Apple external hard drives have the highest fault rate

Hard drives are the place where you save your precious photos, music and files. So it’s important that you can trust them to keep these files safe.

But if you own an expensive Apple external hard drive, Which? research has found that the brand has a higher fault rate than the other major brands included in our survey. And what’s worse, Apple hard drives were the most likely to develop a fault within the first twelve months of ownership, according to our findings. Read on for all the details.

We wanted to find out just what brands are most dependable when it comes to looking after your data, so we surveyed nearly 2,000 members of the public to find out what their experiences had been with their current and previous hard drives.

Cloud storage service reviews – our verdict on the external hard drive alternatives

Can you trust your hard drive?

which external hard drives have the highest fault rate
Doing well with an 11% fault rate are Buffalo hard drives. This is significantly below the 22% average across the sample as a whole,  according to our survey of 1,926 members of the public. At the other end of the scale is Apple. Its hard drives have a worryingly high 49% fault rate. That means that nearly half of all Apple hard drives developed a fault, according to the findings of our survey.

Another well-known brand with a disappointingly high fault rate is Samsung. We found that 26% of Samsung external hard drive owners experienced a fault with their device.

The most commonly reported faults were the computer being unable to recognise the device, the hard drive freezing and complete start-up failure where the hard drive won’t do anything at all.

How long do hard drives last?

In the case of Apple, the answer isn’t great. Of our respondents that experienced a fault with their Apple device, 67% of them report that the problem occurred within the first twelve months of ownership.

Owners of hard drives from other big names such as Sony and Samsung also report a high instance of devices going wrong within the first twelve month – with 56% (Sony) and 52% (Samsung) of those who suffered a fault finding this in the first year.

By comparison, Western Digital owners experienced fewer faults within the first twelve months – just 37% of its faulty devices went wrong within that time. The average across the sample was 47% of faults occurring within the first 12 months.

What goes wrong with Apple hard drives?

Freezing was the most common fault with Apple devices; 38% of those who experienced a fault reported their device freezing. And 37% reported the computer not being able to recognise the device, and a further 37% reported the hard drive making an increased noise over time.

It’s not all bad news for Apple, however. Of the Apple hard drive owners whose device developed a fault, 88% were able to successfully recover their data. So although more faults were reported by owners of Apple hard drives, a good level of data recovery kept customers happy.

Responding to our research, Apple stated, “Some Time Capsules sold between February 2008 and June 2008 may not power on or may shut down unexpectedly. We repaired or replaced these units free of charge.”

The good news is that if you do experience loss of data due to a faulty hard drive, we have plenty of tips and tricks to help recover your files – just click on the links below.

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31 replies

  1. Apple don’t really sell signficant numbers of usb hard drives. indeed they don’t have any on their online store today. they do however sell time capsules which are much more complex machines with a router built in ie network attached storage device. The survey doesn’t really mention the break down between network attached storage / usb drives / other interfaces, and as such should be interpreted with caution

  2. Hi Shaumik, thanks for your comment. The vast majority of Apple respondents owned the Time Capsule. The problems that they experienced with their Time Capsules included freezing, the computer being unable to recognise the device and the hard drive making an increased noise over time.

    1. Hi Jessica,

      1) Of course the vast majority of Apple respondents owned the Time Capsule, it’s the only “external drive” Apple makes. If anyone said they were using an Apple external drive that wasn’t the Time Capsule they would have to be confused.

      2) As Shaumik said the Time Capsule is a WiFi wireless drive, which is a lot more complex than a the USB wired drives that were also part of this survey.

      WiFi drives depend on the user’s existing Wireless network stability and performance, and you know how bad those Wireless routers can be, you’ve tested one from Sky in a previous review.

      So I’m sorry to say but the survey was very badly designed. This is like comparing call reliability of a mobile phone to a landline fixed phone. No one would do this, because it’s silly – they’re different things.

      It’s not a surprise that the users of wireless drives would experience more freezes. However when the network works well it does have a huge advantage: drives like Time Machine don’t need wires connecting to the computer.

      You should have compared like for like, i.e.: wired with wired and wireless with wireless.

