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Why the hard disk light needs to die

Posted on 24th Feb 2009 at 09:16 by Alex Watson with 53 comments

Alex Watson
When I first got my Mac laptop, it annoyed me, to an obscene level, that it didn’t have a hard disk activity light. Unused to the new machine’s noises, I would listen obsessively to it, trying to figure out what the hard disk sounded like when it was working hard, when it was copying files, when it was doing nothing at all.

Gradually, I got used to the fact the machine didn’t have a HDD light. It stopped bothering me. I realised it had little bearing on how I used the computer. It’s not like I didn’t load up a program just because a light was flashing.

In fact, now I find myself annoyed, angry even, at the HDD light on my Shuttle at work. It’s bright orange, and just in view, and as the hard disk thrashes away when the PC starts up in the morning, it annoys the hell out of me. This is, I realise, because it’s a sign the PC has broken its promise to me.

The HDD is the promise that the PC is listening to you. It demonstrates that tangible results are occurring when you perform a virtual action – when you type in a command, or click an icon, it’s the real world confirmation that thy will be done. In the old days – DOS – this was necessary, because there wasn’t any other way for the PC to communicate to the user that it was actually doing anything. With GUIs such as Windows and Mac OS we got visual indicators of activity: an hourglass draining away, an icon bouncing up and down.

In addition to the fact that the HDD light has been outmoded by the OS’s abilities, it’s also been rendered pointless by the fact that disk activity is no longer any direct indication that what the user wants to happen is happening.

With the introduction of Windows XP and large-scale, constant multi-threading, the promise of ‘disk activity = your orders are being followed’ was broken. A modern multi-threaded OS is always running tens, if not hundreds of processes. Many of these are supposed to be invisible to the user, such as drivers which keep hardware running. This means that indicating that they’re happening, with a HDD light, is counter-productive – all it does is annoy the user, because it makes you aware that things you’ve not ordered are happening. The user knows something is up, but has no idea what. In the era of multi-tasking multi-threaded apps, the HDD light is a disserve to users. It tells you nothing useful, and makes your computer more frustrating. It needs to die.

53 Comments

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Fod 24th February 2009, 09:23 Quote
people still plug in their hdd leds?

if it annoys you so much, open the case and yank the mobo header connector. or, y'know, write a thousand-word column - hey, i don't presume to know which one took more time
DougEdey 24th February 2009, 09:25 Quote
woah woah woah, the hard drive light is very useful, it tells you whether your computer has actually crashed or whether it's just thinking about crashing! Also, on most PCs I've found it's integrated into the reset switch as well. During installation of software - application or OS it lets you know if something is FUBAR or if there's an issue with the copy process.

On my laptop I barely see it do anything now because it's out of my eyeline.

I wouldn't say "kill it" I'd say disconnect it or allow it to be a user option in BIOS
Fod 24th February 2009, 09:28 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by DougEdey
woah woah woah, the hard drive light is very useful, it tells you whether your computer has actually crashed or whether it's just thinking about crashing! Also, on most PCs I've found it's integrated into the reset switch as well. During installation of software - application or OS it lets you know if something is FUBAR or if there's an issue with the copy process.

On my laptop I barely see it do anything now because it's out of my eyeline.

I wouldn't say "kill it" I'd say disconnect it or allow it to be a user option in BIOS

you know, i've never relied on HDD activity to tell me whether a process had died or my system has hung. i usually use the numlock check to see if it's totally hung, and use process explorer to see if an activity needs to be turfed.
badders 24th February 2009, 09:31 Quote
Well Fod And Doug have pretty much summed up all I was going to say.

^^^ What they said.
GFC 24th February 2009, 10:05 Quote
I agree 100%. There's no longer any use from it.
BTW: I have my own turned off ages ago.
wuyanxu 24th February 2009, 10:16 Quote
power light also need to die, it's too bright and pointless. your screen will be on if the computer is turned on, your screen is off if the computer is turned off. simple as that.

personally, i think both lights are redundant. that's why i unplugged power light to my P182 because it lights up my room at night. the HDD light is behind the doors (Antec saw it 3 years ago) so no one can see it.

like Fod, i use Caps Lock or Num Lock to test whether the system has hang as a whole, when C+A+Del doesn't work.
Da_Rude_Baboon 24th February 2009, 10:32 Quote
The HDD light should stay as it lets me know my POS computer at work is actually doing something while i stare at a blue background and white cursor as it logs in.
Fod 24th February 2009, 10:32 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by wuyanxu
power light also need to die, it's too bright and pointless. your screen will be on if the computer is turned on, your screen is off if the computer is turned off. simple as that.

