If you aren't aware of the condition of your hard drives. You may not be able to save your valuable data before it's too late. Not all hard drive crashes are random. You may have time to backup your data before it fails completely.
All modern drives have a monitoring technology called S.M.A.R.T. (Self Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology) that continuously monitors a number of parameters on a hard drive. Many parameters can be monitored by S.M.A.R.T. including read and write error rates, seek error rates, spin up time, temperature and much more.
To effectively warn you when certain parameters are degrading or reaching their threshold you need a program that can track these changes and show them to you. Allowing you to test and see whether a hard drive is capable of storing your data safely. Giving you time to backup your important files and start looking for a replacement drive should you need to.
A monitoring program alone is not fully capable of showing you whether the integrity of your files can be maintained on a particular hard drive. It's a good idea to scan for bad (unreadable) blocks of data with either HDDScan, HD Tune, or Ariolic's Disk Scanner at least once a month to ensure your drive is not degrading and data isn't being lost.
See Why Your Hard Drives Health Matters for a more in depth look.
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CrystalDiskInfo is a great monitoring program that can warn you if the temperature or the health of your drive is deteriorating. Its default temperature warning is set to 50 °C/122 °F which can be adjusted. It offers graphs of the accumulated S.M.A.R.T. information. It had no problems telling me almost everything about my external USB hard drive. I like that it lists the Power On Count as well as the total Power On Hours. This is Open Source software. There is a portable version as well as an installer. Overall this is one of my favorites.
HDDScan is by far an exceptional piece of software. The interface takes a little getting used to. One feature that got me excited was the Graph when you're scanning the surface for bad (unreadable) blocks of data. It lists the blocks by response time so you can see how many blocks are getting close to unreadable before the data in those blocks is lost. Even though it warns you about unchecking the box that disables the maps dynamic update. I unchecked it anyway and my system became unresponsive and even though it was still chugging along, I had to press the button.
It's also recommended not to have any other programs running at the same time you're scanning. There is also the Conveyance (travel damage) test. Excellent for when you receive a new or old internal/external hard drive in the mail or even from the store. I also liked the PM (Power Management) setting. I was able to adjust the PM on my external USB hard drive. Overall this is definitely one for my goody bag.
The free version of HD Tune provides a useful benchmark to test your hard drives performance as well as a block scanner which works with both external and internal hard drives. It also lists S.M.A.R.T. and general information for internal drives only. The free version is no longer updated.
DiskCheckup is a capable tool. It lists information about the drive as well as S.M.A.R.T. information. It has a temperature warning should your drive get to 60 °C/140 °F which can be adjusted. It can also warn you if a S.M.A.R.T. threshold has been passed. You can configure it to display a popup or it can send you a notice via email. It detected both my external as well as my internal hard drive with no problems.
On my healthy hard drives it gave me a TEC(Threshold Exceed Condition) date when the temperature got to a certain point. TEC is mostly useless because a drive has to maintain a constant in order for the date to even be valid. My hard drive does not normally stay very hot so it was largely inaccurate. A hard drive that is starting to wear out could potentially fail at any point before or after the TEC date. So in my opinion it may spook people more than anything else.
For continuous monitoring I recommend CrystalDiskInfo for its well rounded set of features. HDDScan is an exceptional diagnostic program. Both are excellent pieces of software. To ensure your drive isn't degrading in ways that may not be readily apparent with a monitoring program alone I recommend testing the surface of your drive with HDDScan, HD Tune, or the simplistic Ariolic's Disk Scanner.
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CrystalDiskMark is an Open Source hard drive benchmarking program. The installer has the options to install PC Matic (trialware) and the ASPCA browser addon. The portable zip doesn't include anything extra. It's updated regularly.
HD_Speed is a benchmark program that measures both sustained and burst data transfer rates of your hard drives, CD/DVD-Rom, flash cards/sticks, floppies, etc. with a real-time graphical display. It's updated regularly.
Disk Bench is a benchmarking tool that is designed to be a real world benchmark rather than a synthetic benchmark. It requires .NET Framework 2.0
SpeedFan is a program that monitor voltages, fan speeds, and temperatures as well as S.M.A.R.T. information. It only detected my internal drive.
S.M.A.R.T. Assistant is designed to monitor the S.M.A.R.T. status and the temperature, as well as manage AAM (Automatic Acoustic Management) and APM (Advanced Power Management). It could not detect my external HD.
Ariolic Disk Scanner is a portable and simplistic block scanner. No longer updated.
HD Tach is a benchmarking tool. They're in the process of completely rewriting it.
Seagate SeaTools requires .NET Framework 2.0. It has surface and S.M.A.R.T. tests as well as other features. There is also a DOS version.
There is an Open Source Project called S.M.A.R.T. Monitoring Tools that offers two programs to control and monitor storage systems using S.M.A.R.T. I tried GSmartControl which is a graphical user interface for S.M.A.R.T. Monitoring Tools. It couldn't detect my external USB hard drive.
Hard Drive Monitor is a simple monitoring program. It hasn't been updated in a while. Doesn't detect my USB HD.
HDD Health is a monitoring program. It only detects internal hard drives and hasn't been updated in more than a few years now.
I can't recommend Acronis Drive Monitor because it requires you to register to download it.
Active Hard Disk Monitor is no longer in this list because it's no longer freeware.
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