Tag Archives: hard drive

Hard Disk Operational Overview

As an illustration, I’ll describe here in words how the various components in the disk interoperate when they receive a request for data. Hopefully this will provide some context for the descriptions of the components that follow in later sections.

A hard disk uses round, flat disks called platters, coated on both sides with a special media material designed to store information in the form of magnetic patterns. The platters are mounted by cutting a hole in the center and stacking them onto a spindle. The platters rotate at high speed, driven by a special spindle motor connected to the spindle. Special electromagnetic read/write devices called heads are mounted onto sliders and used to either record information onto the disk or read information from it. The sliders are mounted onto arms, all of which are mechanically connected into a single assembly and positioned over the surface of the disk by a device called an actuator. A logic board controls the activity of the other components and communicates with the rest of the PC.

Each surface of each platter on the disk can hold tens of billions of individual bits of data. These are organized into larger “chunks” for convenience, and to allow for easier and faster access to information. Each platter has two heads, one on the top of the platter and one on the bottom, so a hard disk with three platters (normally) has six surfaces and six total heads. Each platter has its information recorded in concentric circles called tracks. Each track is further broken down into smaller pieces called sectors, each of which holds 512 bytes of information.

The entire hard disk must be manufactured to a high degree of precision due to the extreme miniaturization of the components, and the importance of the hard disk’s role in the PC. The main part of the disk is isolated from outside air to ensure that no contaminants get onto the platters, which could cause damage to the read/write heads.

Exploded view of a hard drive
Exploded line drawing of a modern hard disk, showing the major components.
Though the specifics vary greatly between different designs, the basic
components you see above are typical of almost all PC hard disks.
Original image © Seagate Technology Image used with permission.

Here’s an example case showing in brief what happens in the disk each time a piece of information needs to be read from it. This is a highly simplified example because it ignores factors such as disk caching, error correction, and many of the other special techniques that systems use today to increase performance and reliability. For example, sectors are not read individually on most PCs; they are grouped together into continuous chunks called clusters. A typical job, such as loading a file into a spreadsheet program, can involve thousands or even millions of individual disk accesses, and loading a 20 MB file 512 bytes at a time would be rather inefficient:

  1. The first step in accessing the disk is to figure out where on the disk to look for the needed information. Between them, the application, operating system, system BIOS and possibly any special driver software for the disk, do the job of determining what part of the disk to read.
  2. The location on the disk undergoes one or more translation steps until a final request can be made to the drive with an address expressed in terms of its geometry. The geometry of the drive is normally expressed in terms of the cylinder, head and sector that the system wants the drive to read. (A cylinder is equivalent to a track for addressing purposes). A request is sent to the drive over the disk drive interface giving it this address and asking for the sector to be read.
  3. The hard disk’s control program first checks to see if the information requested is already in the hard disk’s own internal buffer (or cache). It if is then the controller supplies the information immediately, without needing to look on the surface of the disk itself.
  4. In most cases the disk drive is already spinning. If it isn’t (because power management has instructed the disk to “spin down” to save energy) then the drive’s controller board will activate the spindle motor to “spin up” the drive to operating speed.
  5. The controller board interprets the address it received for the read, and performs any necessary additional translation steps that take into account the particular characteristics of the drive. The hard disk’s logic program then looks at the final number of the cylinder requested. The cylinder number tells the disk which track to look at on the surface of the disk. The board instructs the actuator to move the read/write heads to the appropriate track.
  6. When the heads are in the correct position, the controller activates the head specified in the correct read location. The head begins reading the track looking for the sector that was asked for. It waits for the disk to rotate the correct sector number under itself, and then reads the contents of the sector.
  7. The controller board coordinates the flow of information from the hard disk into a temporary storage area (buffer). It then sends the information over the hard disk interface, usually to the system memory, satisfying the system’s request for data.

The PC Guide
Site Version: 2.2.0 – Version Date: April 17, 2001
© Copyright 1997-2004 Charles M. Kozierok. All Rights Reserved.

This is an archive of Charles M. Kozierok’s PCGuide (pcguide.com) which disappeared from the internet in 2018. We wanted to preserve Charles M. Kozierok’s knowledge about computers and are permanently hosting a selection of important pages from PCGuide.

Are Applications Not Installing?

If you’re attempting to install applications on your computer, yet nothings happening, don’t fret. This is a common computer issue, yet it’s one of the easiest fixes out there. The explanation of this cause is the lack of hard drive space. To see how much space you have on your hard drive, follow the steps below for Windows:

  • Start Menu —> Settings
  • Click on Storage tab
  • You can also click on View storage usage on other drives under the More Storage Settings heading

The quick and simple fix is to do some drive clean-up. Deleting files from your Download folder may clear up a large amount of space since a lot of those items aren’t needed any longer.