personally, i think both lights are redundant. that's why i unplugged power light to my P182 because it lights up my room at night. the HDD light is behind the doors (Antec saw it 3 years ago) so no one can see it.

like Fod, i use Caps Lock or Num Lock to test whether the system has hang as a whole, when C+A+Del doesn't work.

shrug, power LED is useful to me. i often leave my machine turned on with monitor off, plus my desktop mobo flashes the LED to let me know it's asleep rather than just off. if the LED is too bright, go the ghetto route of colouring the bulb in with black marker, then putting it back into its housing - i've done this with all the gear in my living room. gives a glow subtle enough to see in dimmed lighting but not too strong to be distracting.

of course, having an LED is more important when you've built a silent system. it's probably somewhat less useful when your machine sounds like a jet engine when on.
steveo_mcg 24th February 2009, 10:49 Quote
I find it very helpful on the wifes laptop it takes and age to start up and is pretty much unusable while the background proccess are loading ie while the hd light is flickering once it pretty much stops i start to load apps.

I wonder how there utility will change when we move fully to flash media since we will have no audible indication of drive use but will it matter?

As for power lights i would vote to keep them to the point when ever i have made a custom case i've added them they are very useful for boxes on standby or silent boxes to see when you've accidentally left them on.
digitaldave 24th February 2009, 10:50 Quote
I like my HDD light, this column made me realise just how much i like it, so today after work I will make a hdd light mod for my macbook :)
Omertron 24th February 2009, 12:06 Quote
Really, a HDD light irritates you about a PC? I think it's slightly more deep rooted than that.
Perhaps you hate the fact that the PC mouse has at least double the number of buttons that your Mac Diety (SJ) dictates.

Perhaps there is also the issue that the case has screws and you can upgrade what's inside it? After all you're not allowed to upgrade the macbook.

Perhaps it's because, despite everything, the PC is a better machine?

If it's none of those, open the case and unplug the light. If, being a mac user you are scared of screw drivers, perhaps you could get a grown up to do it for you?
[/tongue in cheek]
Fod 24th February 2009, 12:31 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Omertron
Really, a HDD light irritates you about a PC? I think it's slightly more deep rooted than that.
Perhaps you hate the fact that the PC mouse has at least double the number of buttons that your Mac Diety (SJ) dictates.

Perhaps there is also the issue that the case has screws and you can upgrade what's inside it? After all you're not allowed to upgrade the macbook.

Perhaps it's because, despite everything, the PC is a better machine?

If it's none of those, open the case and unplug the light. If, being a mac user you are scared of screw drivers, perhaps you could get a grown up to do it for you?
[/tongue in cheek]

.... wtf are you smoking :|

the macbook is a laptop. i'd like to see you upgrade more than the ram and hard drive in any dell without ripping it to pieces - which is precisely what the macbook has as upgradable parts. there's nothing about not being 'allowed' to upgrade - apple document dismantling the machines to replace parts that a consumer is able to.

there are many mac users who - gasp! - have windows machines too, and use, and like them both. leave your stereotypes at the door, please.

now leave this place, child.

disclaimer: i am aware you have a [/tongue in cheek] at the end of that, however there were so many layers of sarcasm in that post that it's difficult to identify just what bit you were referring to, so i'm assuming a worst case of just the last bit. otherwise, apologies.
Krikkit 24th February 2009, 12:36 Quote
Personally I quite like the HDD light. A perfect example of using it was playing the Empire:TW demo, if it was doing serious loading instead of just sitting around, there'd be more HDD activity instead of 30-45 seconds of nothing.
Fod 24th February 2009, 12:38 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Krikkit
Personally I quite like the HDD light. A perfect example of using it was playing the Empire:TW demo, if it was doing serious loading instead of just sitting around, there'd be more HDD activity instead of 30-45 seconds of nothing.

typically i rely on looking at the screen for that. there's normally something called a 'loading bar'.

i know, i'm such a luddite.
wuyanxu 24th February 2009, 12:57 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Fod
shrug, power LED is useful to me. i often leave my machine turned on with monitor off, plus my desktop mobo flashes the LED to let me know it's asleep rather than just off. if the LED is too bright, go the ghetto route of colouring the bulb in with black marker, then putting it back into its housing - i've done this with all the gear in my living room. gives a glow subtle enough to see in dimmed lighting but not too strong to be distracting.

of course, having an LED is more important when you've built a silent system. it's probably somewhat less useful when your machine sounds like a jet engine when on.
even if the system is built as quiet as possible, you will still have other lights to indecate the ON status, eg, NumLock on keyboard, Mouse light.
Psytek 24th February 2009, 12:59 Quote
I stopped paying attention to my HDD LED a long time ago. For one thing, I have 3 hard drives, and I have no way of knowing which one is being accessed when the HDD light blinks.
Krikkit 24th February 2009, 12:59 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Fod
typically i rely on looking at the screen for that. there's normally something called a 'loading bar'.

i know, i'm such a luddite.

