Which HDD Test Utility?
Q. What software can I use to scan a hard drive for issues?
A. Logical test utilities are largely useless when there are physical HDD problems and indeed can actually make things worse, as they operate with an assumption that what they read from and write to the disk is performed correctly. Microsoft’s CHKDSK is a good example here, where if your drive is failing and Windows prompts to run CHKDSK at boot time, in the case of a disk with bad sectors it will operate with faulty reads and may actually mangle or destroy data that would otherwise have been recoverable. Ensuring you’re backed up, it is better to use a physical disk test first, then when you’ve determined everything is running correctly, logical utilities can be safely used.
Repair utilities: you may notice that Spinrite and HDD Regenerator are both popular tools online but these can be dangerous in a faulty disk situation as their intended repair functions can actually worsen heads which are already in a deteriorated state, sometimes crashing the disk altogether. Consider that your data is generally worth a lot more than the HDD on which it resides. It would then make sense to look at gentle testing followed by data recovery if needed instead of using a utility that modifies the disk in the hope of repair or recovery onto the same disk. Both of these utilities are GREAT at what they do and would be appropriate when you’re backed up and wanting to optimise your drive for speed. Neither of these utilities can physically increase the reliability of your HDD though, so they are not silver bullets. Administer with care.From the HDD manufacturers, I like Seagate Seatools and Hitachi GST’s Drive Fitness Test – both of these will work for other brands of drives as well, but you’ll get best results testing with the same brand of drive.
With that in mind, rather than stressing a drive, we just want to gently probe to know whether a disk is healthy. Bart’s Stuff Test will stress a HDD significantly, so if a drive survives this test then you know it is healthy. This is a good one to use BEFORE you start using a HDD, for example on a new or freshly-formatted drive. If you want to test a drive which already contains data you care about though, here are two utilities I would recommend trying when you don’t just happen to have your own data recovery lab available:
- HDDScan – this is a freeware utility for hard drive diagnostics (RAID arrays, Flash USB and SSD drives are also supported). The program can test storage device for errors (Bad-blocks and bad sectors), show S.M.A.R.T. attributes and change some HDD parameters such as AAM, APM, etc. It is reasonably friendly for experienced users with Basic IT skills and knowledge.
- Hard Disk Sentinel – this is a freeware monitoring and analysis utility that provides pretty detailed info about the drives in your system. There’s a Pro version as well but the free edition is still very good. It evaluates the health of each hard drive in your system and even makes a prediction of the remaining lifespan of each. There’s a System Tray option for an ongoing health indicator and a swathe of customisable options.
- Victoria – this is a freeware program that performs low-level HDD diagnostics. It supports IDE and SATA drives. I’d recommend this for users with at least Intermediate IT knowledge and skill. (For the power users, a similar program you may like to try from a boot CD is MHDD from the creator of HDDGuru.com – this little gem is about as close as you’ll get to the kind of diagnostic hardware you’ll find in data recovery labs.)
As always, backup your data first before you try any test utility! A drive may appear to be fine during regular use, but if it then fails during any kind of HDD test (revealing a fault which was already there but as-yet unnoticed), your situation will be much worse! You can find ideas for getting started with backups here.
IMPORTANT NOTE: using the utilities listed in this article require a degree of care and knowledge. It is possible to wipe or damage your hard drive if these tools are misused. Please make sure you have a backup of your data before using any disk utility and proceed carefully.