Most of the hard-disk drives that end up in the shop for repair are there because computer owners are not given enough information about caring properly for their equipment, says Steve Burgess, who spends much of his time battling such ignorance.
Manufacturers of computers and disk drives have a vested interest in presenting their products as easy to use, explained Mr. Burgess, president of Mipro III in Redwood City, Calif. "They don't necessarily see it as their job to tell customers what the dangers are. The marketing division stresses the benefits and the ease of use: Just put it on your desk, and it makes itself work."
Apple's Macintosh computers "are particularly insidious that way because it's relatively true," he said.
Mr. Burgess advises hard-disk owners to adopt a three-part strategy to protecting their equipment: "Take care of the media, the environment and the data."
To take care of the "media," the magnetic surface where data is recorded, it's essential to avoid bounces, jolts and vibration.
A disk drive is most susceptible to damage when it's starting up or spinning down, he said. At its normal operating speed -- 3,600 revolutions per minute -- the magnetic heads that read and write digital data are flying very steadily over the surface of the disk. Under those conditions, "it will take a pretty good jolt" to bounce the heads into the media.
Before the drive gets up to operating speed, however, it doesn't take as much of a jolt to bounce the heads. That's often the time people are in the act of sitting down or getting up, and are most likely to bump the desk, he said.
"We see a lot of drives where there's been 'head slap.' It looks like vampire bites all along the media. You can see the first time the head hits the surface and see where it skittered. There isn't any data there. There's a dent there."
To protect the media from such destruction, put the disk drive in a place where it won't be bounced around -- on a desk that's very stable or on a separate table, or shelf that's out of the way.
Don't put a computer with a hard-disk drive in a high traffic area, he said. Don't put it on the floor under the desk where it can be kicked easily.
Watch out for dangling cables and power cords, he said. "It's real easy to get tangled in them and give the computer a sharp tug."
A common mistake is putting a disk drive on the same desk-top or table with a printer, which can generate thousands of small jolts as it prints. "Don't ever put the printer on the same piece of furniture," he warned.
"If you have a desk that's near a wall, put the disk drive between the desk and the wall.
Putting it on shock-absorbent material "is a good idea but isn't very attractive," Mr. Burgess said. Also, be sure the shock-absorbent pad doesn't block air vents.
Another common mistake that generates a lot of repair work is moving a computer or disk drive while it's running. "Turn everything off before you move it," he said.
Mr. Burgess also recommends turning off equipment when it is not going to be used overnight or on weekends. Leaving computers on at night in a building with cleaning people could turn out to be disastrous, he said. One well-known area company, which he declined to identify, lost a disk drive when the cleaning people moved a file server to clean around it.
In caring for the environment of the disk drive, "the most important thing is to have a surge protector," Mr. Burgess said. "That's a very inexpensive way to save an awful lot of wear and tear on your drive."
A surge protector won't necessarily save the drive from really big power surges, but it's good for buffering momentary power spikes and drops, which occur all the time.
Avoid the cheapest surge protectors on the market, Mr. Burgess advised. Spend at least $25.
A dusty environment will create problems for computers and disk drives, but there's not much one can do about dust, Mr. Burgess said. Don't put a disk drive where dust will be particularly heavy -- on the carpet in a heavily trafficked area, for example.
About the only other precaution is to blow the dust out of the computer twice a year, he said. Open the computer carefully and use a can of compressed air, which can be obtained where electronic supplies are sold.
One caution, however: Be careful to avoid blowing air directly at the small vent holes found on the sealed portion of the hard-disk drive -- the part of the drive that contains the spinning disks.
To care for the data stored on a disk, Mr. Burgess recommends running a program periodically that "optimizes" the disk by moving stored files to the most convenient and easily accessed sectors. Optimizing the disk drive also makes it much easier to recover data in the event of a drive failure, he said.
No matter how much attention computer owners devote to the maintenance of their equipment, there's no substitute for making backup copies of data, Mr. Burgess said. Even after exercising the best of care, there's no way to tell what's going to happen. "Everything dies eventually," he said.
About one-quarter of Mipro's customers want Mr. Burgess to recover valuable data from a drive that has failed. Surprisingly, many of them are repeat customers who ignored his previous advice to buy and use a good backup program.
"If you do backups religiously, optimize your disk and keep the drive off your desk, you're going to have fewer troubles than almost anybody else," he said.