Storage Triage--How to Upgrade and Reuse Your Old Hard Drive


It's a new year, a new decade, with bigger hard disks than ever and new technologies like SATA 6Gbps, USB 3.0, and bigger solid-state drives to choose from. So, what do you do with the drives you've replaced (or will replace this year)? There are plenty of choices, so let's get started.

Capacity Cutoffs

If you're staring at a pile of conventional hard disks with less than 250GB capacity (desktop) or 160GB (portable or mobile) , stop staring at them, put them through a disk overwriting program to safeguard any remaining information, and recycle them . See "Safe Drive Recycling and Disposal" for details.

Performance Considerations

So, you've culled out the tiny drives from your collection. What's the next consideration? Performance. If you have drives with the same capacity, but some have larger buffers, faster spin rates, or higher areal density (fewer platters for a given storage capacity), use them for high-performance jobs such as RAID 0 arrays or media streaming .

If the drive has already been pulled, check the label for the model number. However, if the drive is currently installed, open Windows Device Manager, expand the Disk Drives branch, and see the name and model number of each installed hard disk.

Once you have the model number, check the manufacturer's website for the information you're looking for. Here's how two of the 500GB hard disks in my inventory compare (note, you'll probably need to look up reviews to determine the number of platters):

Western Digital WD5000AAKS (Caviar Blue series)

Form factor 3.5-inch Internal

Capacity 500GB

Interface SATA 3Gbps

Spin rate 7200 RPM

Number of platters 3

Capacity per platter 166GB

Cache 16MB

Seagate ST3500320AS Barracuda 7200.11

Form factor 3.5-inch Internal

Capacity 500GB

Interface SATA 3Gbps

Spin rate 7200 RPM

Number of platters 2

Capacity per platter 250GB

Cache 32MB

This comparison suggests that the Seagate should have faster real-world performance than the WD because of its larger cache and higher areal density, and a review at bears out this hypothesis.

Drive Condition and Operational Time

If you're looking to recycle a drive that you've been using for some time, you might also want to consider the age of the drive in terms of operating hours and surface condition. This information is captured by the built-in S.M.A.R.T. (SMART) self-diagnostic feature in ATA/IDE and SATA hard disks.

To view this information, you can use a utility provided by the drive vendor, such as Western Digital's Data Lifeguard Diagnostics or Seagate's SeaTools, or a third-party utility such as PassMark’s DiskCheckup . PassMark’s utility (free for personal use) not only displays this information but also defines (in understandable terms) what each SMART attribute means and can calculate possible future failures based on drive condition.

If you need to recondition a drive to replace bad sectors with spare sectors, use the software provided by the drive vendor after backing up the contents of the drive .


If firmware upgrades are available for your drives, you should install them before continuing to use the drives. Drive vendors recommend that you back up your drives before installing firmware updates. Firmware updates are available for Maxtor Diamond Max 22, Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 and Seagate Barracuda ES.2 drives from Seagate's website .

Bidding Farewell to ATA/IDE Hard Disk Drives

With only one ATA/IDE 40-pin interface available in most recent desktop systems that's already busy taking care of a rewritable DVD or Blu-Ray drive, it's time to find new uses for ATA/IDE drives, even if they're larger than the 250GB/160GB capacity cutoff. While these drives (especially ATA100/ATA133 class drives) have about the same real-world performance as first-generation SATA (1.5Gbps) drives, newer SATA 3Gbps and the newest SATA 6Gbps drives outclass them in performance as well as capacity.

What about ATA/IDE optical drives? While SATA interfaces are now available for optical drives, there's little real-world difference in performance, so there's no reason to replace a late-model ATA/IDE-interface optical drive with an SATA model.

Planning Drive Upgrades to the Terabyte Class

If you haven't moved into the Terabyte class yet, think about backup and disk interface performance before making your move.

Your backup drive should be at least 50% larger than your system hard disk, especially if you plan to add a lot of data to your drive or anticipate a lot of application and data "churn."

To get the most performance for your storage buck, consider using the new SATA 6Gbps interface for your new internal hard disk, and don't skimp on backup speed, either. USB 2.0's 480Mbps isn't fast enough for big backups. Instead, look for external hard disks that support eSATA (you can turn spare SATA ports on your motherboard into eSATA ports with an inexpensive bracket ) or the new USB 3.0 (SuperSpeed USB) standard .

Seagate and Western Digital both use licensed versions of Acronis True Image for disk cloning and setup, making it relatively simple to transfer your existing installation to a larger hard disk.

So, what are your options for your existing drives?

