The Torture Test


5 Aug 2011
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For the first time ever, CHIP Germany put a selection of storage devices through fire, ice and the worst operating conditions imaginable.

What do CHIP hardware testers do when given a completely free hand? We put the products we receive through unimaginable torture tests! The products in this test suffered so much that some of them were permanently destroyed by the end. Our prisoners were three USB sticks, three external hard drives, two flash-based memory cards and two blank CDs (see box “The Contenders”). Amongst these were products that promise exceptional durability, with names such as “ToughDrive”, “Survivor” and “Extra Protection”.

Trial by Fire

The first test required our torturers to move out of the premises of the CHIP Germany Test Center, to avoid any serious risk of it burning down. All storage devices were flamed in a steel trough for two minutes. The result: no chance of survival for the blank optical disks—they became so warped that they could not be inserted in any drive. Likewise, the fire had a disastrous effect on the flash memory cards. The CompactFlash card pretty much retained its shape as compared to the SD card, neither could be inserted into a card reader. The USB pen drives fared differently. Our budget model mutated into an unsightly plastic lump, with its plastic cover fused to the remainder of the shell. It could not be plugged into any USB port.

On the other hand, the data on the Cruzer, with its metallic case, was saved. Only the sliding mechanism was damaged, but the stick was readable after breaking it out. The screw-mountable metallic case of the Corsair Survivor had no problem with heat. Although the rubber rings melted, all 16 GB could be read without any errors even after the baptism by fire. The designer plastic casing of the Seagate FreeAgent drive as well as the head inside the disk melted completely in the heat—this product suffered a complete meltdown. This, however, wasn’t the case with the FreeCom ToughDrive. Its rubber case was destroyed, but only the controller circuit board inside melted. The data on the hard disk could be recovered after dismantling it. Files on the Maxtor OneTouch hard disk also survived. Even when the plastic sides caved in, its USB port was still usable. We could retrieve data on the disk without any problem.

One thing is certain, the more the metal in the case, the stronger it is. Had the disks been exposed to the fire for longer, the insides would surely have melted. However, data on four of the nine devices survived after two minutes in flames.

Things Go Better with Cola

There are numerous theories about the corrosive properties of cola, which the CHIP extreme test could not confirm. A 14-hour bath in viscous cola followed by rinsing and drying at room temperature for 15 minutes revealed perceptible moisture residue in the CF card as well as USB pen drives. This, however, did not prevent data from being read. In any case, Corsair’s Survivor is waterproof, while the sliding mechanism of SanDisk’s Cruzer was slightly jammed and the USB connector was discolored. Nevertheless, all data was readable, and this was the case with blank CDs as well. We exempted the hard drives from this test since liquids would have killed them. Small holes are present for balancing air pressure in the drives, and they are protected only with dust filters.

Boiling Spaghetti, Magnetism, Sand, and Ice

We did, however, subject the hard drives to our spaghetti pot. The bath in the boiling pot did exactly what we expected: killed them! On the other hand, nothing happened to even the budget USB pen drive. The boiling water could not melt its plastic. The mixture of salt, water and starch was enough to spoil the appetite of the Cruzer’s controller. Though it could still be detected via USB in Windows XP, its data could not be read. It finally gave up during the second attempt. The optical disks could be read without problem.

Most of the devices had no problem with icy temperatures. All of them survived a night at -18 °C; not one of the hard drives had a problem with the accumulating condensation. Likewise, an extra strong neodymium iron-boron magnet could not wear any of them down, which is not surprising since Flash and CDs don’t store data magnetically. It was however astonishing that the hard drives survived. When the disk is in operation, the read head of the magnet on which the disk rests might be pushed out of alignment after being exposed to a strong magnetic field, which in turn could cause the heads to crash into the platters.

Amazingly, the blank CDs also survived the quartz sand. Even after stirring them in the abrasive texture for five minutes, the error correction function of modern DVD drives could compensate for the visibly deep scratches on their surfaces. The sand didn’t cause any problem for the pen drives, memory cards and hard drives. People who use them on a beach will only risk scratches to the devices’ bodies.

Force, Gravity, and a Spin Cycle

In the next experiment, a fall from the roof of the six-storey editorial building, the lightweight devices came out on top. The blank CDs and memory cards were simply buffeted by wind, and cruised to safety in the bushes below. Corsair’s Survivor again proved worthy of its name and made it through the 15m crash without any problems. Both other USB sticks lost their casings during the crash, but we could still read all data on the drives.

The pen drives, memory cards and blank CDs also survived a boiling hot spin cycle in a washing machine. The rinsed items showed visible, but minor damage.

Our last attack—with a 3.6-ton US Army Hummer H1—was the most tragic. This car has a 1.8 ton load per axle, and very few of our test devices survived. The blank CDs were scratched to pieces, the flash memory cards broke apart and even the Cruzer’s innards were crushed. The Seagate FreeAgent broke open, and the ToughDrive was just not tough enough. However, we observed something fascinating! The small, cheap pen drive managed to escape the tire treads with only a few scratches. The Corsair Survivor also survived. But the biggest surprise was undoubtedly the Maxtor OneTouch drive. Apart from a few dents, it was functional.

The Aftermath

So we at CHIP learnt a few important lessons. Neither strong magnets nor temperatures well below freezing point could damage the USB pen drives, blank CDs and hard drives. Only mechanical drives with moving parts are affected by fluids. However, heat and high pressure is lethal: fire and boiling water will normally finish off a storage device.

We now know what to expect from our storage devices in most tough environments. And we know how to be prepared for our next trips to the Sahara Desert or North Pole. And even if we don’t travel to these exotic places, we have decided that it’s not a good idea to leave any kind of hardware under the wheels of a Hummer!

Source : Chip magazine.
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