It comes in threes
Three months ago, my external 320 GB LaCie Porsche Design hard drive, purchased in 2008, began displaying an odd behaviour. I would turn it on, hear it start, but it would take a suspiciously long time before mounting on my Mac’s desktop. The first time I noticed this, I didn’t give it much weight because I was too busy. The second time, the time lapse before the disk mounted on the desktop was noticeably longer, and it was also accompanied by a series of slight noises suggesting that the drive was having a hard time booting. Now that drive had my full attention: I freed around 60 GB of disk space on another external drive, and I promptly moved my whole iTunes library there. Finally the volume mounted, and that day I put the drive under pressure, to see (and especially hear) any sign of impending failure. Everything worked fine. The third time, two days later, the disk did not mount on the desktop. I didn’t panic: all critical data was already elsewhere, the rest was a mix of redundant and backup material that I could recover with a bit of an effort, but generally it was no big deal.
When the disk failed to mount on the desktop, I had an intuition of what was happening, and after a quick check by turning the drive off and on again just once, I decided to leave it alone until I had time to deal with it properly. Finally, the day before yesterday (!) I had the opportunity to do so. Here are some observations worth sharing.
The results of a little investigation
This LaCie Porsche Design drive is the third unit in a LaCie box that has failed on me. The other two ‘dearly departed’ were a 20 GB Pocketdrive unit in 2003 and a d2 160 GB unit in 2008. Granted, it’s three drives in just over seven years, and perhaps not a really significant statistical sample to decide against purchasing LaCie products anymore. Moreover it is known that LaCie basically manufactures the external enclosure and interface, but the hard drives inside are from other brands. The three drives that failed were, in chronological order, an IBM, a Western Digital and a Seagate Barracuda — so why blame LaCie? It’s been the recurrent fault pattern — which manifested in an almost identical manner even this third time — what made me think that the root of the problem lies in the LaCie enclosure and its power circuitry, not in the hard drive itself.
The dynamics of the failure of the three drives is identical: The drive starts having power-related problems, start-up times are much longer, booting becomes a laborious process, the volume self-unmounts from the Mac’s desktop and re-mounts intermittently, and after a while it appears dead. It turns on but there’s no sound and it does not mount on the desktop. In all three cases, after opening the LaCie enclosure, removing the hard drive inside, and inserting it in another generic enclosure (I own an old but very reliable unit with a FireWire 400 interface), the drive powered on normally, the volume(s) mounted on the desktop immediately and I was able to access my data, but not before having repaired the disk structure with DiskWarrior.
From my empirical observations, here’s what I deduced: the power circuitry in LaCie’s enclosures is the weak link in the chain. I hypothesise that after a while, the power circuitry starts to fail and not provide a stable power supply to the hard drive. In the best case scenario, the drive simply won’t ‘connect’ and therefore the Mac won’t be able to see it or access it. In the worst case scenario, the unstable power (imagine the typical power surge in your home, with lightbulbs flickering) causes the drive’s heads to become equally unstable and corrupt the information on the disk. For this reason in all three cases I was able to recover the data only partially, and DiskWarrior has always reported problems at the directory structure level. In the case of the second LaCie unit (the 160 GB one) and the 320 GB Porsche Design model, which were both divided into two partitions, one of the two partitions always got damaged in the process and even after running the diagnostic and repair tools, it was mounted on the desktop and appeared with less capacity than before (e.g. 55 GB instead of 80), or did not mount at all.
In short, three different drives, an essentially identical fault pattern. Average hard drive life: never more than three years. The suspicion of planned obsolescence is strong, but for now I’ve decided to reserve my judgment on the matter and just avoid buying a LaCie branded product from now on. I’m very tempted to buy bare hard drives and empty enclosures (or simple accessories such as those produced by NewerTechnology) separately, both manufactured by brands of renown quality. By now I reckon that if a hard drive wrapped in a nice enclosure costs just 70 Euros, in the end you get what you paid for — not much, that is.
One last note: as I have said many times in the past, I can’t recommend DiskWarrior enough. If you think it’s expensive, you haven’t read this article carefully.