You can also use Storage Sense on Windows. This feature automatically removes temporary files and items from your recycle bin to free up space. You can turn this feature on or off, which gives you control of what is deleted from your hard drive. This feature also only do its job when your computer is low on space.

Disk Clean-Up has been Windows’ tool to use for many years. Simply go to the Start Menu and type in “Disk Clean-Up” and you can choose what it gets rid of.

With these tools and features to help keep your computer running smoothly, you shouldn’t have anymore issues with installing applications. For help with any application installations on Windows 10, call us at 1-800-620-5285.  Karls Technology is a nationwide computer service company with offices in many major cities. This blog post was brought to you from our staff at the Frisco Computer Repair Service, if you need computer repair in Frisco, TX please call or text the local office at (469) 299-9005.

Hard Disk Platters and Media

Every hard disk contains one or more flat disks that are used to actually hold the data in the drive. These disks are called platters (sometimes also “disks” or “discs”). They are composed of two main substances: a substrate material that forms the bulk of the platter and gives it structure and rigidity, and a magnetic media coating which actually holds the magnetic impulses that represent the data. Hard disks get their name from the rigidity of the platters used, as compared to floppy disks and other media which use flexible “platters” (actually, they aren’t usually even called platters when the material is flexible.)

The platters are “where the action is”–this is where the data itself is recorded. For this reason the quality of the platters and particularly, their media coating, is critical. The surfaces of each platter are precision machined and treated to remove any imperfections, and the hard disk itself is assembled in a clean room to reduce the chances of any dirt or contamination getting onto the platters.


The PC Guide
Site Version: 2.2.0 – Version Date: April 17, 2001
© Copyright 1997-2004 Charles M. Kozierok. All Rights Reserved.

This is an archive of Charles M. Kozierok’s PCGuide (pcguide.com) which disappeared from the internet in 2018. We wanted to preserve Charles M. Kozierok’s knowledge about computers and are permanently hosting a selection of important pages from PCGuide.

Back Up Your Computer

A failing hard drive is one of the worst things that would happen to your computer, because of all of important documents, photos, and more saved on there. Backing up your computer is highly recommended by both Mac and Microsoft technical support and would ease your mind greatly. It’s also simple to do!

For Macs:

You can either use iCloud or Macs backup feature, Time Machine. From there, you can reestablish any lost or accidental deleting from your computers’ hard drive. This is an easy go-to without the hassle of purchasing an external hard drive. However, when Time Machine is full, the oldest saved files will be removed. And if your computer is ever stolen or destroyed, you’ll lose everything.

For Microsoft:

Grab yourself an external hard drive and connect it to your computer to allow it access to your files. Back up your computer by using File History:

  1. Start Menu
  2. Settings
  3. Navigate and Update Security
  4. Backup

For help with any hard drive problems with either Mac or Microsoft, call us at 1-800-620-5285.  Karls Technology is a nationwide computer service company with offices in many major cities. This blog post was brought to you from our staff at the Frisco Computer Repair Service, if you need computer repair in Frisco, TX please call or text the local office at (469) 299-9005.

Free Up Hard Drive Space

No one enjoys their computer running slower than usual. It’s a nuisance, especially if you use it for business. But there are plenty of ways to speed up your computer simply by freeing up your hard drive space.

Check how your Storage Usage is being handled under the Settings tab, to System, and then Storage. You can then click on which drive is running out of space. This will show you a breakdown of what it all contains, and you can click on each items listed to give you more detail. That way, you will be able to clear up any hard drive space by deleting unnecessary files.
Also, use Storage Sense to free up files. This feature will automatically delete files. You can also make this a manual option by clicking on “Change how we free up space automatically”, and under “Free up space now” click Clean Now.

Don’t forget to use Disk Cleanup. Search for Disk Cleanup when you click on the Start menu (Windows Icon). Deleting temporary internet files, downloads, and Recycling Bin in the Cleanup is one of the easiest ways to free up space on your Hard Drive.

You can find other ways to help alleviate issues with your hard drive by checking out Windows Central.

For help with space issues or any hard drive problem, call us at 1-800-620-5285.  Karls Technology is a nationwide computer service company with offices in many major cities. This blog post was brought to you from our staff at the Frisco Computer Repair Service, if you need computer repair in Frisco, TX please call or text the local office at (469) 299-9005.