    2. Hi George, and thanks for your comments. You’re absolutely right to point out that with its wireless capabilities the Apple Time Capsule is a more complex device than many wired external hard drives from other brands, but we don’t believe this is sufficient to excuse the fault rate our survey identified.

      On Apple’s website and beyond, the Time Capsule is marketed as a device for storage and backup. Regardless of its method of connection (wireless rather than wired) it is designed as an external storage and backup unit and is purchased as such.

      Our survey uncovered a disproportionately high rate of faults being reported by Apple hard drive owners (given Apple only sells the Time Capsule, that means owners of this device specifically).

      As Jess mentioned, these faults included the device freezing, failing to be recognised, or increasing in noise over time. Any of these faults would be cause for worry in a hard drive, whether it was wired or wireless, and perhaps would be more frustrating with a hard drive with such a high price tag.

      The Time Capsule is more complex than a standard wired hard drive, but we do not consider this an acceptable excuse to explain the high fault rate identified by our survey.

    3. Well I’m sorry you do not consider this an acceptable “excuse”.

      It’s very easy to understand that a drive which connects by a fixed USB cable will be always less prone to problems – such as “freezing” – compared to one that relies on a wireless network, especially with the generalised bad quality of free wireless routers out there.

      I’m not sure how – as deputy editor of Which Computing – you can’t seem to understand this simple concept.

      To me it seems you made a mistake in mixing up the two categories and now are trying to justify your flawed report based on no facts at all, other that what you consider or not an “excuse”.

    4. Also the fact that 88% of respondents managed to “recover” their data from the Apple drive is a strong signal that there wasn’t any actual physical problem with the drive, so likely just a network issue.

      A faulty drive would be unreadable except through very expensive physical data recovery.

      The facts are all there for you to see.

  3. Hi George,

    again comparing apples with oranges is an unfair comparison. Yes, the time capsule is marketed as a device for backing up and external storage WIRELESSLY. It should be compared against it’s competitors in the market ie NAS drives, not against fixed hard-drives.

    The fault rate is concerning, but what concerns me more is the utter lack of data on this website.

    How many time capsules / apple owners responded to the survey? It is misleading not to talk about the breakdown between time capsules and usb drives as Apple used to sell hard drives and the failures may have been in those products – totally unclear from this article.
    In fact how many responses were there for any of the products? And how old were the products?
    How was the survey conducted – was there a bias to responses from people who’d suffered problems?

    I’m a paying member of which, and this isn’t up to your normal standards. I’d suggest you post summary data as an appendix so people can actually see what it is and come to their own conclusions.

  4. [I’ve broken this comment down into small parts since it seems that your blog is silently rejecting comments over a certain length. And I’m playing it safe, since I’m fed up having my time wasted!]


    Jessica/Rich – you’re absolutely right to say that there appears to be an issue with Apple’s drives; I won’t dispute that. In fact, my own 1TB Time Capsule died earlier this year after a bit over two years worth of use.

    However, as has been pointed out, the Time Capsule is not an ordinary hard drive, such as the ones compared in your recent Hard Drive Review which was linked from the weekend “Update” email which in turn linked to this post. First and foremost it’s a network router and consequently is probably left on 24/7 by most users – unlike ordinary hard drives. Your labs review staff presumably recognised this fact when they decided not to include it in that roundup.

    If you’re intent on comparing, Apples with Oranges (metaphorically) then you should have clearly explained this – but you didn’t.

  5. 2/4

    49% is indeed a high failure rate. But 49% of how many? You don’t tell us the sample size of Time Capsule owners. By omitting that info, you make it harder for interested consumers to make well-informed decisions regarding possible future purchases. If it was a non-trivial number (and I suspect that is indeed the case) then it would support your argument to publish the number. I for one would be really interested to know the breakdown by brand – not just to see more detail about Apple, but also to inform a possible purchase of a conventional hard drive.

    As an aside, you might like to dwell for a few minutes on a brilliant quote I saw on Twitter at the weekend: “Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” – Aaron Levenstein

  6. 3/4

    You could have mentioned that Apple announced a completely redesigned Time Capsule back in early June at their developer conference – but you didn’t. The new models have now been shipping for at least a month and the older model is now only available occasionally as an “Apple Certified Refurbished” item via their web store.