The only thing that's less reliable than a loading bar is a graph in the daily mail.
steveo_mcg 24th February 2009, 13:07 Quote
How about a release date from valve?
phuzz 24th February 2009, 14:32 Quote
As an IT geek I do find the dell laptops at work easier to work with than the apples, but partly that's what I'm used to.
Dells are easier to upgrade though, one big screw to open a hatch = direct access to memory vs remove battery, remove lots of screws, pry memory out etc...

just saying is all...
Pookeyhead 24th February 2009, 14:40 Quote
Baffled by this article tbh.

It can serve a purpose in those "is it still loading that 300Mb PS file, or has it hung" situations. Besides.. if the one on the shuttle is irritating, then it's a fault of the case designers for putting an insanely bright LED in it.

A subtle, not too bright and well placed LED for drive activity is a useful thing sometimes. The ones in my case are hardly noticable unless you actually look away from the monitor and at the case.
TGImages 24th February 2009, 16:03 Quote
What we (ok, I) don't need anymore...

HDD lights.
Floppy ports on mobos
IDE ports on mobos
Serial ports
Parallel ports
VGA ports
PCMCIA

While I don't see the point of the article, I do agree with the message about cutting the cord on these legacy technologies already. Apple has mostly done that on their laptops (or in some cases never had it to begin with) and Dell is following suit with the E series Latitude laptops. If you need any legacy stuff they offer a special dock that still has those ports, otherwise you just get current stuff USB, ESATA, Displayport and a VGA just in case. And on Dell's smaller units the PCMCIA got dropped too.
cyrilthefish 24th February 2009, 16:22 Quote
Quite bizarre article really.

Apart from laptops, it's completely trivial to disable the LED if it annoys you, though a BIOS option for it sounds a good idea.

While the HDD indicator is no longer a 'black or white' indicator of PC activity, it's still incredibly handy.
As someone else mentioned as an example: seeing if a laptop logging in is taking a long time due to it waiting for a network resource (generally no disk activity) or applying settings/downloading profile (disk activity).

personally i find it so annoying not having a HDD light, i actually went to the trouble of modding in a LED for my RAID card when i first got it as it was driving me nuts not knowing what it was doing.
Now i have a proper caddy for it, with individual LED's for each drive, so i know exactly which of my 4 drives is most dodgy in the array, useful information!
SiG 24th February 2009, 16:27 Quote
A simple application of electrical tape solved my woes. Sure, it isn't anything fancy or elegant, but it allows for a bit of light to bleed out the edges so I can still see the HDD indicator light when required, but at the same time it isn't glaringly - or in this case 'blinkingly' obvious.

Easy to attach, and easy to remove.
(It may be of interest to note that my room prior to the consumption of an entire roll of electrical tape looked like it was a server room which was also the housing unit for several R2 series astronomech droids as well as the T-1000 Terminator. )
Prometheus 24th February 2009, 17:00 Quote
I find having a HDD activity light very usefull. I don't have numlock lights etc due to having a wireless keyboard and mouse.

However having said that I do agree that at night they can be a little annoying. What i'm doing in project Muse is having a circuit that dims all of the leds down when the light level in the room drops, that and the fact that all my leds are connceted to small pieces of fibre optic cable so I only have 1mm points of light makes them alot less intrusive.

Again though if they really annoy you that much just unplug them, but I agree that an option in the bios to turn them on/off would be good.
FeRaL 24th February 2009, 17:02 Quote
Can I have my five minutes back? Sorry if I step on anyone's toes but to gripe about something as trivial as a HDD activity light sounds more like a case of the "my pussy hurts" than anything.
wuyanxu 24th February 2009, 17:14 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Prometheus
What i'm doing in project Muse is having a circuit that dims all of the leds down when the light level in the room drops, .....

that is the best idea i've read all thread!! an ambient light sensor.

