Loss of data does not have to be the case: Modern hard drives and SSDs have mechanisms for self-diagnosis. Pending failures can therefore be identified in good time. The problem: The Windows standard tools for this are modest. That is why we are introducing you to the best tools for checking hard drives here. Hard drive defects are one of the worst scenarios for computer users: vacation memories, wedding photos and all the data on the tax return that has just been completed ... Of course, the last backup is a bit older. And even if a usable and up-to-date backup of the data is available, the reinstallation of Windows and the subsequent installation and configuration of all applications is a job that can take a few evenings. It is much easier to clone the old hard drive to the new one at the right moment before the crash and to be able to continue working immediately afterwards. A dream? Not at all.
Two thirds of all failures are predictable
Google is undoubtedly one of the largest users of hard drives, the search index alone fills millions of drives, plus user data from Android and the data required for advertising marketing. And with almost twenty years of company history, Google has enough long-term expertise to be able to make qualified statements. As early as 2007, Google published a study at the USENIX Conference on File and Storage Technologies that looked at the predictability of hard drive failures. Tenor: Not every failure is predictable, but there is plenty of evidence to indicate that a hard drive has a 2/3 probability of dying within the next three months. This is a good approach, but you should always be aware that a hard drive or SSD, even if it is new, can quit service within the next few hours, after all, not every production error is recognized and cold solder joints are always part of the business.
What does SMART recognize?
The SMART logs contain a lot of operating data that only indirectly provide information about the probability of failure, such as the number of starts and stops of the disk's motor, current and historical operating temperatures, number of operating hours, but also the total number of sectors read and written. The SMART logs also store errors. These can be write and read errors that can be traced back to aging, but also checksum errors, the cause of which is more likely to be found in problems with cabling or power supply. And finally, SMART also offers the option of performing self-tests. These are tests that either check only basic properties within a few minutes or read every sector for hours on large disks. Operating data such as the number of operating hours or starts and stops are particularly important when used in companies: Wherever many identical hard disks are used, an upper limit for operating hours can be set when a statistical accumulation is detected, after which a disk can be used as a precaution and is planned to be exchanged. For private users, on the other hand, the "hard facts", that is, the number of read errors or blocks that have already been moved, or the reassignment of pending blocks, are of particular importance.
Differences between SSD and HDD
Classic hard disks and solid state disks differ fundamentally in their structure and thus in their behavior in the event of failure. While a classic hard disk saves the data as magnetic particles on glass or metal disks, the solid state disk uses semiconductor memory cells. Normal hard drives are subject to mechanical wear: bearings break and become stiff, and the magnetic particles cannot be re-magnetized as often as required. It used to be a horror, but today, at least with notebook disks, head crashes, ie the "touching" of the read / write head on the disk surface, are quite rare. With SSDs, the flash memory wears out, it only allows a certain number of write cycles - this service life can at least be estimated well and when an SSD has reached the end of its service life, it usually switches to a read-only mode, which is a problem-free one Moving enabled. Many factors play a role in the selection and evaluation of tools for reading out the SMART values and warning of dangerous values. Does the program prepare the values well so that you can immediately recognize when adversity is imminent? Does the program also run as a background process and regularly monitor all hard drives? Does it still grant access to raw data such as operating hours so that experienced users can use this data to make the decision to replace them? First of all: no tool can do everything perfectly, ideally you use a simple program that runs as a background service and warns of critical values in a clearly visible manner and a somewhat more complex log for occasional detailed information. Windows' on-board tools are hardly usable. You can only read current SMART values via the performance index of the Windows control panel. Windows only determines from this whether the hard disk is "good" or "bad". Windows itself does not reveal details such as the number of operating hours. The Windows on-board resources are practically only sufficient to determine whether the transmission of SMART values is not possibly blocked by the BIOS.
HDD Health: Often the first choice
The freeware HDD Health is one of the most frequently recommended software for monitoring SMART parameters. Rightly so: HDD Health prepares the SMART values in a percentage display and also determines the temperature. The two most important indicators are always available in the tray. In addition, warnings when limit values are exceeded can be configured as a sound, popup or e-mail. Attention: The start as a background process must be explicitly specified in the options!
Crystal Disk Info: Use only the portable version
Crystal Disk Info is open source software that reads raw SMART values, displays them as a table and shows the most important values - temperature, operating hours and number of starts - on an overview page. In addition, Crystal Disk Info can create graphics that let you see how a hard drive's condition is deteriorating over time. Crystal Disk Info has a tray or warning mode, which is only active if the program is always run via autostart. Crystal Disk Info has an adware-financed installer and an ad-free portable version. Use the portable version despite the somewhat greater installation effort!
HD Tune: Pro version with self-test
HD Tune is available in a free and a paid version (approx. 25 euros). While the paid version can handle all types of SMART tests, the free version can only read out current operating parameters. After all, it processes the measured values very well. The Pro version can also start self-tests, access external hard drives and warn of critical values.
Acronis Drive Monitor: Warns when data is at risk
The free Drive Monitor tool from the hard drive specialist Acronis is noticeable for its reduced functionality, which is very well tailored to the requirements of the SOHO (Small Office Home Office) area. It provides an overview of the health status of drives, detects events that can cause data loss and warns via the taskbar or e-mail if data is at risk. When limit values are reached, the tool provides information about the respective parameter and refers to the forum and knowledge base. Somewhat confusing: The Critical Events tab also contains software threats to data, such as notices from Microsoft's malware removal tool.
SeaTools: For Seagate and Maxtor hard drives only
Seagate's SeaTools are not just a SMART monitor, but a comprehensive diagnostic tool for hard drives from Seagate and Maxtor . The main task of this program is to give customers the opportunity to determine whether a hard drive is actually defective - and whether it is worth sending the drive to Seagate or if unusual behavior has other causes (viruses, power failure). The determination of SMART parameters and the start of self-tests are of course an essential part. Pros: The SeaTools offer a way to force sector remapping. This is particularly useful for records that show initial defects but have passed the warranty period. Such disks can still be used for a while for data exchange ("little films for friends"). SeaTools require .NET 4.0 .
WD Data Lifeguard: Western Digital only
Similar to the SeaTools, Western Digital's Data Lifeguard is a diagnostic and repair tool from a large hard drive manufacturer. The program reads out SMART values, carries out self-tests and prepares the information collected as pass or fail. Like SeaTools, it does not have a tray mode. The program must be started explicitly via the context menu and "Start as administrator".
Conclusion: testing yourself is the best choice!
Ultimately, you cannot avoid testing yourself. Whether software is suitable for your own purposes depends on the stored drive database. The greatest SMART tool is useless if your own hard drive is only rudimentarily supported - this is especially true for USB hard drives, because not every USB-to-SATA bridge with SMART transfer is correctly recognized. The free programs from HDD Health and Acronis are good choices for everyday use. In the event of abnormalities, Crystal Disk Info and HD Tune help to identify details.