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#780: Why Did My Hard Drive Die?, 3 Lion Tips, RIP AppleWorks


Happy Tuesday,

It’s the time of year for me and my friends to can and freeze the crates of tomatoes, beans, okra, cucumbers and endless zucchini. While broccoli is mostly over for me, cauliflower is going strong, and cabbages are well on their way. This year I decided to can less with winter in mind in favor of refrigerator pickles and fermented veggies. I never can process vegetables like cucumbers and have them emerge crisp in February, so while I’ll do a good bit of that, keeping the food alive with fermentation is a new challenge.

With so much dry weather following a spring of record flooding, we’re finally enjoying a days-long soaking rain that doesn’t just run off the land. With soft ground imminent, so many of us will be weeding in the coming days. Thankfully, blight doesn’t seem to be affecting the tomatoes this year—at least not yet. Green tomatoes make a mean pickle, preserved or fermented, so either way plenty of good is yet to come.

What are some of your favorite ways to preserve the harvest?

And, since this is of course an Apple-focused newsletter, what are your impressions of Lion so far? I’d love to share your thoughts in an upcoming issue.

As always, thanks for reading, and keep in touch.


  Why Did My Hard Drive Die?  

The old adage says there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. I’d like to add a third: hard drives die. It might be today, tomorrow, next week, next year. It might be 5 years from now. At some point, it will die. The eternal question is, why? Hard disks are prone to two types of failures: physical and logical.

A standard hard drive is made up of three components: the platter, the head and the controller. The platter is a metallic disk coated with a magnetic surface where data is stored; each platter has two sides and most drives have more than one platter. The heads are similar to the needle on a record player—they float over the platters and read or write data as needed. The controller is just that—it controls the read/write heads and translates commands from the operating system to the drive itself. When you click the Finder icon, it sends a command to the controller saying “give me a list of folders.” It sends the necessary commands to the heads to gather this information, then sends it back to Finder.

If you’ve ever wondered what specs like “5400 RPM” or “7200 RPM” mean, it refers to how fast the platters are spinning—5400, 7200 or even 10,000 rotations per minute. The faster the platters spin, the faster you can access your data. The platters are spun by a motor, and anything that spins that fast for a long enough period of time will eventually wear out. If the motor dies, the platters cannot spin, and you can’t get to your data. A sign that the motor might be failing is a loud buzzing or grinding noise from the hard drive as it spins.

Under normal operation, the read/write heads do not ever touch the platter. There is a gap of about 3 nanometers between the head and the surface of the platter. If you don’t know how small a nanometer is, picture a frisbee flying at a speed of 150mph about 3 inches from the ground. That’s how close to the platter the read/write head is, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for error. Just as an errant gust of wind could cause the frisbee to hit the ground, any kind of shock to the hard drive can cause the heads to crash into the platter, scratching the surface and possibly causing the magnetic coating to be ruined. This can be anywhere from hardly noticeable to catastrophic, depending on where the heads happen to hit. Damaged areas can no longer reliably store data, but if there was already data there, it may now be inaccessible. Attempts to read damaged areas can cause the system to slow down, hang (beach ball) or freeze up altogether.

Condensation can also ruin a hard drive. Common belief is that a hard drive is completely sealed and air-tight, but this is not strictly accurate. There is a tiny air hole on the drive’s case (usually marked with a label that says “Do not cover”). Its purpose is to stabilize the pressure and humidity inside and outside the drive. If you leave a laptop in a cold car and then bring it into a warm room, you should let it sit at room temperature for several hours before trying to use it. Seagate drive packaging suggests that if the drive was shipped at a temperature of 30 degrees, the drive should sit for 15 hours before attempting to power it up. I have seen at least one system that was left in the car overnight and then would not boot from the drive the next day. The hard drive was unrecoverable; I can’t help but wonder, had the user waited until the system warmed up, if it would have been okay.

Modern hard drives will automatically move the heads off to the side, away from the platter’s data area, when you power down your system. You should always either shut down your laptop or put it to sleep before moving it to reduce the risk of a head crash. (Please see Tech Tails #744 for more information on how sleep and hard drives are very closely related. -Matt) Carrying it around while it’s running is just asking for trouble, even with modern hard drives’ sudden motion sensor, which parks the heads when motion is sensed.

If you set your system down too hard (or drop it) while it’s not running, the hard drive will often be fine. If the system is running when it hits, the read/write heads can bounce off the platter and corrupt the data stored there, even with a sudden motion sensor. The platters have a lubricating coating that help protect against the casual bump here and there, but this won’t prevent the shock of a drop from damaging the drive.

The controller, like any electronics, can fail with or without any warning. Twenty years ago, hard drives and controllers were separate parts, so if the controller failed you could just swap it for another one and the data on the hard drive would be fine. Now the two are integrated, so if one fails the whole thing fails. Without the drive controller, the system can’t send commands to retrieve data. If you’ve ever turned on your computer and heard a clicking noise from your hard drive, this usually means the controller has failed and can’t send the correct commands to the read/write heads. As a result, they just knock back and forth. What would make the controller fail? Power spikes. An accidental drop. Liquid. Bad luck.

