Hard Times for a Hard Drive

 
 
By Lance Ulanoff  |  Posted 2004-06-23
 
 
 

Hard Times for a Hard Drive


My Sony VAIO Digital Studio came with two 100GB Maxtor ATA drives. This may seem like a lot, but its probably the bare minimum you need when youre editing video and burning DVDs. I was using Sonic MyDVD 5 for these tasks, and began to notice some disturbing computer activity while working on video projects.

When I first bought my PC and was using an earlier version of MyDVD, I could connect my camcorder with the FireWire cable, set the software to capture video (up to an hour at a time), and auto-add chapter points at minute intervals. The newer version of the software added auto-scene detection, making the chapters even more useful. But on the last few projects I did, I noticed that the video capture was either failing or creating essentially unusable video files.

Something was wrong, but I couldnt identify the problem. My first guess was the software. Perhaps version 5s scene detection was just a little off, not quite compatible with my system. Sonic has a free upgrade to version 5.2.2, so I downloaded the nearly 300MB file and installed it on my system.

The update worked just as well as the previous version, but did nothing to solve my problems. This was especially frustrating, because I was trying to complete what should have been a very simple DVD project—23 minutes of video and a slide show. Every time I captured the video, it would fail, either altogether or part way through the 23-minute clip. I tried dropping scene detection, but that did nothing. I closed MyDVD and perused the drive where I store captured video. For MyDVD to work effectively, Sonic recommends specifying separate locations (even drives, if you have them) for the applications temporary files and for video-capture storage. With two 100GB drives (three, in effect, if you count that the C: drive is partitioned into a 10GB system drive and 90GB of storage space), this was not a problem. Of course, I had to remember to adjust these settings every time I upgraded MyDVD, since the application forces you to uninstall old versions before upgrading. If I left the storage locations on their default settings—on the C: drive—instead of resetting them to specify locations on the other drives, the application ground to a halt upon capturing video.

The Real Culprit


The Real Culprit

My E: drive is designated for video capture. After one session when the application refused to place the video there, I opened the drive on the desktop. The video file I had captured was there, but instead of being over a gigabyte (standard for 20 minutes of MPEG-2 8-bit video) it was only about 300MB. When I tried to access the file by double-clicking on it, the system locked up. I had to reboot. I did so and tried another file in the directory, and it opened. When I tried to open yet another one, the system locked again. I began to suspect that the problem was not with the software, but with one of my 100GB drives. I decided to run Windows built-in drive-testing tools to search for errors. After running for 10 minutes or so, the utility froze. I had to perform a hard reboot. I did this twice more, each time with the same frustrating result. I also tried to run the Windows start-up check-disk function (Windows will ask you if you want to run it on start-up, especially if there are processes running that Windows cant stop). That check-disk utility also froze after 5 percent of completion.

I realized that there was something seriously wrong with the drive. The good news was that I could still access most of my files. I began to move them from the E: drive to the D: drive for security purposes. I copied nearly all without incident, but about five failed, with cyclic redundancy error messages. These were the last few videos I had captured. I still had the burned DVDs, so I left this handful of files for dead and moved on.

Start Over


Start Over

Since this wasnt a drive with any system information, I felt pretty confident that I could reformat it. I was wrong. The first time I ran the drive reformat under Windows, the system froze. Upon reboot, I found that the drive was virtually untouched. I tried again. This time I left the system running overnight to finish the job (since I did see the bar moving forward ever so slowly). In the morning, I found that the reformatting was nearly complete. As the bar reached the end, I felt a sense of relief—until the system told me that the reformat had failed.

That turned out to be a bit of a lie. The drive was now empty and being reported in a "raw" state. My 100GB drive had just transformed itself into a worthless brick.

I visited the Maxtor Web site and downloaded its free MaxBlast 3 utility, which lets owners of Maxtor drives reformat them—and even create partitions—with an easy-to-use graphical interface. I installed the program and ran it. It recognized the drive and its size and allowed me to reformat it. I skipped the advanced/custom options that would have allowed me to partition the 100GB drive. The software told me the drive had been successfully reformatted, but when I tried to access the drive, Windows XP said it wasnt formatted (and asked me if I wanted to do so). I performed this same task a couple more times to see if I could somehow coax the drive into usability—no luck.

