Desktop vs. laptop, unrecoverable bit error rate
I think there are a couple of factors at work that are resulting in a perceived increase in failure rate.
First, more people are using laptops and other mobile devices instead of desktops. Hard disk drives are mechanical devices. The platters spin very fast (typically 5400 or 7200 rpm), and they have very small arms that sweep a transducer across the surface of each spinning platter, at a distance of just a few microns above the platter surface. If the transducer makes contact with the surface, game over. That platter may very well be rendered useless. Think about that the next time you set your laptop down on a desk. If the HDD is off during an impact, then the risk is much reduced and relates primarily to damage to the bearing that holds the platters. Impact durability for HDDs is measured in G forces, and is typically just a few for an operating device, but far more for a deactivated one.
If you want to avoid this, use a solid-state drive (SSD) with no moving parts, instead of a hard disk drive (HDD) with lots of moving parts. I have recently replaced the included HDD with a SSD on every laptop owned by a member of my family, and every family member has also experienced a HDD failure on their laptop. For insight into SSD quality, visit newegg.com and read the reviews. Some SSDs - particularly older models - suffered a variety of firmware bugs that could cause devices to fail.
Unrecoverable Bit error rate
Let's say that the unrecoverable bit-error rate for HDDs has remained constant at 1:10^14 for the past 20 years. At the same time, the amount of storage space on a HDD has grown from ~40 MB back in 1990 to as much as 4 TB today. That is a capacity growth of 5 orders of magnitude! The likelihood that a bit will be read incorrectly is roughly the same as it was 20 years ago, but we are storing and retrieving 100,000 times as many bits. So yes, unrecoverable bit errors will be that many times more frequent (assuming data access rates scale linearly with storage capacity). In most cases, these types of errors will result in a damaged or lost file or set of files, or a corrupted directory, or similar localized problems. But if the problem occurs in certain essential parts of the disk such as the boot partition, the O/S kernel program files, or O/S configuration data files (such as the Windows registry), the problem can cause the O/S not to boot.
On HDD quality
Again, the reviews at newegg.com, tigerdirect.com and similar sites are your friends. In particular, pay attention to reviews that have longer time-of-ownership. The manufacturers of bare HDDs are 3:
Western Digital: also now owns Hitachi Global Storage Technologies (HGST). Hitachi previously bought out IBM's Deskstar and Travelstar technologies.
Seagate Technology: also now owns Maxtor and Samsung Storage Technologies
All other HDD devices are simply cases or containers constructed around bare HDDs manufactured by one of these three manufacturers. Indeed, if you crack open a case from Lacie, HP, or whomever, you will find HDDs inside it with labels from one of these three. So you won't get better reliability for the bare HDD from any of them.
Each vendor makes a variety of drives targeting various purposes. Enterprise drives are typically designed to withstand the heat, vibrations and usage model present in server environments. Laptop drives are designed for better G-shock resilience, to a point. For this reason, you may be better off purchasing a laptop drive such as a WD scorpio black, than a 2.5" enterprise drive that you try to stuff into a laptop.
Hard Drives are like lightbulbs
Every hard disk drive is doomed to failure. It is not a question of if, but simply a matter of when. If you think of HDDs as being like light bulbs that you need to replace from time to time, you will be much better off. Because you know you will need to replace them, you will force yourself to make frequent backups of any valuable data that is stored on them. You can purchase more expensive HDDs designed to last longer - just like you can purchase more expensive compact-fluorescent lightbulbs. But those too fail eventually, so all you are doing is reducing the amount of maintenance work you need to do; you are not eliminating it completely. The logical course of action that flows from this realization is that you should store as little as possible on local HDDs and SDDs (which also fail eventually), and rely upon centralized servers and other external media to store more permanent copies of your valuable data. Those servers might be cheap backup devices that sit somewhere in your house, or they might be accessed through a cloud service, or they might be some combination of cloud, USB-attached devices, and Home Servers (such as WHS). They could even be libraries of DVDs and BR discs that you store in a fireproof offsite location. You need to decide what backup solution is right for you and your needs. But if you don't have a solution in place, then your data will metaphorically end up in the dark.
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