Hard Drive Air Filters

Air Filters

Nearly all hard disk drives have two air filters. One filter is called the recirculating filter, and the other is called either a barometric or breather filter. These filters are permanently sealed inside the drive and are designed never to be changed for the life of the drive, unlike many older mainframe hard disks that had changeable filters. Many mainframe drives circulate air from outside the drive through a filter that must be changed periodically.

A hard disk on a PC system does not circulate air from inside to outside the HDA, or vice versa. The recirculating filter that is permanently installed inside the HDA is designed to filter only the small particles of media scraped off the platters during head takeoffs and landings (and possibly any other small particles dislodged inside the drive). Because PC hard disk drives are permanently sealed and do not circulate outside air, they can run in extremely dirty environments (see Figure 1-6).

FIG. 1-6  Air circulation in a hard disk.

The HDA in a hard disk is sealed but not airtight. The HDA is vented through a barometric or breather filter element that allows for pressure equalization (breathing) between the inside and outside of the drive. For this reason, most hard drives are rated by the drive’s manufacturer to run in a specific range of altitudes, usually from -1,000 to +10,000 feet above sea level. In fact, some hard drives are not rated to exceed 7,000 feet while operating because the air pressure would be too low inside the drive to float the heads properly. As the environmental air pressure changes, air bleeds into or out of the drive so that internal and external pressures are identical. Although air does bleed through a vent, contamination usually is not a concern, because the barometric filter on this vent is designed to filter out all particles larger than 0.3 micron (about 12 µ-in) to meet the specifications for cleanliness inside the drive. You can see the vent holes on most drives, which are covered internally by this breather filter. Some drives use even finer-grade filter elements to keep out even smaller particles.

Hard Disk Temperature Acclimation

To allow for pressure equalization, hard drives have a filtered port to bleed air into or out of the HDA as necessary. This breathing also enables moisture to enter the drive, and after some period of time, it must be assumed that the humidity inside any hard disk is similar to that outside the drive. Humidity can become a serious problem if it is allowed to condense — and especially if the drive is powered up while this condensation is present. Most hard disk manufacturers have specified procedures for acclimating a hard drive to a new environment with different temperature and humidity ranges, especially for bringing a drive into a warmer environment in which condensation can form. This situation should be of special concern to users of laptop or portable systems with hard disks. If you leave a portable system in an automobile trunk during the winter, for example, it could be catastrophic to bring the machine inside and power it up without allowing it to acclimate to the temperature indoors.

The following text and Table 1.3 are taken from the factory packaging that Control Data Corporation (later Imprimis and eventually Seagate) used to ship its hard drives:

If you have just received or removed this unit from a climate with temperatures at or below 50°F (10°C) do not open this container until the following conditions are met, otherwise condensation could occur and damage to the device and/or media may result. Place this package in the operating environment for the time duration according to the temperature chart.

Table 1.3  Hard Disk Drive Environmental Acclimation Table.
Previous Climate Temp.Acclimation Time
+40°F (+4°C)13 hours
+30°F (-1°C)15 hours
+20°F (-7°C)16 hours
+10°F (-12°C)17 hours
0°F (-18°C)18 hours
-10°F (-23°C)20 hours
-20°F (-29°C)22 hours
-30°F (-34°C) or less27 hours

As you can see from this table, a hard disk that has been stored in a colder-than-normal environment must be placed in the normal operating environment for a specified amount of time to allow for acclimation before it is powered on.


This is an archive of Alasir Enterprise’s MicroHouse PC Hardware Library Volume I: Hard Drives by Rhett M. Hollander (alasir.com) which disappeared from the internet in 2017. We wanted to preserve Rhett M. Hollander’s knowledge about hard drives and are permanently hosting a selection of important pages from alasir.com.

Hard Disk Tracks, Cylinders and Sectors

All information stored on a hard disk is recorded in tracks, which are concentric circles placed on the surface of each platter, much like the annual rings of a tree. The tracks are numbered, starting from zero, starting at the outside of the platter and increasing as you go in. A modern hard disk has tens of thousands of tracks on each platter.

5.25" hard disk platter
A platter from a 5.25″ hard disk, with 20 concentric tracks drawn
over the surface. Each track is divided into 16 imaginary sectors.

Data is accessed by moving the heads from the inner to the outer part of the disk, driven by the head actuator. This organization of data allows for easy access to any part of the disk, which is why disks are called random access storage devices.

Each track can hold many thousands of bytes of data. It would be wasteful to make a track the smallest unit of storage on the disk, since this would mean small files wasted a large amount of space. Therefore, each track is broken into smaller units called sectors. Each sector holds 512 bytes of user data, plus as many as a few dozen additional bytes used for internal drive control and for error detection and correction.


