Getting S.M.A.R.T. about your hard drive.

Your computer's hard drive — where all data is permanently stored when not in use — is the single most mechanically active part of your computer, spinning constantly at up to 7,200 times per second while the computer is running, and on some computers, non-stop.

Computers, whether they are P.C.s running Windows, or Macintoshes using Mac OS X, constantly opens, modifies and saves a vast amount of data to the hard drive while working. All that activity can cause wear and tear on the hard drive, even though the process is mostly electronic . Eventually the hard drive will fail, and all data saved on it might be lost, permanently. This is a computer fact of life, and should be anticipated and solved through advanced planning.

The obvious solution is to back up the hard drive periodically, which means copying all important data from the main hard drive to another hard drive connected to the computer. When a hard drive does fail, you may lose only data not backed up — instead of all of it. It's relatively easy and inexpensive to buy an external hard drive, connect it to your computer, and start up and configure the backup software that comes with the drive to do automatic and periodic backups.

Another response is to periodically check the Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology (S.M.A.R.T.) hard drive monitoring system built into most modern hard drives. S.M.A.R.T. is designed to give the savvy computer user an early warning that a hard drive is about to fail. Unfortunately, S.M.A.R.T. can predict only about 30% of all hard drive failures, but 30% is better than nothing.

How do you check S.M.A.R.T.? In Windows XP, most disk management and diagnostic tools are found in the Microsoft Management Console. To start MMC, right-click on the My Computer icon on your desktop, and in the resulting pop-up menu, select "Manage". Next, click "Disk Management" in the left column, then left-click to select your hard drive icon – it should be labelled "C". The overall status and health of disks connected to your computer is displayed in the lower right-hand portion of the window.

On a Macintosh, a utility supplied by Apple with Mac OS X named Disk Utility does this for you. Disk Utility can be found in the Utilities folder, which is in the Applications folder, which is on the top level of your hard drive. Open up Disk Utility; then click on the top hard drive icon on the left column in D.U., then look for the S.M.A.R.T. status listed at the very bottom of the window (a little toward the right), you will see whether S.M.A.R.T. status is verified.

On either computer, If S.M.A.R.T. status is unverified or shown to be failing, then act fast to back up your data, shut down the computer (it can't fail if it isn't on) and get the hard drive replaced, because that drive is knockin' on heaven's door.

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