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Computers Have Spin Doctors, Too

RICHARD O'REILLY <i> designs microcomputer applications for The Times</i>

Judging by my mail, many people are concerned about the reliability of the hard disk drives in their IBM and compatible personal computers.

There’s a good reason: Hard disks are wonderful when they work and disastrous when they fail.

A hard disk drive, also known as a fixed disk drive, is a device installed inside a computer that stores application programs and data files. Using one or more magnetic-coated platters spinning at high speed, it stores information the same way removable floppy disks do.

But hard disks have much greater storage capacity than floppy disks. The computer can also get at programs and data stored on a hard disk much faster than if they are on a floppy disk, which boosts overall computer performance.

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Over time, portions of a hard disk can go bad, causing data to be lost. If there is a failure in the critical area known as the file allocation table, which maps where all your data is stored, you can lose everything on the disk. In other words, you have what’s called a hard disk crash. If you don’t have backup copies of your programs and files on floppies or tape, they are gone.

Fortunately, an arsenal of software is now available that should help ease computer users’ concerns. The three programs described here help prevent calamities by testing hard disks for signs of weakness and making repairs.

Maintains History of Problems

A process called “low-level reformatting” is used to strengthen the disk magnetism to make storage more reliable. Portions that can’t be fixed are marked so that nothing will be stored there and existing data at such locations is moved elsewhere. All three programs also can change the “interleave factor,” which controls the order in which data is stored on the disk. That maneuver can make the computer faster if the old interleave factor was not proper.

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Disk Technician Advanced ($190) from Prime Solutions Inc. of San Diego maintains a history of problems it finds each time it tests the hard disk. It uses that information to predict impending failures before they happen. Weak areas are reformatted. The program also blocks off bad areas and moves the data stored there to better locations on the hard disk.

Optune from Gazelle Systems of Provo, Utah, ($100) combines programs that test disk integrity and reformat and change disk interleaving. It also has a feature that pulls together disk files when they become fragmented, which improves computer performance.

The least expensive of the three programs is SpinRite, to which I devoted a full review last July. At $59 from Gibson Research Corp. of Laguna Niguel, it offers disk testing and disk reformatting to improve performance.

Disk Technician Advanced is meant to be run every day so that it can keep track of how well your hard disk is behaving. It detects various degrees of problems and when they threaten to become serious; it moves data safely out of harm’s way and prevents the computer from using the problem section.

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The program runs three types of tests, automatically determining which is appropriate. On a 20-megabyte hard disk, the daily test takes about three minutes, the weekly test ranges from about 30 minutes to an hour and the monthly test can go up to about three hours. The program’s speed will vary with the speed of your computer and hard disk. You’ll probably want to do the weekly test while you’re at lunch and let the monthly test run overnight.

Depending on the seriousness of the problems, the program would do one of two things: It could reformat the problem portion of the disk and then monitor the area in subsequent tests, or the program could move the data elsewhere and mark the sector as a bad one so that no more data is placed there. For instance, on my 70-megabyte hard disk, the program currently is monitoring about 70,000 bytes of data that it suspects are stored on weak sections of the drive.

Disk Technician Advanced has the ability to reformat the entire disk and also change the interleave factor. But it is more reluctant to reformat than the other two. The instruction manual, in fact, recommends that such reformatting be done only on PC/AT and 386 class computers, not on the less powerful PC/XT or compatibles.

SpinRite and Optune recommend low-level reformatting periodically to strengthen the magnetic signals of the disk. (SpinRite recommends reformat ting every three months, and Optune recommends yearly intervals.)

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I cannot say that Disk Technician Advanced has saved a disk drive that could not be saved by Optune or SpinRite. I can say that I used all three programs to attempt to recover data from a crashed hard disk in a PC/XT on which none of the programs previously had been used. Neither SpinRite nor Optune could even detect the drive’s presence in the computer. Disk Technician Advanced at least found the drive and spent about half an hour grinding through it trying to find usable data before it gave up and reported the crash to be fatal.

Disk Technician Advanced runs more automatically than the other two programs. For instance, the user does not have to tell it how many hard disk drives are installed in the computer.

Another nice feature is a small accessory program you can install that moves the recording heads of the drive to a safe location whenever the drive hasn’t been used for about seven seconds. (Word processing and spreadsheet programs leave the drive idle for long periods while you type words and numbers.) The benefit is that if you have a sudden power failure, the recording head won’t fall onto data stored on the disk and ruin it.

Optune focuses on keeping files intact to improve computer performance. The more files are used, the more fragmented they become when stored on the disk because there may not be room to store them contiguously.

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Optune rewrites the files so that all are stored contiguously. Even if you use Disk Technician or SpinRite, your machine will benefit from using Optune’s “optimization” routine. It takes only a minute or two for a 20-megabyte drive if done frequently.

The program also can test disk drive integrity with any one of four methods. The least rigorous takes two to four minutes, and the most thorough lasts three to six hours. The manual recommends some level of testing at least once a month. If weak areas are found, they are marked so that data will not be placed there.

Optune has the most attractive screen appearance and the best instruction manual of the three.

SpinRite’s manual is the most technical and has the most cumbersome setup procedure. Casual computer users are likely to be intimidated.

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It claims to have the most rigorous disk-testing procedures and it certainly hurls a lot of technical data at the user as testing progresses. It does not have file optimization or a database to track the history of disk performance.

I know of several instances when SpinRite has restored failure-prone hard drives to proper operation. I also believe that Disk Technician Advanced or Optune would have done the same.

All three programs are based on the likelihood that sooner or later your hard disk will fail without the preventive maintenance these products provide. You could gamble that the premise is wrong. But keep your backups current just in case.

Computer File welcomes readers’ comments but regrets that the author cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Richard O’Reilly, Computer File, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.

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3 DISK REPAIR PROGRAMS: THE SPECS

Disk Technician Advanced

Features: Automatically tests all hard drives. Keeps track of test results for signs of failure and takes corrective action. Can reformat drives and change interleave.

Requirements: IBM PC/XT, PC/AT, PS/2 or compatible computer. DOS versions 2.1 through 3.32. 512 kilobytes random access memory.

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Publisher: Prime Solutions Inc., 1940 Garnet Ave., San Diego, Calif. 92109. Phone: (619) 274-5000. Suggested retail price: $190.

Optune

Features: Repositions files into contiguous storage. Reformats drives and changes interleave. Tests drives and blocks bad areas.

Requirements: IBM PC/XT, PC/AT, PS/2 or compatible computer. DOS versions 2.0 and above. 256 kilobytes random access memory.

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Publisher: Gazelle Systems Inc., 42 N. University Ave., Suite 10, Provo, Utah 84601. Phone: (800) 233-0383. Suggested retail price: $100.

SpinRite

Features: Tests hard drives, blocks bad areas, reformats drives and changes interleave.

Requirements: IBM PC/XT, PC/AT, PS/2 or compatible computer. 256 kilobytes of RAM. DOS 2.1 through 3.3.

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Publisher: Gibson Research Corp., 22991 La Cadena, Laguna Hills, Calif. 92653. Phone: (714) 830-2200. Suggested retail price: $59.


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