Why you should never buy an external HD drive

By Brian Boyko,
Contributor, [GAS]

Edit: August 22, 2007: Seagate sent me a brand new 500g FreeAgent – the original model that went bad on me – in replacement.  I still miss my data, and I think that technical support wasn’t sufficiently technical nor supportive, but I’m glad to know that Seagate will fix it’s errors, even if the guy on the phone gave me some – let’s call it “less than accurate” information.  It was a little frustrating but I’m glad everything was made right in the end.   

This weekend I lost all my data.

Seagate FreeAgent DesktopSad but true. I wanted to start from scratch with my computer, so I did a reformat of the OS. Knowing how important data is, I meticulously backed-up all my data to an external drive, a 500GB Seagate FreeAgent Desktop USB 2.0 drive; you know, the ones in those black enclosures. I bought it less than 6 months ago.

It was only when I was done with the reformat, and ready to restore, did the OS fail to detect the external drive. I tried another OS. Zip. Another computer. Nada. The drive had died on me at the worst possible time.

Because Seagate puts the FreeAgent into a snap-together enclosure, I called them up to see if there was any way to open the enclosure without wrecking the case. The first guy escalated me to level 2 tech support, the level 2 tech support guy told me that they never open these things up once sealed, couldn’t tell me how because he didn’t know how to open it, and informed me that opening it would void my warranty anyway.

The worst part about this is that, while it sucks to be out $200, my data was more important than that, and I had to open up the case on the off chance that it was the enclosure – and not the drive – that had failed on me. So I opened up the case, removed – with great difficulty – the bog-standard Seagate SATA drive inside, and tried hooking it up to my computer. It was DOA – the BIOS wouldn’t even recognize it. Lacking a clean room, I resigned myself to the fact that the drive was dead.

Sadly, had I bought a Seagate drive and put it in my own enclosure, I would have been able to return the dead drive to Seagate. The only difference between the two solutions is Seagate’s design of sealing everything away in a black case. To re-purpose a cliché, it was like buying a car with the hood welded shut.

 GigaPod VI SP147I went out and bought an internal Western Digital drive and enclosure for my new backup solution. I don’t plan to buy anything I can’t easily get into the guts of again. (This is also why I distrust Apple products…)

A quick update: Ignoring the warnings of the person I spoke to on the phone about “voiding the warranty,” I went to the Seagate Web site and filled out a form for an RMA on the Barracuda drive that was inside the external enclosure. I’m going to send in the “naked” dead drive. I have no idea whether or not the request for replacement will be honored, but I will keep you updated either way.

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57 Responses to Why you should never buy an external HD drive

  1. I buy my own HD and put in a separately purchased enclosure w/power supply (about $50) and that solves that HD warranty dilemma, I can easily swap the HD into my system when the current heavily abused drive goes bad, and then recycle the enclosure with another HD.

    Tip there is to make a 20 gig partition on the enclosed drive that is BLANK for the fresh Windows install later.

    I use 20ish gig partition for windows, so I can store ALL my important data/games on other partitions, so I can wipe Windows whenever it starts acting up, without too much hassle.

    Wondering if he still has the HD intact to try freezing it, I know how ANGRY I can get when things go THAT badly.

    8)

    -B

    • Surely Windows can't require 20GB just for system files? 10GB should do fine with plenty of extra room, especially if it's XP and not Vista. I had XP on a 5GB hard drive, and no, there was no second hard drive to hold the user data. Everything fit on there.

      I wouldn't say to never buy an external drive. Just don't buy non-openable ones. I bought one on eBay last October that has an easy-to-open (4 screws) case very similar to the one in the bottom picture.

  2. I buy my own HD and put in a separately purchased enclosure w/power supply (about $50) and that solves that HD warranty dilemma, I can easily swap the HD into my system when the current heavily abused drive goes bad, and then recycle the enclosure with another HD.
    Tip there is to make a 20 gig partition on the enclosed drive that is BLANK for the fresh Windows install later.

    I use 20ish gig partition for windows, so I can store ALL my important data/games on other partitions, so I can wipe Windows whenever it starts acting up, without too much hassle.

    Wondering if he still has the HD intact to try freezing it, I know how ANGRY I can get when things go THAT badly.
    8)

    -B

    • Surely Windows can’t require 20GB just for system files? 10GB should do fine with plenty of extra room, especially if it’s XP and not Vista. I had XP on a 5GB hard drive, and no, there was no second hard drive to hold the user data. Everything fit on there.

      I wouldn’t say to never buy an external drive. Just don’t buy non-openable ones. I bought one on eBay last October that has an easy-to-open (4 screws) case very similar to the one in the bottom picture.

  3. wow. I had no idea you could freeze the drive to access your data. I just read the [GAS] post on it. Very interesting.

    So sorry to hear what happened to you, Brian! I hope you're able to recover your data.

  4. wow. I had no idea you could freeze the drive to access your data. I just read the [GAS] post on it. Very interesting.

    So sorry to hear what happened to you, Brian! I hope you’re able to recover your data.

