Rant: USB hard drives and warranty

Thinking of buying a USB hard drive?

External USB hard drives at Officeworks.

Obviously you’re gonna go for the one with the longest warranty – three years will surely see you through your CompSci degree, yeah?

Hold on for a minute. There’s a point I’d like to make.

Hard drives are reasonably equal beings, nowadays; some tend to fail more than others, but it’s impossible to tell for years after they’ve hit the market, and nobody’s going to wait that long. They’re also a very competitive market, where prices fluctuate by mere dollars and cents every week, and when the pressure gets as high as it is now, they’re going to cut costs everywhere they can to stay in the game.

They can’t cut many corners with the drives themselves. I’m talking about the cheap crappy boxes they put them in.

Welland 2.5" USB enclosure.

This badly-photographed thing is my cheap crappy hard drive box. It cost me like $10, and is exactly as functional as any Seagate FreeAgent or WD Passport. I keep it in my work bag next to my PSU tester and my Skeletool, and its entire purpose in life is to function as an emergency bit bucket.

160GB Samsung HD and a USB enclosure. USB HD paraphernalia.

As glamorous as that sounds, at the end of the day, it’s just a laptop drive in a box with a USB cable. It’s held together with six screws in total, and any complete idiot ought to be capable of assembling one. (There’s nothing special about these drives being “portable”, by the way – USB ports only provide five volts, and most 2.5″ hard drives can run from that; the bigger 3.5″ drives need 5 and 12 volts, so they come with A/C adapters.)

There are two practical differences between my crappy little Welland and your crappy little FreeAgent, besides the name on the outside: yours is not designed to be easily serviceable (increasing the risk of damage, should you try), and you void the warranty on your drive by opening the box.

That’s a problem, because when a customer brings me a failed USB hard drive and begs me to magically reappear-ify their due-at-midnight thesis, more than 50% of the time it’s actually the enclosure that’s at fault. This is an incredibly annoying state of affairs: do you claim warranty on it and get it replaced for free, or do you get your data back?

The choice is obvious, which makes it all the more horrible when it turns out to be the hard drive anyway, leaving you with a lost assignment and an unreturnable disk. At this point, you’d gladly travel back 3 months in time and spend the extra $20 to buy the parts separately, but you can’t do that either. Yet.

This happens with whole computers, too. Modern hard drives typically carry a 3 or 5 year warranty through the manufacturer (be that Seagate or whoever), while desktop PCs themselves are generally returnable to base for 12 months. A few months after rebuilding a dead Aldi Medion for a customer, the re-used hard drive died, but because the hard drive’s warranty (would’ve been 5 years!) was tied to the computer it was sold in, he had no choice but to spend the full cost on a brand new drive.

Aaaanyway, my point is: that long warranty means nothing if you have to void it to get your data back. Feel free to use it as a rough measure of the manufacturer’s confidence in how long it’s going to last, and choose your purchases accordingly, but don’t buy it with the assumption that it’ll save your skin if something goes wrong.

Don’t assume either that the DIY option will net you a worse product overall because you only spent $10 on part of it. My “Welland” enclosure is exactly the same electronic device as this Vantec box, and those sell for anything up to $35 retail. Don’t expect Western Digital to have spent that kind of money on the box that houses your homework.

One Response to “Rant: USB hard drives and warranty”

  1. Daniel Howard says:

    I have a metal NexStar case and I totally love it. The metal is strong enough that it will take more abuse than the drive will,while helping to keep it cool and it came with a nice storage case that can accommodate the USB cable. Totally worth $20!

    And yeah, I can totally grab another OEM 2.5″ drive and swap it in with a small screwdriver. Twelve kinds of win!