Apple's Macbook has it, and they work beautifully, iPhone has it although updates a little slow, but also works fantastic. now why can't PC monitors and cases have their ambient light sensor, and adjust accordingly.
Bluefan 24th February 2009, 17:15 Quote
The hard disk led is quite usefull. Modern harddrives are very silent, but a process using the harddrive can slow down the entire computer. The harddrive is regularly a bottleneck, so it's usefull that when the computer is slow, you can see where the problem is. A task manager won't give you harddrive usage. processes only using a very small amount of the processor can slow the complete computer down with harddrive usage.
naokaji 24th February 2009, 17:26 Quote
Just don't plug it in...
steveo_mcg 24th February 2009, 17:38 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bluefan
The hard disk led is quite usefull. Modern harddrives are very silent,

man the marketing bods really have got to you haven't they. Silent is not a sliding scale its a lack of noise!

Modern harddrives are very quiet
Pookeyhead 24th February 2009, 18:35 Quote
LOL.. this thread is surreal!

Like HD lights... leave it alone... hate them, don't plug 'em in.


Hardly worth column inches. Slow week is it Bit? LOL


I have to go now, I'm writing an article about car indicators that click too loudly.

:)
GiGo 24th February 2009, 19:24 Quote
My HDD light makes the room glow purple, combined with the blue power light, when the HDD is working it makes it shine nice and purple, I like it like that.

Anyhos, its very useful for me, as I have no numlock light. so HDD light is very usefull to see if the system has locked up.

FOA Pookeyhead, I love the indicators on my new Fiat Scudo van, they have a very nice tone to them, also the indicators on my Mitsi are little too loud.

Regards
GiGo
Red 5 24th February 2009, 21:54 Quote
I like hard drive lights, except mine doesn't work. I should investigate further one day. I've got readouts on my Sidebar that are supposed to tell me if they're doing anything, but they aren't obvious enough.

I miss my hard drive light.:(
specofdust 24th February 2009, 22:12 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Pookeyhead
Baffled by this article tbh.

Agreed. Pretty much hope no-one was paid money for it - I know that's harsh, but seriously, HDD lights? Unplug or don't, your choice.
Jordan Wise 24th February 2009, 22:47 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by specofdust
Quote:
Originally Posted by Pookeyhead
Baffled by this article tbh.

Agreed. Pretty much hope no-one was paid money for it - I know that's harsh, but seriously, HDD lights? Unplug or don't, your choice.

Yeah, if the rest of the blog entries are going to be as pointless as this, give us the column bit back with longer articles that people thought about before writing.
notatoad 24th February 2009, 22:56 Quote
the HDD light is far less stupid than the power light. why the hell would i need an led to tell me that the computer is turned on? if it's on, i can see a picture on my screen.

edit: and to all you people whining about how this is a lame topic for an article or column: yeah, that's the point of the blog. it's a space for unimportant little things like rants about hdd lights, without wasting a proper column.
Neophyte4Life 25th February 2009, 00:04 Quote
I say if it annoys you,just go and get some electrical tape, cut it to size, and cover it up. I on the other hand then to like the annoying lights so i try to attach as many as i can to my machine. Cyborg keyboard and Razer mouse FTW!!!!
Nicb 25th February 2009, 01:27 Quote
My HDD, DVD Drives, MB lights, Network card, etc, all have lights and have a language associated with the number of blinks, or how many are on or off. I think if you understand the language instead of thinking its randomly blinking away to annoy you then you would be at peace with it and find use from them.
dogknees 25th February 2009, 07:15 Quote
[QUOTEeven if the system is built as quiet as possible, you will still have other lights to indecate the ON status, eg, NumLock on keyboard, Mouse light.[/QUOTE]

Not so. My KB and mouse both turn their leds off after a short while of no activity.

The whole discussion reminds me of one I often have at work.
Them: Can you please remove the options in this area, I never use them.
Me: If you don't use them, why are they a problem? If you aren't interested in those option, simply ignore them.

So, if you aren't interested in the disk light or the power light, ignore them!
"Too much information" is an oxymoron, as is "too many options".
Zider 25th February 2009, 09:20 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by TGImages
What we (ok, I) don't need anymore...