  5. Dont give up on the data yet – if you can find a drive of the same make – used or whatnot, swap out the circuit boards –

    saved a whole mess of drives that way- sometimes the chipset is to blame – in fact, if it is… smell the board. Seriously – and give it a good look. When a chip fails due to heat or short it will "bleed" a tiny ball of solder.

    At any rate – go to ebay – find a cheap used version of that drive – swap boards – and I bet youll get your data back.

    Rob

  6. Dont give up on the data yet – if you can find a drive of the same make – used or whatnot, swap out the circuit boards –

    saved a whole mess of drives that way- sometimes the chipset is to blame – in fact, if it is… smell the board. Seriously – and give it a good look. When a chip fails due to heat or short it will “bleed” a tiny ball of solder.

    At any rate – go to ebay – find a cheap used version of that drive – swap boards – and I bet youll get your data back.

    Rob

  7. Or just pay a ridiculous amount of money to some guy who will recover your data and steal your porn.

  8. Or just pay a ridiculous amount of money to some guy who will recover your data and steal your porn.

  9. Well, i never want to buy one of these for the overprice…

    really, i buy muy enclosure and put any hard disk / DVD-RW / or whathever IDE device that i want to put in there…

    BUT, i'm writing this because i want to know if you will spend some money to recover your data using that services of HDD recovery, they are not cheap, but if your data is so important…

    anyway, if you use one of that services, please, write about that…

    PD:Sorry for my BAD english…

  10. Well, i never want to buy one of these for the overprice…

    really, i buy muy enclosure and put any hard disk / DVD-RW / or whathever IDE device that i want to put in there…

    BUT, i’m writing this because i want to know if you will spend some money to recover your data using that services of HDD recovery, they are not cheap, but if your data is so important…

    anyway, if you use one of that services, please, write about that…

    PD:Sorry for my BAD english…

  11. If you really really care about your data, store it with some redundancy. RAID. 0,1,5. Whatever, buy two external drives, burn DVDs, whatever it takes to keep your data safe. After losing one too many machines, I dropped the $$$ on a RAID NAS.

    http://www.buffalotech.com/products/network-stora

    No affiliation, but this thing just works.

    -fred

  12. The problem isn't that you used an external hard drive.

    The problem is that you did a backup and didn't verify it or duplicate it. God only knows how many IT professionals have been fired for not verifying backups and losing their data as a result.

    • You are right Paul!

      I learned this the hard way 10 years ago.

      Making multiple backups is a MUST! Some people trust technology too much.

      I only lost a few 10 page college papers, before I got the picture.

      But I saw someone loose his entire 100 page term paper, which was stored on 2 dozen floppys.

      The poor guy left the 2 dozen floppys unattended in the university library for about 5 minutes, and that was all it took.

  13. The problem isn’t that you used an external hard drive.

    The problem is that you did a backup and didn’t verify it or duplicate it. God only knows how many IT professionals have been fired for not verifying backups and losing their data as a result.

    • You are right Paul!

      I learned this the hard way 10 years ago.

      Making multiple backups is a MUST! Some people trust technology too much.

      I only lost a few 10 page college papers, before I got the picture.

      But I saw someone loose his entire 100 page term paper, which was stored on 2 dozen floppys.

      The poor guy left the 2 dozen floppys unattended in the university library for about 5 minutes, and that was all it took.

  14. A neat trick for a substitute clean room is your bathroom.

    Clean it realy realy well with window/glass cleaner, seal it, and then run the hot shower for a while. Wait till the room is all steamed up. This will trap the dust in the water vapor. Once it has cooled, you should be good to go.

    You can usually get a clean suit from protective clothing people for realy realy cheap (IE >$5)

    Use a proper dust mask (IE, not those felt over the nose and mousth doctor things, they make more dust!!!)to stop stuff from your lungs getting on the drive when you breath.

    If you want to do it properly you have to be in the room when you steam, seal it and then run the cold tap to get the steam out of the air. But if you just want to recover the data and not the drive, as long as the rest of your house is reasonable clean you can leave it to settle while your out and slip in later on.

    Iv recovered a number (2, yes two is a number) of drives like this, just swaping out the platter with a duplicate drive.

  15. A neat trick for a substitute clean room is your bathroom.
    Clean it realy realy well with window/glass cleaner, seal it, and then run the hot shower for a while. Wait till the room is all steamed up. This will trap the dust in the water vapor. Once it has cooled, you should be good to go.
    You can usually get a clean suit from protective clothing people for realy realy cheap (IE >$5)
    Use a proper dust mask (IE, not those felt over the nose and mousth doctor things, they make more dust!!!)to stop stuff from your lungs getting on the drive when you breath.

    If you want to do it properly you have to be in the room when you steam, seal it and then run the cold tap to get the steam out of the air. But if you just want to recover the data and not the drive, as long as the rest of your house is reasonable clean you can leave it to settle while your out and slip in later on.

    Iv recovered a number (2, yes two is a number) of drives like this, just swaping out the platter with a duplicate drive.

