How To Test The Health Of Your HDD Drive

I had the misfortune to find out, not long ago, that a computer owner's worst nightmare is a failing hard disk drive. Not because of the need to buy a new one, but because you will face the risk of losing part or even all of your stored data. Moving on from the initial apocalyptic view, as the life expectancy of a hard drive is between 3 to 5 years, it is necessary to check its health on a regular basis. So I propose a short analysis which includes several programs that you can use to analyze your HDD. Let's get started.

S.M.A.R.T. & It's Role In Checking The Health Of Your HDD

S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology) is the embedded monitoring system of any modern HDD or SSD, but, unfortunately, it only lets itself be known to us when an imminent hardware failure is possible. That seems to be a little late. Still, luckily for us, there are a series of utilities that can read the various reliability indicators used by S.M.A.R.T.

Nevertheless, all major HDD manufacturers recommend an occasional check of your disk status, as well as running a few surface tests and benchmarks. Any version of Windows has the Check Disk tool that is a fairly simple way of caring for your hard disk and identify errors, but it usually seems to be of little help in identifying hardware failure.

There are many free testing tools to help us predict and protect ourselves from these unavoidable circumstances of a hard drive failure. Still, I propose using one of these free third party diagnostic tools: PassMark's DiskCheckup, CrystalDiskInfo and/or HDDScan.

All these utilities incorporate the built-in S.M.A.R.T feature mentioned above that helps them give information on read and write speeds, HDD temperature and other important indicators of disk reliability.

PassMark DiskCheckup

DiskCheckup is a hard drive testing program that is free for personal use. You have to download a small 2 MB file with a fairly simple installation and instant reporting of S.M.A.R.T. attributes (if they are supported by your hard drive). In this review I used DiskCheckup v3.3 (build 1000) released on February 5th, 2015.

Under the SMART Info tab you can view the current state and values of the following attributes: raw read error rate, spin up time, reported uncorrectable errors, power on time, load cycle count, temperature, command timeout, current pending sector count, total LBAs read (Logical Block Addressing), free fall protection, and head flying hours.
You can also enable the "Record SMART attributes for TEC computation" in the Configuration window of the program. This option records a history of the attributes monitored by DiskCheckup that can be used (if enough attributes are compiled) to estimate when they will spiral out of control and potentially fail. The interesting part about this is that you can choose (in the same Configuration window) to receive a message from the program when things are going wrong or even have an email sent to one or more addresses.

DiskCheckup can also run two types of Disk Self Tests: a short one that took about 5 minutes to complete and an Extended one that, depending on the status of your HDD, can take up to 45 minutes. Both of them will check for possible drive failures and, also, display information about interface type (e.g. SATA), model number, serial number, capacity, standard compliances, geometry and supported features. This data can be exported to a TXT file.

NOTE: PassMark's DiskCheckup does not seem to work with external drives.

CrystalDiskInfo

CrystalDiskInfo is a very easy-to-use freeware program that monitors S.M.A.R.T attributes and displays disk temperature and drive information. It offers multiple editions that include themes and/or multiple language support as either an installation version or a portable.zip archive. Be careful, though, if you choose the installer it is possible it will come bundled with other software (for me it was the Opera browser) that you should uncheck from the installation process. I chose to use the Standard Edition of version 6.3.2, a 2.9 MB.exe file released on April 4th, 2015.

After installation and launch, CrystalDiskInfo uses a straightforward interface that will immediately display information related to the S.M.A.R.T. attributes status of your hard drive, current temperature and hardware specifications. If there is a problem (as my hard drive seems to have), you will be able to identify exactly what is wrong with the hard drive in the attributes list.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have a lot of options or settings or any type of HDD surface tests. Apart from multiple language choices, in its Function tab, we are able to locate the only two advanced functions: Resident, which keeps CrystalDiskInfo running in your system tray and Startup that will have it automatically start with your computer.

It does what its name tells us, inform, and that's it.

HDDScan

The next free hard drive testing program is HDDScan. It is built to support all types of hard drives, regardless of their manufacturer. Unlike PassMark's software, this tool is completely portable because, after download, it can run directly, without any installation (it comes as a.zip archive). I am about to review version 3.3 (a 4.6 MB folder) that was released on January 3rd, 2014.

After extracting from the.zip file, you will just have to run HDDScan.exe that will launch the program and allow you to start running tests. When the right drive is chosen from the drop-down area you can either directly check the S.M.A.R.T. attributes from the dedicated button or access a large variety of tests and features by clicking on the round button in the center of the window.

HDDScan is able to run its featured tests on any hard drives connected through SCSI, PATA, SATA, USB and FireWire. It is the only one of the three that supports RAID volumes and can even run a surface test for them.

It includes a lot of advanced surface tests such as reading, writing and erasing in linear. Also, we can run three types of S.M.A.R.T. self-tests (Short, Extended and Conveyance), but I cannot offer you a clear time frame because it differs with each particular HDD and its state. All of the tests will be added to the Test Manager section and queued to launch when each of the tests is completed. This area of the program also allows you to pause or delete any of the tests.

A Short Comparison

I was able to learn from using all of these programs that my hard drive is not in excellent health and I should be pretty careful with write errors. Aside from this, here are some quick thoughts about the programs:

  • DiskCheckup is quite small and fast, but it immediately showed me an OK status for my hard drive and did not show any S.M.A.R.T. attributes problems.
  • CrystalDiskInfo is great for any beginner who does not want anything more than a health status mark and a temperature reading, but it offers very little to more advanced users.
  • HDDScan seems to be a very well rounded free hard drive testing tool that will allow you, with the help of its multiple features, a much better understanding of your HDDs health.

Other Alternatives

Apart from the above mentioned HDD diagnostic programs, it is necessary to also mention that every manufacturer offers similar software solutions, though harder to use for inexperienced users:

  • Seagate SeaTools, with both a Windows installer and a DOS version; it can check any hard drive, but only repairs Seagate and Maxtor drives.
  • Samsung HUTIL, a bootable program that needs to be installed on a CD and that only works for Samsung drives.
  • Western Digital DLGDIAG (Data Lifeguard Diagnostic), with both a Windows installer and a DOS version; the Windows version will check any type of hard drive, but the bootable one (DOS based) only works with Western Digital HDDs.
  • Fujitsu Diagnostic Tool, with both a Windows installer and a DOS version without a graphic interface; only works with Fujitsu HDDs.

Conclusion

This analysis tried to recommend three freeware programs that allowed you to test and monitor the health of your hard disk drives (HDDs). They are not the only utilities available online, but they seem to be among the most widely recommended third-party programs for this task. They have a very user friendly interface and the tests (when available) are fairly easy to run. Still, you should take into consideration that the time needed to complete any of the tests depends on the status of your hard drive.

It is very important to understand that, if you use any of these third party programs to check the HDD of your computer and it fails any of the tests, then you should consider replacing your hard drive. Of course, you should follow the advice given in the program and also consider using the manufacturer's software (listed above) for a possible fix.