Just before Christmas my 2 year old Apple iMac 27″ i7 computer was starting to slow down. Now this is a computer that was ranked faster that a Mac Pro tower when it came out, so I was a little disappointed that I was no longer getting the speed that I had enjoyed since it arrived.

Very suddenly I was getting messages from SMART reporter that it was detecting I/O errors on the drive. SMART reporter was still showing the drive as ‘green’ OK, but the errors gradually increased over a week. Looking in Disk Utility equally showed the hard disk S.M.A.R.T. status to be ‘Verified’.

For some reason, after you have been working with computers for some years, you just get a feeling for their health. You know. When they’re about to crash, when they need a re-boot and when something more sinister is going on. Maybe it’s just that one day I fixed someones computer and they told someone else, so gradually folk would seek me out to look at their ailing machines.

This does have some useful spin offs. The more ‘ill’ machines you see, the more of an expert you become. I guess it’s kinda the same thing with doctors? Anyway the outcome of this is that eventually you get to know computers more intimately than you imagined possible. With this experience comes some real world physical delving. You know, taking screws out, replacing hardware. I’ll never forget the way to open a Mac Mini with 3 thin spatulas or paint scrapers – that has got to be the scariest repair I ever did. Pulling off the glossy screen of an iMac is actually a walk in the park compared.

Anyway, back to hard drives and my 27″ iMac.

Apart from having trouble with the hard disk, we also had a clouding / discolouration in the top corners of the screen which I have mentioned in the past but not received any feed back about. Here’s a shot of one of our machines with a lesser clouding problem.

The combination of the two issues made a trip to the Apple store a must. I’d delayed dragging the iMac up to the Apple store in London just because it is so heavy (19Kg)… So like I said, after a full back-up, we set off before the Christmas break to have the machine looked at.

Arriving at the Apple store, our genius immediately acknowledged the screen problem and said he had seen it before. He did mention that it was sometimes apparent with customers who were smokers and held cigarettes under the body of the iMac while typing… I can imaging this, but clearly it didn’t explain our situation. He said they would replace the screen free of charge. I thanked my lucky stars for taking out a 3-year extended warranty; the machine was now 2 years old, even though the screen problem started after we had been using it for 3 months.

As for the failing hard drive, that was a bit more of a problem. The OS reported the hard drive as ‘verified’. The additional software at the Apple store – they booted our machine from their ‘Triage’ disk – reported that it was OK, but we insisted that SMART reporter had reported I/O errors. 2 further tests eventually reported the SMART status of the drive and showed exactly how many bad sectors had been re-allocated. The drive was shot.

Our genius said they would swap it out and do the screen. It would be ready after Christmas.

All this talk about SMART reporting got me thinking about hard drives and what SMART reporting actually is.

So here is what I found:

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
This article is about the hardware monitoring system. For the mnemonic used in setting goals, see SMART criteria.
S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology; often written as SMART) is a monitoring system for computer hard disk drives to detect and report on various indicators of reliability, in the hope of anticipating failures.
When a failure is anticipated by S.M.A.R.T., the user may choose to replace the drive to avoid unexpected outage and data loss. The manufacturer may be able to use the S.M.A.R.T. data to discover where faults lie and prevent them from recurring in future drive designs.

So hard drives have intelligence!

They log things and they monitor stuff – Yeah, like temperature, how long they’ve been on, all the way down to bad sectors and how they’ve re-allocated them. The wealth of information that they log was actually quite a surprise. Obviously this information is useful to manufacturers for warranty purposes, but equally it allows the OS to know when something is awry.

It is important to note that every manufacturer logs SMART data for their drives in a proprietary format so the actual physical values often carry little meaning. Having said that many of the values can be inferred and things like temperature and bad sectors are often easy to spot and interpret. It is exactly this data that many utilities use to report on the health and impending failure of drives.

Now I’ve always been a fan of SMART reporter – having installed it on more than 30 machines – but I was beginning to feel a little let down by it. Why had it not reported the problem as severe, which it clearly was. The answer to this lies in the fact that all hard drives can fix a lot of problems as they grow old. The problem is that too many manufacturers don’t want to alert or worry you until things are really bad. So the search was on for an app / utility that would monitor my hard drives more attentively.

This was how I found SMART Utility – I know it sounds the same, but trust me it isn’t.

SMART Utility is not free at $25 but it is good. There is a free trial which allows you to open it 5 times before paying. Frankly this might be enough for most people.

I immediately took to checking all of our machines with it (all of the machines have SMART reporter loaded and all of the drives were reporting as ‘GREEN’ OK).

I was a little surprised that out of our 4 main machines – 6 hard drives – SMART utility showed 4 hard drives as ‘Failing’; and that was when the penny dropped.

Some of the older machines had been running very slow for a long time and had been relegated to the ‘for email only’ category. SMART utility had shown me why. I did a quick swap out of all the ‘failing’ drives and suddenly all the machines came back to life.

Here’s an example of SMART utility showing one of the machines with a good drive installed…

SMART utility is not an app that constantly monitors your hard drive’s status, but it is a good utility to run if you think you’re having trouble with your drives. It revealed one of our new drives from our DROBO (a Western Digital – Caviar Green that the DROBO had rejected) was completely knackered.

Entering the serial number on the Western Digital website, showed it was still under warrantee and they took it back and sent us a new one! So, SMART utility has already saved me the $25 that it cost. Surprising as the WD Caviar Green was heading to the bin without any further checks…

Things to bear in mind about SMART utility

• It only works with internally connected drives.
• It is dubious if it can read and interpret SSD drive info correctly (I’m sure this will come eventually).
• The SMART data isn’t always useful, although the PASSED / FAILING / FAILED info is reliable.

I’ll be continuing to use SMART utility over the next year and will monitor it’s performance.

So having got all excited about looking into my hard drives I’ve now found an app that will test your RAM thoroughly… more on that later…