New Hard Drive, Pt. 3

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
May 8th, 2004 • 5:07 am

I am pleased to report that replacing my G4’s original IBM 120 GB hard drive with a new Seagate 120 GB hard drive seems to have eliminated the annoying system freezes that I had been getting in Panther.

After installing Panther and my applications on the Seagate hard drive and moving the essential stuff from the 3 partitions of the old drive to the 3 partitions of the new drive, I still experienced a handful of freezes even after having booted from my startup volume on the Seagate, but I suspect that this had to do with the fact that I still had to transfer lots of stuff from the old drive and was doing a fair amount of copying in the Finder. As well, I had to update a number of file paths in various applications, in commands and aliases/symbolic links that were still referring to files on the old drive. So there was still a fair amount of accessing the old hard drive, and that probably explains the few freezes I was still getting.

However, I have pretty much moved everything now and updated most file paths… and I haven’t had a freeze in several days. Good sign.

In addition, this upgrading process enabled me to get a better idea of the range of symptoms that the defective hard drive was causing. It turns out that there was a whole gamut of symptoms. The most obvious was the loud hard drive chirping noise followed by a system freezes. But sometimes I would get the chirping noise and no freeze. And sometimes I would get the chirping noise and a temporary freeze of about a minute or so, after which I would regain control of my machine. Sometimes I would get a freeze without any warning noise coming from the hard drive, and in the middle of an activity that wasn’t requiring a lot of hard disk access. But overall it had still become quite clear that the freezes were related to the hard disk.

Interestingly, the problem could not be attributed to any specific files. I remember quite clearly, for example, experiencing a freeze while I was copying a certain group of MP3 files from the old hard drive to the new, and I remember the name of the file that was being copied as the freeze happened in the Finder. Yet after I rebooted the machine and tried copying the same file again, things worked just fine. So while the problem was with the hard drive (at least that’s what I think — and hope! — at this point), it didn’t appear to be related to a specific file that would have become irrecoverable. In fact, I have been able to copy all my files from the old drive to the new one without problem.

I suppose that the reality is that Mac OS X accesses the hard drive all the time, and that the normal hard drive noises we occasionally hear are just the tip of the iceberg, i.e. the cases where hard drive access is so heavy that it can actually be heard. And I also suspect that the fact that the freezes could not be related to any specific files probably has to do with Mac OS X’s virtual memory management (even though I have 1.5 GB of real memory, Mac OS X still ends up using virtual memory, of course).

Finally, after having moved everything, I ran Disk Warrior again on the partitions of the old drive, and it found several “major” problems with all three partitions, which it was able to repair. This doesn’t necessarily much, because repairing the partitions with Disk Warrior was something that I had done in the past as part of the troubleshooting process concerning these freezes, and it hadn’t eliminated them. I suppose these “major” problems were mostly due to directory damage caused by the freezes themselves, and were not the source of the freezes.

This leads me to wonder what I should do now with this old hard drive. I want to keep it inside my G4 as a secondary hard drive, but I don’t know if or how I can effectively repair it, if such a thing is possible. I do have a copy of Norton Utilities 8, but I am quite wary of it, because of all the bad reports I have been reading. So I definitely do not want to install it on my startup volume. (There doesn’t seem to be any option to custom install only the parts you want, without the kernel extensions and all the other crap.) When I boot from the Norton Utilities CD and try to repair the old hard drive partitions from there, the “Check Media” part of Disk Doctor is greyed out, so I don’t know if it’s really working properly.

I should also note that I had had the “S.M.A.R.T.” error detection system activated on my startup volume using Disk Warrior before the freezes started happening, and I never got any warnings from it that my hard drive was experiencing problems. I suppose the detection system wasn’t “smart” enough for that.

4 Responses to “New Hard Drive, Pt. 3”

  1. Warren Beck says:

    I recommend that you toss the hard drive as soon as you can, with prejudice, into the trash can beside your desk. Once a hard disk starts doing things that are abnormal, consider it to be an unnecessary risk. ATA hard disks are so cheap that any time spent with flaky disks is a waste.

    Now, in the good old days, Macs came with SCSI disks that were an order of magnitude more reliable. I’ve still got a Quadra 650 running a spectrophotometer in my lab with its original-equipment 500 Mbyte hard disk fully functional. I think that I bought the Quadra in 1994.

    So, the argument I made above about today’s ATA disks being cheap is only correct in terms of cost per disk. I think that one should replace a ATA hard disk once any kind of freaky behavior or consistently weird noise or whine emerges. This happens typically in 2 years of 24/7 runtime at the most in my lab; if one ran an Intel/Windows system for 10 years, this would require at least 5 disks at $100 each. So now I guess you should be able to afford a $300 SCSI disk up front if you intend to run a system full time. Now you know why servers usually have SCSI disks. It is a mistake for Apple, I think, to sell its servers with ATA disk systems. Sure, you get perhaps 5 times the space for the same initial cost, but you get at least 10 times the risk in return.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Thanks for the advice! It’s not a very pretty picture that you’re painting, I am afraid… What I don’t quite understand is that, as far as I know, SCSI and ATA are hardware interface standards. How does that relate to the reliability of the hard drive itself?

    For what it’s worth, in my 10-15 years of supporting various Mac computers from different eras, I have seen a number of SCSI drives fail as well… So it doesn’t appear to be so clear-cut from my own experience.

    As well, my concern with using SCSI at this point is that it’s not a native technology in any of Apple’s machines. I’d have to add a third-party SCSI card, and hope that Apple will continue to support it properly in future system releases. Based on various reader report at MacInTouch and elsewhere over the years, it’s not always been the case.

  3. Warren Beck says:

    My experience with third-party add-on SCSI cards suggests that it is better to use the ATA disk system that Apple provides. At least the support on the operating-system level will be solid; the same cannot be said at present about SCSI and add-on cards. I would purchase a new extra ATA disk and use it as a mirror, say, using Carbon Copy Cloner. That way can swap disks at the first sign of trouble with your system disk.

    I’m not sure why the current ATA disks are not as reliable as the old SCSIs seemed to be. Maybe the current speed and density pushes the envelope more than the old SCSIs did.

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    Right. I do have an extra ATA hard drive module in the Xserve at work and keep a mirror copy of the system on there. I might just do the same here at home. I suppose hard drives are reasonably cheap…

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