HDD lights.
Floppy ports on mobos
IDE ports on mobos
Serial ports
Parallel ports
VGA ports
PCMCIA

What, don't you want hard drives in your PC? Or did you mean PATA? ;P
nicae 25th February 2009, 11:44 Quote
Why bother with an HDD LED if each of my 5 fans have 4 or 5 flashy LEDs themselves, turning my PC into a friggin' Christmas tree?!? :P

I like the LED. It helps to know when certain things are running like they're supposed to (or not). (:
Volund 25th February 2009, 13:24 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Zider
What, don't you want hard drives in your PC? Or did you mean PATA? ;P

IDE is one of the "conventional" ATA formats (PATA). pretty much every PATA device is an IDE device....

and there is this great new thing called SATA, it runs HDD's now
The_Beast 25th February 2009, 23:02 Quote
I don't mind it. The only time I don't want it on is when I'm trying to sleep, it's bright enough to light a small room
Zider 26th February 2009, 01:01 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Volund
IDE is one of the "conventional" ATA formats (PATA). pretty much every PATA device is an IDE device....

and there is this great new thing called SATA, it runs HDD's now

and SATA is Integrated Drive Electronics just like PATA, which was my point. No IDE, no SATA.
Xir 26th February 2009, 11:39 Quote
The HDD light tells me from afar that my backup's finished ;-)

Sometimes when my pc is idling (I'm reading an ebook for instance) and all of the susdden the HDD light tells me SOMETHING is happening. I usually find a timed virusscanner or defragmentation or something like that starting to run.
(They also do it while i'm working and i just wonder why the thing isn't responding)
The HDD light shows me the cause.
Pookeyhead 26th February 2009, 12:48 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Xir
The HDD light tells me from afar that my backup's finished ;-)




Not even from afar. I have ghost set to back up at 9pm every night. If I'm in a full screen application and I see the hard drive light come on, and stay on at 9pm, this reminds me that it's running and not to start doing something that will hammer the drives for the next 10 minutes.

Like I said earlier this is just one man's irrational rant at something that isn't really a problem for the massive majority of people. The author of this blog entry should simple remove the side panel from his PC and unplug the wires to the HD header, and stop wasting our time with puerile, almost adolescent ranting.

Nothing wrong with the HD light. I for one am happy it's there. Unplug it you're not.
boiled_elephant 26th February 2009, 12:55 Quote
My p182 doesn't even have a HDD activity LED, which pleased me immensely. I agree, they're redundant and distracting.
A little LCD readout of CPU load would be much, much more useful. In fact, it would own. I understand you can buy/mod them, I may look into it.
wuyanxu 26th February 2009, 13:49 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by boiled_elephant
My p182 doesn't even have a HDD activity LED, which pleased me immensely. I agree, they're redundant and distracting.
A little LCD readout of CPU load would be much, much more useful. In fact, it would own. I understand you can buy/mod them, I may look into it.

P182 have 2 HD lights inside the door.

i am trying find the energy to convert one of the HD light inside the door into power LED. so the machine is discreet unless the door is open. (needs convert because power LED are 3pin connectors with mid-pin being empty, while HD lights are 2pin connectors)
notatoad 26th February 2009, 15:30 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by wuyanxu
needs convert because power LED are 3pin connectors with mid-pin being empty, while HD lights are 2pin connectors
just try plugging your 2-pin connector in. it should work.
wuyanxu 26th February 2009, 15:57 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by supertoad
just try plugging your 2-pin connector in. it should work.
motherboard power LED is also 3pin with mid-pin being empty.......... so plugging the 2pin would leave one unconnected pin either way
Fod 26th February 2009, 16:00 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by wuyanxu
motherboard power LED is also 3pin with mid-pin being empty.......... so plugging the 2pin would leave one unconnected pin either way

then you have a weiiiird mobo

all mobos i've seen have bog standard 2pin headers, just like the hd led headers.
DougEdey 26th February 2009, 16:07 Quote
There's always been a difference, IIRC it used to always be Gigabytes that were different, but some manufacturers change it depending on their own personal choices. Just wrap the cables round the +/-ive pins respectively
pistol_pete 26th February 2009, 18:08 Quote
When I first moved my system into my case I wired up the HDD light with the wrong polarity and didn't notice for a few months - so I had no HDD light during this period. But like the first black president of America (Morgan Freeman) said, "life goes on".

Now I have a much quieter HDD I prefer to have it plugged it, it's handy to see why my Q6600 is being quite so slow. It's very much dwarfed by the optical and audio output of my Nine Hundred, but meh.

As many people have said, if you don't like it - just unplug.
notatoad 26th February 2009, 19:06 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by wuyanxu
motherboard power LED is also 3pin with mid-pin being empty.......... so plugging the 2pin would leave one unconnected pin either way

you mean the pin header on the motherboard is missing a pin, or that the connector on the wire is two wires with an empty socket inbetween? as long as there are three adjacent pins on the mobo, either a 2 or 3 pin connector should work, as it's one active pin and two gnd pins, and you just have to make a connection between the active and one of the gnds.
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