The PC Guide
Site Version: 2.2.0 – Version Date: April 17, 2001
© Copyright 1997-2004 Charles M. Kozierok. All Rights Reserved.

This is an archive of Charles M. Kozierok’s PCGuide (pcguide.com) which disappeared from the internet in 2018. We wanted to preserve Charles M. Kozierok’s knowledge about computers and are permanently hosting a selection of important pages from PCGuide.

Hard Drive Sector Format and Structure

The basic unit of data storage on a hard disk is the sector. The name “sector” comes from the mathematical term, which refers to a “pie-shaped” angular section of a circle, bounded on two sides by radii and the third by the perimeter of the circle. On a hard disk containing concentric circular tracks, that shape would define a sector of each track of the platter surface that it intercepted. This is what is called a sector in the hard disk world: a small segment along the length of a track. At one time, all hard disks had the same number of sectors per track, and in fact, the number of sectors in each track was fairly standard between models. Today’s advances have allowed the number of sectors per track (“SPT”) to vary significantly, as discussed here.

In the PC world, each sector of a hard disk can store 512 bytes of user data. (There are some disks where this number can be modified, but 512 is the standard, and found on virtually all hard drives by default.) Each sector, however, actually holds much more than 512 bytes of information. Additional bytes are needed for control structures and other information necessary to manage the drive, locate data and perform other “support functions”. The exact details of how a sector is structured depends on the drive model and manufacturer. However, the contents of a sector usually include the following general elements:

  • ID Information: Conventionally, space is left in each sector to identify the sector’s number and location. This is used for locating the sector on the disk. Also included in this area is status information about the sector. For example, a bit is commonly used to indicate if the sector has been marked defective and remapped.
  • Synchronization Fields: These are used internally by the drive controller to guide the read process.
  • Data: The actual data in the sector.
  • ECC: Error correcting code used to ensure data integrity.
  • Gaps: One or more “spacers” added as necessary to separate other areas of the sector, or provide time for the controller to process what it has read before reading more bits.

Note: In addition to the sectors, each containing the items above, space on each track is also used for servo information (on embedded servo drives, which is the design used by all modern units).

The amount of space taken up by each sector for overhead items is important, because the more bits used for “management”, the fewer overall that can be used for data. Therefore, hard disk manufacturers strive to reduce the amount of non-user-data information that must be stored on the disk. The term format efficiency refers to the percentage of bits on each disk that are used for data, as opposed to “other things”. The higher the format efficiency of a drive, the better (but don’t expect to find statistics on this for your favorite drive easy to find!)

One of the most important improvements in sector format was IBM’s creation of the No-ID Format in the mid-1990s. The idea behind this innovation is betrayed by the name: the ID fields are removed from the sector format. Instead of labeling each sector within the sector header itself, a format map is stored in memory and referenced when a sector must be located. This map also contains information about what sectors have been marked bad and relocated, where the sectors are relative to the location of servo information, and so on. Not only does this improve format efficiency, allowing up to 10% more data to be stored on the surface of each platter, it also improves performance. Since this critical positioning information is present in high-speed memory, it can be accessed much more quickly. “Detours” in chasing down remapped sectors are also eliminated.


The PC Guide
Site Version: 2.2.0 – Version Date: April 17, 2001
© Copyright 1997-2004 Charles M. Kozierok. All Rights Reserved.

This is an archive of Charles M. Kozierok’s PCGuide (pcguide.com) which disappeared from the internet in 2018. We wanted to preserve Charles M. Kozierok’s knowledge about computers and are permanently hosting a selection of important pages from PCGuide.

Hard Drive Error Correcting Code (ECC)

The basis of all error detection and correction in hard disks is the inclusion of redundant information and special hardware or software to use it. Each sector of data on the hard disk contains 512 bytes, or 4,096 bits, of user data. In addition to these bits, an additional number of bits are added to each sector for the implementation of error correcting code or ECC (sometimes also called error correction code or error correcting circuits). These bits do not contain data; rather, they contain information about the data that can be used to correct any problems encountered trying to access the real data bits.

There are several different types of error correcting codes that have been invented over the years, but the type commonly used on PCs is the Reed-Solomon algorithm, named for researchers Irving Reed and Gustave Solomon, who first discovered the general technique that the algorithm employs. Reed-Solomon codes are widely used for error detection and correction in various computing and communications media, including magnetic storage, optical storage, high-speed modems, and data transmission channels. They have been chosen because they are easier to decode than most other similar codes, can detect (and correct) large numbers of missing bits of data, and require the least number of extra ECC bits for a given number of data bits. Look in the memory section for much more general information on error detection and correction.