Salvaging Mobile Drives

You can connect mobile SATA drives to any SATA host adapter, as they use the same SATA power and data connectors as desktop SATA drives. And, they convert very nicely into bus-powered USB drives you can use for desktop or mobile storage or with media streamers by installing them in a mobile drive enclosure ; for maximum versatility, choose a mobile drive enclosure that also includes an eSATA port.

Enclosures are also useful for recycling 160GB and larger ATA/IDE mobile drives, but keep in mind that the portable version of ATA/IDE requires an adapter if you want to use it in a desktop computer or an enclosure designed for desktop drives.

Safe Drive Recycling and Disposal

If you've decided that some of your drives would be better off out of  your hands, don't leave important data on them. For maximum security, use a Department of Defense (DoD)-compliant disk overwriting program, such as those included in some versions of Norton Utilities, McAfee, and other system protection suites. A theoretically less-secure method is to perform zero-fill writes across the entire disk. Most diagnostic programs provided by drive vendors offer this option for disk erasure or to swap bad sectors for spare sectors.

After overwriting your drives, what next? You can sell them (or give them away to friends and relatives on tight storage budgets) or send them to electronic recyclers (some of whom might overwrite the drives for you), or, if you're the paranoid sort, dismantle the drives yourself and break the platters with a hammer before dropping them off for recycling.

Salvaging Older Drives

If you have hard disks that are no longer big enough or fast enough for your primary storage needs, there are still plenty of ways to make them useful.

A Second Life with Drive Enclosures?

Until recently, I automatically went shopping for a drive enclosure for my old hard disk. However, it’s not the only way to find new life for old drives. If you decide to go the enclosure route, look for the following features:

Low cost. Don't spend more than $20-30 for an enclosure for an ATA/IDE drive. Newegg, for example, offers a number of ATA/IDE enclosures with USB 2.0 ports for around $20 each , including some with fans.  Spend much more, and you’re getting close to the cost of a 500GB 3.5-inch external drive. This enclosure from Coolmax converts ATA/IDE drives to run on USB/IEEE-1394/SATA (not eSATA):

Performance. If you're moving up to USB 3.0 and you're trying to recycle SATA 3Gbps hard disks, get a USB 3.0 enclosure (they're about $40 or so at Newegg ).

Flexibility. If you're moving an SATA hard disk to an enclosure, get an enclosure that supports both USB 2.0 and eSATA , so you can plug it into a wide variety of systems. Once USB 3.0/eSATA enclosures hit the market, they’ll be a good choice for your SATA 3Gbps drives. This Antec enclosure features active cooling:

Already have enough external drives for the foreseeable future? Consider these other ways to give old storage new life.

RAID Your Collection for Faster, Safer Storage

If you have a couple of identical SATA or late-model ATA/IDE drives and a motherboard with RAID support, you can create a RAID array to make two drives a single logical unit. Use RAID 0 for a system/apps drive that cranks up performance thanks to data striping, a RAID 1 mirrored array that automatically mimics the contents of one drive with another, or, if you use a system with a late-model Intel chipset with RAID support, look at Matrix Storage , which gives you the speed of RAID 0 and the data protection of RAID 1 with two drives, or the speed of RAID 0 and enhanced data protection of RAID 5 with a four-drive array. Keep in mind that if you create an array with two drives of different sizes, your array is 2x the size of the smaller drive (RAID 0) or the size of the smaller drive (RAID 1).

Windows Home Server and Data Storage Appliances

Windows Home Server is an excellent choice for recycling old computers and slightly-past-their-freshness-date storage devices, both internal and external. When you connect additional drives to a system running WHS, it automatically adds them to the storage pool. Microsoft also offers trial CDs so you can give WHS a spin.

WHS isn't the only game in town, though. There are a number of easy-to-use freeware network servers apps based on Linux or FreeBSD  that we've covered previously , so look them over.

If you don't want to add another computer to your home or small business, but want extra storage, don't overlook data storage appliances such as Drobo , PogoPlug , Promise Technology's SmartStor Zero NS2600 and others. Most of these are designed to work as network storage appliances (Drobe requires an add-on), so you'll get better performance by connecting them to a Gigabit Ethernet network switch in a wireless router.

Media Streamers

Another good home for old PC storage is a media streamer. We reviewed the new Digital Entertainer Elite EVA9150 from Netgear recently and noted its ability to support external USB storage devices.

Some of the other players in the field include Popcorn Hour (supports SATA and USB drives), Patriot Memory's Box Office Media Player (supports 2.5-inch SATA SSD and HDDs and USB drives), and Iomega's Multimedia ScreenPlay TV Link (supports USB drives, flash drives and Iomega REV drives).

Ready to take the first step in an IT technology career? Prepare for the newest version of the CompTIA A+ Certification exams with Mark's newest book, CompTIA A+ 220-701 and 220-702 Cert Guide .

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