    Another attribute which could have significant bearing on general hard drive failure rates is the difference between portable external disks versus desktop models. If a user is lugging a portable disk around with their laptop every day, it will come in for a lot more wear and tear than a static desktop model. Your article makes no mention of whether or not anyone thought to include this sort of attribute in your survey.

    I’m all for calling Apple out over their mistakes where it’s appropriate. But I can’t respect any article (or publisher) where the writer doesn’t have the breadth of experience to do it properly and supply context. Some of us are sufficiently technical to be aware of the background but many aren’t. By omitting the additional background information that I, Shaumik and George have highlighted, you’ve done your non-technical readers a disservice – and they don’t even know it.

  7. 4/4

    Storage technology (in fact, much of IT) is more complex than, say, steam cleaners or lawn mowers: but I do not consider that an acceptable excuse for scribbling a superficial, headline-grabbing “Hard Drives for Dummies” post attacking any manufacturer.

    This is the Technology blog, so you should address issues properly. You have a responsibility to do a lot better. I shudder to think on how dangerous other Which? articles on, say, Cars or Financial Services could be if they’re written as superficially as this one has been. I too am a Which? subscriber – I’ve been contributing to paying your salaries for over 25 years (coincidentally about as long as I’ve been professionally involved in IT). And this is very far from the first Technology blog post which fails to meet reasonable standards.

  8. Goodness Gary, what a lot of fuss, I suggest you cancel your subscription right away before you have a heart attack…. As you say Apple have released a new Time Capsule and you can only now obtain the old one as Refurbished… Presumably these refurbished ones were faulty in some respect… Perhaps many more faulty ones could not be refurbished, who knows… 49% failure of any number is unacceptable, and I would point out that whether Oranges or Apples, I would not wish to eat either fruit, with the risk that nearly half might be rotten…

    1. Goodness Emale, I am lost for words at your depth of insight. Cancel my subscription because I feel I’m getting a shoddy level of service? Gosh, I would never thought of that – thanks so much for your suggestion. (Actually, there’s a perverse streak in me that sometimes supports the idea of campaigning for an improvement in a service. Something close to the heart of Which?)

      Regarding refurbished goods, you presume too much: they will come from a variety of sources. Yes, some of these goods will have been returned as faulty before being repaired and resold. But others will have been returned by users who weren’t actually smart enough to use them properly and who merely thought they were faulty. And some might be units which have suffered cosmetic damage, perhaps in a warehouse. Really, it’s not a conspiracy. Try a search on Google for “dell uk refurbished” and look at the “Key Things to know” page for a non-Apple version of the refurbished story…

      You’re right that 49% of 316 is definitely not good. Perhaps you’d prefer 22% of, say, 1000? But without a lot of more detailed information, you can’t tell if 49% is normal or a manufacturing blip.

  9. We are happy to provide more detail about our research. We had 316 respondents for Apple alone and we captured a large amount of data from these respondent. The data we captured includes:

    The nature of the fault
    How old the device was before developing a fault
    Whether the fault caused loss of data or corrupt data
    Whether the respondent was able to recover their data
    How frequently the respondent used their device
    Whether they used their device as a PVR
    If they owned a previous device, what they did with it

    As you can see from this we have a robust data set for a statistically significant number of respondents. For further information you can read the full story on pages 46 – 51 of the August 2013 issue of Which? Computing magazine.

    1. Hi Jessica – I suppose I should thank you for addressing one (one?!) of the various criticisms raised.

      Pity the detailed figures are only available for subscribers to your subsidiary magazine. From what I can see, it’s really not pitched at experienced IT professionals and would be pretty much a waste of my money and time.

      It’s also a pity that the availability of this more detailed analysis wasn’t mentioned originally, either here in this post or on the Conversations page.

    2. Thanks Jessica but I actually just cancelled the direct debit for my Which subscription due to the flawed nature of these reports, so I won’t be getting the August issue.

    3. Aw. I was quite looking forward to seeing your next critique on how Which? failed to properly implement Baysian probability into the testing process. George – please come back, we’ll all miss you.

    4. These guys (Gary and George) are hilarious! They’re so hurt about this survey, LOL. I’ll be sad to see them go too, their indignant attitudes and self-righteous behavior were pretty entertaining, tbh.