The most common reason drives fail is a cheap component. Hard drive makers are constantly trying to lower their prices, and the sad fact is that the drive components don’t care whose brand name is on the drive. Whoever made it, the drive was made with components from the lowest bidder. It doesn’t matter who sold the system—HP, Dell, Apple, Sony—they all use hard drives manufactured by another company who had to cut costs in order to get the contract. Apple makes every attempt to use only the highest quality components in their systems, but to say that a hard drive will never fail simply because it’s in an Apple computer is wishful thinking.

I haven’t mentioned the “b” word yet… anyone who’s read my articles knows I strongly recommend backing up your system regularly. Some day, your hard drive will develop problems. When it happens, one of the more difficult parts of my job is telling people that their data is gone. All the pictures of their baby growing up, all their college papers, all their music, gone forever. Your hard drive might die, but your data doesn’t have to go with it.

Back up your data. A technician’s least favorite job function is to report that all data is lost.

  3 Lion Tips  

Lion is full of new features and interface improvements. Snow Leopard was, by Apple’s own admission, an evolutionary update meant to fine-tune existing technologies more than reinvent, or even invent. Lion is more about reinvention and the ongoing move to make Mac OS more like iOS. Here are three of the many advances.

I’m a huge fan of Spotlight, and Tech Tails #683 includes some advanced Spotlight features. These features remain, but Spotlight improves the search experience by showing a preview to the left of the highlighted item in the results menu. Go ahead and search for a JPG photo, and hover your mouse over a result. You’ll see a preview of the image. Pretty nifty. This works for many file formats.

Finder is due for a complete re-think if you ask me. It’s remained largely the same since the original Macintosh, with evolutionary changes along the way. I don’t have the answers, but this slick new feature lets you select a group of files and place them all in a new folder. Simply locate a folder with items that should be consolidated, and highlight them by command-clicking on each item. Alternatively, you can select a group of files that appear consecutively in a window, click on the top item and then shift-click on the last item. With your items highlighted, two-finger tap on your trackpad (or right-click with your mouse) and select “New Folder with Selection.”

Full-screen app viewing is a welcome reprieve from the visual clutter we’ve gradually had to accept. It’s like an extension of Safari Reader that works with any program that supports Lion’s full-screen mode. These programs live in their own Space once you put them in full screen mode, so you can just swipe your trackpad left or right with three fingers. The visual effect is just like Safari’s new back and forward animation, and its visual simplicity is appreciated. Even better, it works very smoothly on an entry-level 2009 MacBook, so even somewhat older hardware will support it in a satisfying way without jerkiness. If you happen to notice jerkiness in the animation, look into upgrading your RAM for immediate improvement system wide.

  From the Archives: Backing Up vs Data Recovery Costs  

One of the toughest things a technician has to do is tell customers that their hard drive has failed and recovering the data will likely cost thousands of dollars. A Small Dog customer brought in her 24-inch iMac earlier this month because it would not start up. It was on the bench and diagnosed as a failed hard drive a few hours later, and we contacted her with a few options: replace the hard drive under warranty and return the failed drive to Apple, or send the drive to DriveSavers for professional recovery.

DriveSavers is widely acknowledged as the most capable and best-equipped data recovery firm in the world, and our customer was happy to receive an external hard drive with 100% of her data mere days after sending in the toasted one. She was not happy about the bill, though, which was more than the cost of her computer!

We spoke at length on the phone about how all hard drives eventually fail and how she needs to have a backup system in place. She clearly understood what I was saying, and I made it clear that our conversation was not really about sales but about her protection. No backup drive was purchased.

Three weeks later, the warranty hard drive replacement has failed again. She didn’t back it up and has lost three weeks of work and simply cannot afford the pricey recovery again.

David Lerner, an owner of the preeminent New York City Apple Specialist and repair shop Tekserve, has in his email signature “May you have 1,000 backups and never need one.” It’s a mantra we all should take seriously.

This is just one more sad story about 100% preventable data loss. Do yourself a favor and get a Time Capsule or an external drive, or even email important documents to yourself or stash them on your iDisk. A Time Capsule is much cheaper than a $2200 data recovery!

  RIP AppleWorks  

Way back when, the go-to word processor for me was ClarisWorks. In grade school I mastered its simple interface. I was able to make pamphlets and donation sheets for scouting bike-a-thons, keep team statistics for my youth hockey team in a spreadsheet and type out all of my homework. In a time before America Online, these would all print out of an original StyleWriter. Over the years I’ve transferred this time capsule of my childhood from double-density floppies, to high-density floppies, to zip disks, to jaz disks, to burned CDs, to external hard drives, and one day I finally consolidated all of it and emailed it all to myself using Gmail for relative perpetuity.

Eventually, ClarisWorks became AppleWorks when Apple bought Claris. AppleWorks functions under Snow Leopard but not under Lion, so if you upgrade you’ll need to give it up. However, the documents all remain accessible in Pages under Lion. I’m not really sad that AppleWorks is dead, unlike so many customers who’ve written in with similar nostalgia or, sometimes, panic; I’m just glad the documents are all still viable. There are way too many of them, but one of these days I expect they’ll all need to be converted to PDF, or whatever format seems to have the longest expected lifespan in a few years or so.

Things are similarly simple for those of us who used early Microsoft Office programs. Office 2011 will effortlessly open these ancient files, but don’t expect them to look perfect (not that the old Apple and ClarisWorks files always come out perfectly either).

What digital data do you value, and hope to access far into the future? What safeguards do you have to ensure its safety? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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