  16. Many Drive recovery companies start at about $500.

    They have the ability to rev up your platter on their drive system to recover all the data, and spool it onto a new drive. In a clean room that cost a million bucks. I recommend Drive Savers, and they have saved many of my customers grief when custom logo, style, fonts and ads that were developed over two years time would have been lost! Some were looking for IRS records, others for business archives simply to access prior works.

    Now, most have let me make DVD backups, and they have at least two external drives with the data stored…

    The Freezer trick works for about 50% of failures, in my experience, as the bearings on the drive platter seized up.

    That does not cure a failed controller board. Changing that out can be risky with them having different firmware revisions numbering in the dozens…

  17. Many Drive recovery companies start at about $500.

    They have the ability to rev up your platter on their drive system to recover all the data, and spool it onto a new drive. In a clean room that cost a million bucks. I recommend Drive Savers, and they have saved many of my customers grief when custom logo, style, fonts and ads that were developed over two years time would have been lost! Some were looking for IRS records, others for business archives simply to access prior works.

    Now, most have let me make DVD backups, and they have at least two external drives with the data stored…

    The Freezer trick works for about 50% of failures, in my experience, as the bearings on the drive platter seized up.

    That does not cure a failed controller board. Changing that out can be risky with them having different firmware revisions numbering in the dozens…

  18. Same thing happened to me, except I think that it is the USB connection that went bad. I can't get into the Seagate case without breaking it. It is a back-up so I don't need the data now but it contains highly confidential information. I can't send it anywhere to fix it because I am paranoid about someone having access to my data. Stupid! Stupid! It is driving me nuts not being able to open it.

    I already had an enclosure and internal drive combo that once gave me trouble. It suffered a power surge and destroyed the enclosure but not the hard drive. Lucky, eh? I returned the enclosure personally to Vantec because they are located close to where I live. 5 minutes later I had a new enclosure and no problems since.

    Enclosure + HD = best solution.

  19. Same thing happened to me, except I think that it is the USB connection that went bad. I can’t get into the Seagate case without breaking it. It is a back-up so I don’t need the data now but it contains highly confidential information. I can’t send it anywhere to fix it because I am paranoid about someone having access to my data. Stupid! Stupid! It is driving me nuts not being able to open it.

    I already had an enclosure and internal drive combo that once gave me trouble. It suffered a power surge and destroyed the enclosure but not the hard drive. Lucky, eh? I returned the enclosure personally to Vantec because they are located close to where I live. 5 minutes later I had a new enclosure and no problems since.

    Enclosure + HD = best solution.

  20. Same thing happened to me, except I think that it is the USB connection that went bad. I can’t get into the Seagate case without breaking it. It is a back-up so I don’t need the data now but it contains highly confidential information. I can’t send it anywhere to fix it because I am paranoid about someone having access to my data. Stupid! Stupid! It is driving me nuts not being able to open it.

    I already had an enclosure and internal drive combo that once gave me trouble. It suffered a power surge and destroyed the enclosure but not the hard drive. Lucky, eh? I returned the enclosure personally to Vantec because they are located close to where I live. 5 minutes later I had a new enclosure and no problems since.

    Enclosure + HD = best solution.

  21. Pingback: Update, Seagate. | [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News

  22. Thats too bad dude. I've had a bunch of failures as well. The worst was when I dropped my 200GB drive which had everything (I was upgrading my OS as well). Oh well it happens.

  23. Thats too bad dude. I’ve had a bunch of failures as well. The worst was when I dropped my 200GB drive which had everything (I was upgrading my OS as well). Oh well it happens.

    • So I guess I'll try it with my 750GB, since it is now making clacking noises… :) Got whatever data I needed off of it, so I will try to send back with RMA.

      Thnx

    • So I guess I’ll try it with my 750GB, since it is now making clacking noises… :) Got whatever data I needed off of it, so I will try to send back with RMA.

      Thnx

  24. Yikes… I have a couple computers in my house (including one that acts as a server), and I do a ’round-robin’ backup; system ‘A’ backs up to system ‘B’, system ‘B’ backs its data up to system ‘C’, system ‘C’ to system ‘A’. That way I always have two copies of my files. You need enough spare drive space for this, but it is a decent method, and has saved me once (which makes it worthwhile!).

  25. Yikes… I have a couple computers in my house (including one that acts as a server), and I do a 'round-robin' backup; system 'A' backs up to system 'B', system 'B' backs its data up to system 'C', system 'C' to system 'A'. That way I always have two copies of my files. You need enough spare drive space for this, but it is a decent method, and has saved me once (which makes it worthwhile!).

  26. AWESOME…
    I sent them my naked/bare 750GB drive (ie: clamshell removed/damaged), and they just sent me back a refurbished complete unit, including a new power supply, and usb cable… Gotta love these logistics companies who handle the RMAs…
    Thnx Guys…

  27. AWESOME…

    I sent them my naked/bare 750GB drive (ie: clamshell removed/damaged), and they just sent me back a refurbished complete unit, including a new power supply, and usb cable… Gotta love these logistics companies who handle the RMAs…

    Thnx Guys…