The average life span of a hard drive is approximately three to five years. This number is not absolute, however, as many things affect a hard drive, its life span and its performance. In addition, as with any electronic device, some hard drives defy age and last much longer; others die quickly for unknown reasons. Life span is not the primary consideration when discussing hard drives. Rather, user needs and proper care determine how long a hard drive will be useful.
Hard Drive Function
A computer hard drive’s primary function is file storage and retrieval. Contrary to popular belief, the hard drive is not the computer’s memory. Rather, the hard drive is where all of the computer’s and user’s files are stored. For example, when loading new programs on a computer, the files required to run the program are stored on the computer’s hard drive. When a user opens a file he or she saved, they are most likely opening that file from the hard drive. Hard drives are partitioned and data is stored in clusters on the hard drive.
Hard Drive Capacity
One of the reasons the hard drive and computer memory is confused is because the hard drive only has a set capacity to store a certain amount of data, much like the computer’s memory, the RAM, can only process a certain amount of activity. Each computer file is a certain size, and that size is calculated bytes. Both the hard drive and RAM can only handle a set amount of bytes. A kilobyte, the smallest file storage capacity, is 1,000 bytes. A megabyte is 1,000 kilobytes. A gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes, and a terabyte is 1,000 megabytes. The hard drive’s capacity is the maximum amount of bytes it can handle. So, a 1 terabyte hard drive can hold 1 terabyte’s worth of data.
Hard Drive Capacity and Life Span
In most cases, the life span of a hard drive is primarily dependent upon its capacity. The number one reason computer users replace hard drives is not because they had died, but rather because the user needs more space. If a computer user has a 1 terabyte hard drive, it will not run out of space in any foreseeable future. But many inexpensive computers are fitted with smaller drives, and if the user saves large data files, such as video files, music and gaming programs, the smaller hard drive will run out of space quickly. Therefore, the life span of a smaller hard drive is relatively short, as the user will likely need to upgrade the more they save files.
Physical Hard Drive Issues
Aside from running out of space, computer hard drives fall prey to other issues. A computer’s hard drive is a sensitive piece of electronic equipment. If the computer is not cared for properly, the hard drive might fail. Anytime a computer receives a jolt, whether that is an improperly grounded power outage or physical stressor such as being dropped, the hard drive suffers. Should the computer be improperly ventilated and overheat, the hard drive could also be damaged. This is why it is critical to ensure all computers are set squarely on a desk or appropriate flat surface with proper ventilation. The computer’s vents should never be covered, including sitting a laptop on the user’s lap. A computer should also always be plugged into a properly grounded surge protector.
Data-related Hard Drive Issues
Data can also compromise a hard drive’s life span. If the hard drive is hit with harmful software such as a computer virus or a computer worm, the hard drive is in danger of losing its life. These viruses and worms, as well as poor data structure, can alter the hard drive’s ability to save the data effectively and not only compromise disk space, but also disk performance. As dangerous data damages the hard drive’s clusters, the life span is diminished. Eventually, the hard drive will fail and no longer be able to store or retrieve data.
Issues and Life Span
Hard drives not properly maintained will fail long before their average three-to-five-year life span. If the computer faces a physical failure, the hard drive might fail immediately. If the hard drive is infected with a virus or worm, it might take several months before it begins to fail – it depends on the type of infection. To prevent premature failure, computers users should protect their hard drives, both physically and with regular maintenance checks and protective software. Short of any unforeseen problem and running out of space, these measures should ensure the hard drive a healthy three to five years and possibly beyond.
- Cal State Berkeley: Failure Trends in a Large Disk Drive Population – This Berkeley abstract explains some trends behind larger disk drive failures.
- University of Florida: Lifespan of Electronic Products – The University of Florida cites the average life span of electronics in this link.
- The Amherst Student: Amherst Bytes – Contributor Peter Le discusses the average life span of hard drives and why it is important to back up data.
- Mississippi State University: Disk Basics – Mississippi State University takes readers on a technical journey of how hard drives are built and partitioned.
- University of Wisconsin: Hard Disk Drives – University of Wisconsin explains all there is to know about computer hard drives and how they function.
- MIT: An Introduction to Disk Partitions – Hard drives are partitioned for storage, and MIT explains how this is done.
- Department of Defense Education Activity: Hard Drive Basics – Learn about the history of computer hard drives from this DOD link.
- Lehigh University: RAM Vs. Hard Drive Memory – A computer’s memory is a different function from its hard drive as explained by Lehigh University.
- University of Arkansas: Basic Hardware Maintenance – Learn how to properly care for and back up a computer’s hard drive data from this link.
- Indiana University: Troubleshooting Hard Drive Problems – Indiana University gives reader a guide to troubleshooting hard drive problems in this article.