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A Warning: Hard Drives and Altitude

July 10, 2012

When you are travelling your laptop becomes your lifeline. Not only is it your only way to keep in touch with your friends and family back home but its a source of many different types of info from detailed maps of the countries your in to being a home entertainment centre.

I recently discovered that the heart of your laptop – the hard drive – is vulnerable at altitude. Hard drives are only rated to work properly up to 3000m. Above this height they can fail – permanently.

The reason for this is that the read/write head of the hard drive is kept separate from the actual disc by a  layer of air. At altitude where the air is less dense this layer of air gets thinner and the read/write head can rub against the disc  – eventually destroying it.

Hard drives vary in their tolerances and its not certain that a hard drive will self-destruct as soon as you use it over 3000m. Some will survive substantially higher and some may never crash. But is this a risk that you are willing to take ?

The big hard drive based ipods are  also very susceptible to this and it seems that the microdrives used inside have tighter tolerances than most bigger hard drives and they are therefore more likely to die at altitude.

It is worth noting though that SSD hard drives are immune to this problem and are generally rated to extremely high altitudes. Also the solid state memory in iphones or the smaller ipods is also fine.

So if your hard drive dies over 3000m don’t say I didn’t warn you – we’re not using our laptops or ipod at this height because they are much too important to us and we don’t want to risk it.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2012 8:55 am

    Good tip! I use a Sony laptop with SSD drives fir this precise reason 🙂

  2. July 11, 2012 3:07 pm

    Wow that is a good tip. Thanks for the info! Sounds like you are having an amazing adventure. We’re a few months behind so its great to read all about your trip!

  3. July 11, 2012 4:44 pm

    Never knew this one, Ive managed to kill one of my laptops so far by dropping it a million times out of the truck… working on recovering some non-backed up pics off it now. Thanks for the tip

  4. July 14, 2012 5:35 pm

    We camped as high as 4500m in the Andes and had no issues with either of our Macs or iPod. Just in case… we have multiple backups of all our data. If SSD wasn’t so pricey I would definitely go that route.

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