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High Altitudes Can Cause Hard Drive Failures

August 26, 2021

Hard drives are mechanical devices, and operating conditions can certainly affect performance. Most computer users understand the dangers of extreme heat, excessive vibration, and high humidity, but there’s another important consideration: altitude.

High-elevation areas have higher rates of hard drive failure, and most drives are designed to operate at altitudes of less than 10,000 feet. To understand why, you’ll need to understand some basic facts about hard drive design (and if you’re wondering whether you can safely use your hard drive on an airplane, you’ll find the answer towards the end of this article).

high elevation village

Understanding How Hard Drives Regulate Pressure

Hard drives contain a set of actuator heads, which read and write data via magnetic charges. Your data is stored on a series of discs called platters. The platters are coated in a thin magnetic material.

The actuator heads never touch the surface of the platters during normal operation. Instead, they float on a thin cushion of air. When we say “thin,” we mean it; modern head drive actuator heads have a flying height of as little as 3 nanometers. That’s only slightly larger than the width of a grain of sand.

To keep the heads from crashing into the platters, the airflow needs to be consistent. Most hard drives draw air from outside the enclosure, using a set of filters to maintain the right amount of pressure. If the pressure is too low, the thin cushion of air used by the heads will be insufficient, and the actuator heads will crash, causing immediate data loss.

Safe Altitudes for Consumer Hard Drives

Thanks to some truly spectacular engineering, consumer hard drives are capable of operating at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet above sea level. However, they become unreliable at higher elevations (and extremely low elevations, but we’re guessing that you’re not reading this article at the bottom of the ocean). Operating your hard drive above its altitude rating will void your warranty, and more importantly, it puts your data at risk.

Other digital devices are more resistant to changes in altitude. Some commercial hard drives are vacuum sealed with helium, which allows for faster drive operation and better long-term reliability. Helium-sealed hard drives can safely operate at extremely high elevations, and some manufacturers use that as a selling point.

Currently, helium-sealed hard drives are too expensive for most consumers, but there’s another option. Solid-state drives (SSD) don’t have read/write heads or spindles, so they’re not subject to the same altitude limitations as hard drives. Theoretically, you could access data on a solid-state drive at any altitude, though manufacturer warranties may not cover unusual operating conditions.

It’s important to note that extreme pressure changes can affect other computer components (for instance, the computer’s cooling fans). If you’re planning on browsing the web from the top of Mt. Everest, you’ll need a device that’s specifically designed for high-altitude computing.

Can I Safely Use My Laptop on a Plane?

Yes, you can use your computer on a plane without significantly increasing your risk of hard drive failure. Commercial aircraft typically travel as high as 38,000 feet, but airplane cabins are pressurized to mimic the conditions at sea level. That greatly reduces any risk to hard drives or other digital devices.

The safest course of action is to turn your computer off before getting on the plane. Your laptop’s hard drive won’t instantly fail due to slight variations in cabin pressure, but full pressurization can take a few minutes — if you’ve had your ears “pop” during takeoff, you’ve noticed this effect. That’s a great reason to listen to the flight attendant: Keep your laptop (or iPad, or other device) turned off until you’re in the air.

And remember, traveling can damage devices in a variety of other ways, so make sure you back up all important data before packing your laptop for the trip. This is especially important if you’re stowing your laptop in a checked bag. Keep at least two copies of any important files and make sure to leave at least one copy of the data at home or in the cloud.

If you’ve suffered data loss due to a hard drive failure — or for any other reason — can help. For a free quote, fill out our case submission form or call us today at 1-800-237-4200.