the space of just a single year, on March 7, 2011 Western Digital gobbled up Hitachi GST and on December 19, 2011 Seagate ingested the disk drive unit of Korean giant Samsung.  We can only wonder... what company will be the next to face the setting sun of historical demise?

In the following alphabetical list are the three still extant makers of hard disk drives, the three firms that have not only survived well into the twenty-first century, but who emerged victorious after a quarter century of industry consolidation and today are still creating those indispensable rotating memory hard disk drive data storage products for our computers, RAID's, and a continually growing list of digital communication and entertainment devices:

While all of the above brand names can referred to as "hard drive" makers, this term actually connotes "micro-computer disk drives", and the names we've dropped so far include only those.  Computers had disk drives well before the advent of the micro-computer, of course, referred to as "mainframe" systems, and after those, "mini-computers", and these physically larger systems had physically larger and more expensive disk drives (such as the CDC Hawk shown in the picture at top).  "Hard drive" is an expression that emerged along with "personal" computers.  If we were to include the makers of disk drives with platter diameters of fourteen-inches or more, our list of defunct manufacturers, while including some of those already named would, to name only a few, add the likes of Bull, DEC, Encore, Honeywell, Evans & Sutherland, Pertec, Wang Labs, and succeed in stretching the list out considerably further.

Hard Disk Drive Reliability

Service life unpredictability has always been one of the foremost issues involved with hard disk drive use, and even though today's drives are somewhat more reliable than twenty years ago, this reality always will be an issue.  And even though portability portends exposure to the increased hazards of bumps, drops, and falls, it's equally true that whether a drive is installed as an internal within a desktop system, as an "external" — (inside a USB/Firewire/eSATA interface enclosure), or as a laptop internal, failure can still be spontaneous.  When any device with a hard disk installed inside is dropped, sudden death of the drive is almost certain.

Throughout the 1970's and '80's, Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF), intended as a reliability metric, became at certain historical points in time a hotly contested selling point, though various, sometimes conflicting standards for measuring this performance parameter lead to a weakening of its meaning and usefulness.  Even if the metric had proven to be reliable, it's was still only a statistical average having little bearing on any given user's personal experience of reliability.

Huge engineering efforts were undertaken during the 1990's by all of the major HD makers existing at the time to mitigate disk drive reliability issues, and eventually something called SMART* technology emerged by 1996 (which stands for Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology).  It's ambition was, like a distant thunderclap, to warn of impending hard drive failure so you might have time to back up your data before the rains came in.  Ultimately all the engineering efforts really came to no avail.  A guy named Russell Smith, can be quoted as saying it should have been called STUPID (Supposed To Utilize Program Integrity, Doesn't), because it rarely ever warns anyone before a drive actually goes down completely.  In a 2007 study performed by Google®, a user of vast quantities of hard drives, a similar conclusion supports this claim.  The air-bearing enabled "flying head dynamic" inherent in ALL disk drive designs quite simply is a very beautiful, yet fragile thing... not fully understood by science.  The more you learn about how hard drives actually work, the more amazing it seems that they work at all!


* Becoming ubiquitous since 1997, S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym for Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology systems and even today it (SMART) is still typically built into most modern ATA and SCSI hard disk drives.

Author:  S.E. Fowler / Steve Fowler

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