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Laptop hard disk drives

Hard drives record information by magnetizing a magnetic material in a pattern that represents the data. They read the data back by detecting the magnetization of the material. A typical hard disk drive design consists of a spindle which holds one or more flat circular disks called platters, onto which the data is recorded. The platters are made from a non-magnetic material, usually glass or aluminum, and are coated with a thin layer of magnetic material.

The platters are spun at high speeds. Information is written to a platter as it rotates past mechanisms called read-and-write heads that fly very close over the magnetic surface. The read-and-write head is used to detect and modify the magnetization of the material immediately under it. There is one head for each magnetic platter surface on the spindle, mounted on a common arm. An actuator arm moves the heads on an arc across the platters as they spin, allowing each head to access almost the entire surface of the platter as it spins.

Hard drives have a mostly sealed enclosure that protects the drive internals from dust, condensation, and other sources of contamination. The hard disk's read-write heads fly on an air bearing which is a cushion of air only nanometers above the disk surface. The disk surface and the drive's internal environment must therefore be kept immaculate to prevent damage from fingerprints, hair, dust, smoke particles and such, given the sub-microscopic gap between the heads and disk.

Using rigid platters and sealing the unit allows much tighter tolerances than in a floppy disk. Consequently, hard disks can store much more data than floppy disk and access and transmit it faster. In our days, a typical workstation hard disk might store between 80 GB to over 10 TB of data, rotate at 5,400 to 15,000 revolutions per minute (RPM), and have a sequential media transfer rate of over 150 MB/s. Laptop hard drives, which are physically smaller than their desktop counterparts, tend to be slower and have less capacity. Most spin at only 4,200 RPM or 5,400 RPM, whereas the newest top models spin at 7,200 RPM.

The hard disk's spindle system relies on air pressure inside the drive to support the heads at their proper flying height while the disk is in motion. A hard disk drive requires a certain range of air pressures in order to operate properly. The connection to the external environment and pressure occur through a small hole in the enclosure (about 1/2 mm in diameter), usually with a carbon filter on the inside. If the air pressure is too low, there will not be enough lift for the flying head, the head will not be at the proper height, and there is a risk of head crashes and data loss.

Very high humidity for extended periods can cause accelerated wear of the drive's heads and disks by corrosion. This can cause physical damage to the disk and spindle motor and can also lead to head crash. Breather holes can be seen on all drives — they usually have a warning sticker next to them, informing the user not to cover the holes. The air inside the operating drive is constantly moving too, being swept in motion by friction with the spinning disk platters. This air passes through an internal recirculation filter to remove any leftover contaminants from manufacture, any particles or chemicals that may have somehow entered the drive, and any particles generated internally in normal operation.

Due to the extremely close spacing between the heads and the disk surface, any contamination of the read-write heads or disk platters can lead to a head crash — a failure of the disk in which the head scrapes across the platter surface, often grinding away the thin magnetic film. Head crashes can be caused by electronic failure, a sudden power failure, physical shock, wear and tear, corrosion, or poorly manufactured disks and heads. In most desktop and server drives, when powering down, the heads are moved to an area of the disk usually near its inner diameter, where no data is stored. This area is called the CSS (Contact Start/Stop) zone. However, especially in old models, sudden power interruptions or a power supply failure can sometimes result in the drive shutting down with the heads in the data zone, which increases the risk of data loss. Newer drives are designed such that either a spring (at first) and then rotational inertia in the platters is used to safely park the heads in the case of unexpected power loss.

The hard disk's electronics control the movement of the actuator and the rotation of the disk, and perform reads and writes on demand from the disk controller. Modern drive firmware is capable of scheduling reads and writes efficiently on the disk surfaces and remapping sectors of the disk which have failed. Also, most major hard drive and motherboard vendors now support self-monitoring, analysis, and reporting technology (S.M.A.R.T.), by which impending failures can be predicted, allowing the user to be alerted to prevent data loss.

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