The reliability of external hard drives can vary wildly between brands. Most external hard drives can be expected to last several years, but according to many experts, you should not take the manufacturer's word when it comes to how long a drive will last.
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Types of Failure
There are two kinds of hard drive failures: logical and physical. A logical drive failure is caused by a corrupt file system, a virus or lost data. A physical hard drive failure is caused when a physical component of the drive breaks. This can happen to any part of a hard drive, including the motor that powers the drive or the arm that reads and writes data.
According to a study done by Carnegie Mellon University researchers in 2007, manufacturers' claims of hard drive reliability have been greatly exaggerated. Some hard drives' failure rates were 15 times higher than those that the manufacturer claimed. Their findings suggested that, at most, users should not expect a hard drive to last more than 11 years, with a more realistic estimate being around six years for both external and internal drives.
While there is no empirical evidence showing that external hard drives fail more often or sooner than internal drives, some tech writers tend to disagree. In a column entitled "Why I'm Done with Portable Hard Drives" Computer World writer Mike Elgan says that he's had six portable hard drives fail on him over the course of 10 years, and that he would rather use an off-site server-based backup system. Computer advice writer Leo Notenboom also believes that external drives are more prone to failure, possibly because they are jostled about more, increasing the chances of mechanical failure.
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