Disk Utilities are Worthless

Yesterday morning I had to hard reboot my Mac Pro when it wouldn’t unlock from the screensaver. When it came back up there were a few question marks in the task bar, some surprising warnings about full disk space from an extension I thought I’d turned off years ago, and unexpected software update messages. I eventually realized that my 480GB OWC Excelsior SSD had died, or at least was not being recognized. This is my primary boot drive, but instead my Mac had booted off another system disk with an older group of apps and Mac OS X 10.6.

Not a disaster; my data is backed up and my home directory never lived on this drive in the first place. I sent a message to OWC support (27+ hours and still no response, by the way) and then fired up Disk Utility. Disk Utility could not see the missing drive.

Next I launched TechTool Pro. Completely worthless. It found a few corrupt files on other drives but had no idea that the SSD drive even existed. And then it occurred to me that this is a common pattern. Although I have about one personal hard drive failure a year, I have never been able to use TechTool, DiskWarrior, Norton (back in the day) or any other such repair utility to fix anything ever.

The problem is that the hardware has failed (at least that’s my working hypothesis at the moment) and there is nothing any software can do about that. They are all cases of looking for your keys under the lamppost. The tools diagnose and fix the exceedingly rare problems they can do something about rather than the common problems that actually occur. Every hard drive failure I can recall has been either:

  1. an issue solved by reformatting and restoring from backup
  2. a problem that required replacing the drive or controller, or mounting the drive on a different system (it’s surprising how often Windows can mount a disk the Mac can’t and vice versa), or in a USB dock.

At no point has TechTool or anything else ever been able to help with a missing disk, and missing disks are essentially the only failure mode I’ve encountered. If the drive can’t mount, they can’t operate.

Nor have the various utilities that promise to watch your system in realtime and alert you of problems before they happen ever helped either. I long ago learned to turn these off because they cause more problems than they solve.

The only tools that actually help with disk and system failures are:

  1. Good backups
  2. Spare drives to swap in when a failure occurs
  3. Spare computers to use when the whole system is dead and needs to go to the shop

But disk utilities? They’re worth about as much as the floppy disks they aren’t shipped on.

2 Responses to “Disk Utilities are Worthless”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    I think I’ve had one HD failure in the last decade. What do you do to your disks that makes them die so often?

  2. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    I have about 10 hard drives in service at any given time, about half for online data, half for backup. Per Backblaze’s tests (and they use some of the same drives I do) one failure per year is roughly expected. I don’t have any of their most reliable Hitachi drives. I should probably look into those next time I’m shopping for a drive..

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