When a sector is written to the hard disk, the appropriate ECC codes are generated and stored in the bits reserved for them. When the sector is read back, the user data read, combined with the ECC bits, can tell the controller if any errors occurred during the read. Errors that can be corrected using the redundant information are corrected before passing the data to the rest of the system. The system can also tell when there is too much damage to the data to correct, and will issue an error notification in that event. The sophisticated firmware present in all modern drives uses ECC as part of its overall error management protocols. This is all done “on the fly” with no intervention from the user required, and no slowdown in performance even when errors are encountered and must be corrected.

The capability of a Reed Solomon ECC implementation is based on the number of additional ECC bits it includes. The more bits that are included for a given amount of data, the more errors that can be tolerated. There are multiple trade offs involved in deciding how many bits of ECC information to use. Including more bits per sector of data allows for more robust error detection and correction, but means fewer sectors can be put on each track, since more of the linear distance of the track is used up with non-data bits. On the other hand, if you make the system more capable of detecting and correcting errors, you make it possible to increase areal density or make other performance improvements, which could pay back the “investment” of extra ECC bits, and then some. Another complicating factor is that the more ECC bits included, the more processing power the controller must possess to process the Reed Solomon algorithm. The engineers who design hard disks take these various factors into account in deciding how many ECC bits to include for each sector.

The PC Guide
Site Version: 2.2.0 – Version Date: April 17, 2001
© Copyright 1997-2004 Charles M. Kozierok. All Rights Reserved.

This is an archive of Charles M. Kozierok’s PCGuide (pcguide.com) which disappeared from the internet in 2018. We wanted to preserve Charles M. Kozierok’s knowledge about computers and are permanently hosting a selection of important pages from PCGuide.

Hard Drive Spindle Speed

As hard disks become more advanced, virtually every component in them is required to do more and work harder, and the spindle motor is no exception. As discussed in detail here, increasing the speed at which the platters spin improves both positioning and transfer performance: the data can be read off the disk faster during sequential operations, and rotational latency–the time that the heads must wait for the correct sector number to come under the head–is also reduced, improving random operations. For this reason, there has been a push to increase the speed of the spindle motor, and more than at any other time in the past, hard disk spin speeds are changing rapidly.

At one time all PC hard disks spun at 3,600 RPM; in fact, for the first 10 years of the PC’s existence, that was all there was. One reason for this is that their designs were based on the old designs of large, pre-PC hard disks that used AC motors, and standard North American AC power is 60 Hz per second: 3,600 RPM. In the early 1990s manufacturers began to realize how much performance could be improved by increasing spindle speeds. The next step up from 3,600 RPM was 4,500 RPM; 5,400 RPM soon followed and became a standard for many years. From there speeds have steadily marched upwards. Usually, faster PC hard disk speeds “debut” on SCSI drives that are used in higher-performance applications, and then filter down to IDE/ATA a few years later. At one time 7,200 RPM spindles were only found on top-of-the-line SCSI drives; they are now being used in consumer IDE/ATA disks sold at retail while SCSI has moved on to loftier heights. This table shows the most common PC spindle speeds, their associated average rotational latency, and their typical applications as of early 2000:

Spindle Speed (RPM)Average Latency (Half Rotation) (ms)Typical Current Applications
3,6008.3Former standard, now obsolete
4,2007.1Laptops
4,5006.7IBM Microdrive, laptops
4,9006.1Laptops
5,2005.8Obsolete
5,4005.6Low-end  IDE/ATA, laptops
7,2004.2High-end IDE/ATA, Low-end SCSI
10,0003.0High-end SCSI
12,0002.5High-end SCSI
15,0002.0Top-of-the-line SCSI

Note: Hard disks for laptops and specialty applications come in a wide variety of spindle speeds, even beyond the several speeds listed above. I have not exhaustively researched and listed these here.

Increasing spindle motor speed creates many design challenges, particularly aimed at keeping vibration and heat under control. As discussed here, when the motor spins faster these become more of an issue; some high-end drives have very serious heat, vibration and noise problems that require special mounting and cooling work to allow them to run without problems. To some extent, there is a trade off between spindle speed, and the heat and noise issue. Engineers generally focus on keeping these matters under control, and usually improve them significantly after the first generation of drives at any given spindle speed. However, in some applications, using a slower and quieter drive can make sense.


The PC Guide
Site Version: 2.2.0 – Version Date: April 17, 2001
© Copyright 1997-2004 Charles M. Kozierok. All Rights Reserved.

This is an archive of Charles M. Kozierok’s PCGuide (pcguide.com) which disappeared from the internet in 2018. We wanted to preserve Charles M. Kozierok’s knowledge about computers and are permanently hosting a selection of important pages from PCGuide.