Saturday, January 9, 2010

There's a problem on your computer

..but Windows doesn't tell you about it.

Whenever I boot my laptop with Linux (using my USB flash drive) I get this interesting warning message on my desktop:

I suppose the laptop's internal hard drive is due to fail any time now, taking all my work with it. (Fortunately I save all my work on our file server, and keep my email on the mail server, so I'm not likely to lose much of anything.)

But thanks to Linux, I do know that the hard drive is reporting health problems. So if this were my own system, I'd make sure my backups were up to date, and start shopping around for a replacement hard drive.

I find it interesting that I've never seen a similar hard drive warning message under Windows. I've discussed before that I can only compare the default behaviour between Windows and Linux. Maybe Windows saves this warning to a log file, instead of showing it to me? I wouldn't know. I also wouldn't know that my laptop's hard drive is going to die soon.

I think a real strength behind Linux, and any open source software system, is that it's driven by real people - not corporate entities. As a result, Linux and other open source software works in a way useful to real people. It just makes sense that a desktop environment would alert me when my hard drive is due to fail. Thanks!

Similarly, my wife's laptop - also running Linux - is over 5 years old now. The battery no longer holds a full charge anymore. So when she logs in, Linux warns her that her battery may be broken. Except I think she has the option to disable the battery level warning, but prefers not to. The message tells her what is her maximum battery capacity, and she decided we'll replace the laptop when the battery reaches a certain level. (And that's coming soon.)


  1. This is not necessarily a linux thing, it's specific of your chosen (or default) desktop environment (and may as well exist in windows, maybe even by default as well). Looks like it's gnome or xfce. It may be absent by default in other choices like KDE (I don't know), and certainly does not exist by default if you opt by openbox or fluxbox.

  2. Modern drives give some amount of SMART (drive diagnostic standard) info and I'm fairly sure the info is available under Windows, somewhere, somehow. Under linux I use smartd to monitor disk health.

    I don't have a link, but I've seen a study that shows SMART only detects about 1/3 of fatal drive problems before the drive dies. The upshot is not to expect SMART to save your ass, but if you see SMART errors, replace the drive.

  3. You can get a new (generic brand) laptop battery on eBay real cheap. I have pushed a number of old laptops back into service this way.

  4. I had that particular window pop open on one of my Dells that uses Windows XP. Shortly after that notification the drive went south for the winter and never came back. Fortunately, I had dumped the failed drives contents onto a portable drive I had acquired for just that purpose.


  5. @extremophile: Yup, it's really GNOME that's giving me that warning. :-) But users who are new to Linux won't distinguish between "Linux" and "GNOME" ... it's all "Linux". So I try to keep that attitude when writing on this blog.

    This is running a standard install of Fedora 12, using the defaults. I'm comparing the defaults of Linux to the defaults of Windows.

  6. @george.w: You are correct. A new battery for my wife's laptop could be had for around $50 (we've checked.) But her laptop is already 5 years old, and we didn't really want to put any more $$ into it, even $50. We have been planning to purchase a new laptop for her after the holidays anyway, so we're just going to do that.

  7. Also, I'll point out this laptop normally boots into Windows, but only runs Linux when I boot from my USB flash drive. So I'm running Windows on it all the time, for work.

    @James: I'm currently running a default install of Windows Vista on this laptop. Before that, a default install of Windows XP on the same laptop. Yet I never saw a warning from Windows that my hard drive is having problems. I wonder if you are getting your error message from a Dell tool? I know Dell puts a lot of extra utility software on their stuff.

  8. Windows doesn't read SMART information as far as I know, even under Windows 7. In the past, I've used tools like SpeedFan to monitor my health stats.

    There is also a port of smartmontools - which is where that notification's information is being generated - for Windows. It can be run by those who aren't allergic to typing and checking manually. In fact, I remotely guided a friend on using the tool to confirm a bad drive.

    It would be nice to see Windows at least try to support monitoring a bit better, if only because this kind of information can be very useful. It's nice to see Linux being the more advanced in this category, but that goes without saying.

  9. As far as I'm concerned if a machine is running MS software it has a serious problem. I have clients who insist on using some version of Winduhs or other then they complain when things don't work and I waste a lot of time working out things that really shouldn't be an issue (and they are not an issue except when people run MS Crapware); I should multiply my rates by 5 when the client demands Winduhs; it's not as if I'm desperate for work.

  10. Just for anyone who's curious: the SMART data (from the Linux disk analyzer that shows up when you click on the icon above) says this:

    Overall Assessment: DISK HAS MANY BAD SECTORS
    Backup all data and replace the disk.

    Sure enough, if I scroll down the details, I quickly see that the drive's Current Pending Sector Count is way up there. Mouse over the item, and a helpful message pops up to let me know this is a sign of old age.

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