    5. Typical, if you don’t agree with something but don’t have the facts and can’t quite discuss the topic, attack the person saying it.

    6. Gary and George – this knee-jerk reaction to cancel your subscription is frivolous and highly immature. There are things in this world that can be ignored. You made your point fine. If you have to cancel your subscription based on a disagreement, how would you react in a relationship – divorce, shoot your partner?

  10. Seems to me there are a number of Apple fans masquerading as concerned technical experts to debunk the findings because they don’t like them

  11. As a very non-technical person, it seems to me that the point of Which? (the reason I buy it anyway) is to give clear, succinct, laymans summations of the products it’s testing so that you DON’T need to be an expert in that field to understand the details. If and when I buy an external hard drive I want to know if it’s reliable and cost effective, regardless of whether it’s wifi or USB. In fact, if one of the points against a product is that the wireless connection is unreliable, which is what seems to be implied in the previous posts, then for me this would be a very legitimate point against it. It’s no less a storage device just because it’s wireless. If I were looking for the most dependable wireless external storage, then up against similar products the results may be very different; in that category Apple may come top – I don’t know. And with regards to the summation that ‘many of the faults reported may be down to user ignorance’ (which is possible, but how would you ever be able to determine that?!) then for your average non-techie, who I imagine are the majority of people who will use Which? as a guide to this kind of purchase rather than using a specialist IT publication, it would probably very useful to know that the Apple is a complicated bit of kit suitable for more advanced IT types. As these issues weren’t mentioned in the article, it’s been very helpful to have them highlighted in this blog.

    As a person who just wants to know which device/retailer/white goods/auto-mobiles/food, etc., I can buy with reasonable confidence, I think Which? is very useful. With regard to this blog, I’m sorry that so many people nowadays feel the need to be so aggressive and sarcastic when expressing their opinions.

    1. It’s all about what you want from an external drive.

      If you’re happy to carry the drive always plugged into to a single computer, then the USB ones are no doubt the best choice compared to wireless. I have plenty of USB drives, they’re great.

      However if you want to take your computer everywhere around the home without carrying drives around, or if you want multiple computers to access the drive at any time – then the USB drives won’t do and a wireless drive is a much better choice.

      Nothing to do with being complicated, I’m sorry you got that impression.

      Unfortunately it’s the differences and pro/cons of each option that should be discussed in a good quality article and not just bundle the results of a both together into “good” and “bad”.

  12. firstly can i point out that george appears to be very clever on this subject,right now thats out the way..As a less techncally minded person if apple develops something that wirelessly connects as a data store to rival,compete or offer another option to usb connection thats great as long as it works well…it doesnt appear to…in the same way as if someone invented a hands free car that steered itself it would be a different concept but i actually need to get to work to pay for the thing-if it freezes or crashes why would i want it ?… would be interesting to know the fail rate of other wireless devices to see if they are equally as poor,however if the wireless device is the only apple device you could rate and survey then thats good enough for me ..i blindly trust apple, not being as clever as george, hence would be convinced by the branding having three i pads a mac and i pods -i am someone who has benefitted from these results and whilst i have no time for allegiance to a brand to the point of desparately arguing against the latest samsung or any other relativley equal device on the market i am in someways firmly rooted in the apple world and dont believe apple advocates /advisors see the daft omnipotence that surrounds these products …i hope to get the next i phone ,having never had one and suspect ,even though they wont say it ,i will be paying full price to act as a ginea pig for bug fixes …..

  13. When I backup by main Internal hard Disk Drice (C:\) I use an imagining software like Shadow Protect. I completey take an image of my haed drive which included by Operating system, Software Application akk mmy music files even MYDocuments & Setings (Users profiles in Windows 7 & 8) and if anything ever goes wrong wotj my HDD I just swap it for a nrand bew one get the boot up disk and restore the complete partition..

  14. Apple do not make HDD. Apple storage products normally contain HDD manufactured by Seagate or Western Digital.

    Well done Which for publishing another entirely useless, inaccurate misinformed review.

    If anyone out there is interested in the opinion of a professional, Apple storage products are a lot more reliable than Which reviews.

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