Free utility to test and monitor your hard drive

Many times before, in this column and regularly on my radio show, I have repeated the three most important words in computing: “Backup! Backup! Backup!” Hopefully by now, most of you are maintaining current backup copies of all of your critical data, and an image of your hard drive for the inevitable failure of your primary hard drive. I have published numerous reviews on good quality free and commercial software and online services that can be used to back up your hard drive. Large capacity USB external hard drives are again becoming readily available at reasonable prices, with 1 terabyte name-brand USB external hard drives now appearing in the $70 range (I just bought one at that price), and 1.5 TB and 2 TB external drives now becoming available in the $100 range (or less). If you listen to radio or TV, or read certain computer blogs, you are possibly inundated with ads and commercials for online backup services.

There are now no good reasons for not having a current backup of at least all of your critical data files, including photos, videos, documents, financial records, and other valuable data. Despite my frequent appeals for everyone to back up their data, I am totally cognizant that some users are blissfully unconcerned about certain hard-drive failure, do not have contemporary backups, and are hoping for some type of warning or indication that catastrophic hard-drive failure is imminent, at which time they will perform a backup. This is a dangerous attitude that almost always results in the loss of important and valuable data.

On my PCs, I have installed and used a variety of free and commercial utilities generically known as “hard drive health monitors,” which obviously monitor the health, temperature (hard drives can easily overheat and get a fatal fever), performance, condition and other drive characteristics. While not absolutely capable of predicting the precise time of hard drive demise, they often can provide the user with powerful indications that hard drive problems are occurring, and that the health and condition of the drive are deteriorating. In the parlance of “dog years,” one “hard drive year” is about 15 human years (my calculation), with a statistical increase of hard drive failure curving sharply upward after about four or five years of use (my anecdotal experience).

One of the top rated and free (but somewhat controversial) hard drive monitoring utilities is CrystalDiskInfo, version 4.3.0a, released March 11, 2012. CrystalDiskInfo is a 1.4 megabyte download and can monitor 18 critical conditions, including temperature, read errors, spin rate, platter speed, and other important characteristics. By monitoring these conditions, and by using the 25 integral graphing features, potential causes of failure may be indicated before they become catastrophic, allowing the user to take corrective action (such as if the drive is overheating), or perform a backup if conditions start to deteriorate. This utility is heavily customizable, not just by being able to select about three dozen languages, but also by selecting desired functions, such as temperature display (C or F), memory resident or user loaded, startup delay time, health status settings, and other advanced functions. This version of CrystalDiskInfo can even be instructed to send an “Alert e-mail” to any desired e-mail address if some major problem is encountered or detected.

While CrystalDiskInfo is freeware, there is a degree of controversy on how the author funds his intellectual property. CrystalDiskInfo is bundled with a piece of software called “OpenCandy” which is not generally considered spyware or malware, but when CrystalDiskInfo is installed, OpenCandy will scan the computer for existing software and then make recommendations for additional software to purchase or install. This is not some clandestine or otherwise hidden process, but openly displayed before the software is downloaded, with the indication that the installer includes “OpenCandy (Ads).” While installing the CrystalDiskInfo, a user license agreement appears, which includes the license agreement for both the main program and Open Candy. The OpenCandy license agreement says, “This installer uses the OpenCandy network to recommend other software you may find valuable during the installation of this software. OpenCandy collects non-personally identifiable information about this installation and the recommendation process. Collection of this information only occurs during this installation and the recommendation process. ...” For those who do not want to run OpenCandy during the CrystalDiskInfo installation process, there is a very simple method that will prevent OpenCandy from executing. Rather than simply allowing the CrystalDiskInfo installation to run when downloaded, or by clicking on the .exe file after downloading, click on the START - RUN and then browse to the downloaded file. Click on the filename, but then add /NOCANDY after the .exe and then run the install; this will prevent OpenCandy from running. When I installed CrystalDiskInfo, I followed this process, and my START - RUN box showed “CrystalDiskInfo4_3_0a-en.exe /NOCANDY” which installed properly without running OpenCandy, despite what the license agreement indicated.

The latest version of CrystalDiskInfo will run on almost all Windows PCs and servers, including those running Windows 7, Server 2008, Vista, Server 2003, XP, 2000, x86/WoW64, and i18n. It works fine on both 32 and 64 bit computers. CrystalDiskInfo does not run on Windows 95, 98, Me, or NT4, but an older portable version of CrystalDiskInfo, version 2.7.5, will run on the antiquated Windows NT 4. CrystalDiskInfo works only on IDE (Parallel ATA) and Serial ATA (SATA) disks connected to an internal ATA or SATA controller. It also works with some USB external hard drives, but does not work with RAID disks and IDE and Serial ATA disks connected to an external drive controller. For those who carry portable utilities on a USB flash drive, there is also a free portable edition of the latest build of CrystalDiskInfo; I have used this portable version to diagnose hard drives running on computers that appeared to have problems, and it worked very well at indicating the condition and health of the target hard drives.I use CrystalDiskInfo to continuously monitor the hard drives on my computers and can recommend it (without the OpenCandy) for almost all PC and Microsoft server users. If information is power, then CrystalDiskInfo provides potential information that may empower the user to be better prepared to deal with pending hard drive problems or potential catastrophic failure.