I then decided to try partitioning the drive to see if I could force the utility to do a little more work and complete the formatting. I set the utility to create two 50GB NTFS partitions and began running the process. The program ran for a few moments and crashed. I went back to the My Computer window and noticed that I now had another drive. So the utility had successfully broken the drive into two 50GB partitions, but neither one of them was usable: I clicked on each and Windows XP told me they werent formatted.

A Call for Help


A Call for Help

I called Maxtor tech support, and the very helpful technician told me that only Sony could replace the drive (as the system was no longer under warranty, I knew that would be a dead end). He explained that since the system could still recognize that the drive exists and even knew how much space it had available, I needed to perform a low-level or "zero-fill" format on the drive, which would basically write all "zeros" to the entire disk. When I told him that I had repeatedly tried to reformat the drive without success, he explained that I needed to boot my system with Maxtor software and then format the drive. So this time, instead of downloading and installing the Maxtor utility to my functioning hard drive, I needed to download and run a special app that would install the MaxBlast ISO software on a bootable CD-ROM. After that, I was to reboot the system with the CD in the drive and then follow the instructions to run a zero-fill format. That process would make the drive suitable for formatting under Windows or with the Windows-based MaxBlast utility.

Unfortunately, making an ISO disk is not as much of a no-brainer as I was led to believe. Oddly, every instruction, including Maxtors own, explained how to do this with Roxios Easy CD Creator. It would be very simple: Download the ZIP file, extract the ISO image to the desktop, click on it, and the CD-writing app would start up automatically—as long as its Easy CD Creator. I dont have Easy CD Creator on my system, and without it Windows doesnt really know what to do with an ISO file. Since my system didnt recognize the file type, Windows helpfully offered to search the Microsoft Web site for information and software on ISO files. I went through three different shareware apps before I found one that could effectively burn the bootable CD—Easy DVD/CD Burner 3.014.

So Close


So Close

I inserted the bootable CD into the drive and proceeded to hard-boot my system. My VAIO booted from the CD and launched the Maxtor utility. It automatically recognized the system drives, so I selected the primary slave drive, the E:, and then ran a zero-fill format. This process took a few hours. When I returned to the PC, the utility was showing a dialog that proclaimed success. I exited the utility, ejected the CD, and rebooted.

Windows launched normally, and in My Computer I saw all my drives, including the damaged E: drive. I clicked on it. Windows reported it as an unformatted drive. Frustrated, but not beaten, I ran the Windows-based Maxtor utility and did an NTFS format. Now this Maxtor utility reported success. I returned to My Computer, clicked on the E: drive, and faced another unhappy report: Windows said the drive was still in a raw, unformatted state. It asked if I wanted it to format the drive. I clicked "yes" and let the Windows disk-format routine begin. After an hour or so, a disk-format failure message appeared.

I was facing the prospect of removing the drive and destroying it (more to relieve my frustration than to protect my privacy). But before taking that drastic and final step, I checked in with the experts at PC Labs. First, technical director Rich Fisco laughed at me because I was too cheap just to go out and buy a new 100GB hard drive for probably less than $60 (after rebates). Still, when he stopped chuckling, he asked if I had used Maxtors utilities. I explained all I had done. He suggested I do a "low-level format" from within the Maxtor ISO utility. I had thought the zero-fill accomplished the same thing. No, he said. Only the low-level format can redo all the tables and potentially make the disk usable again. Of course, Fisco added, if anything happens during what promised to be an hours-long process, the drive is "toast." The other, even less comforting news he delivered is that when a hard drive begins failing, even reformatting it (at any level) can not truly save it. Yes, it should work and even be able to save data, but errors are likely to return as the drive continues its inexorable and probably rapid slide into the abyss.

So, now my quest seemed more quixotic than ever, yet I figured I had nothing to lose. The disk was already as good as dead to me. I could only improve the situation, even if just for a little while….

Its now about three weeks later.

I tried low-level formatting the drive through the Maxtor utility, but it didnt offer that as a separate option. I tried to do the same in the Windows Command interface, but all I got was a message that this disk was missing the necessary BIOS information.

Its official: My hard drive is dead.

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