Why the hard disk light needs to die

Written by Alex Watson

February 24, 2009 // 9:16 a.m.

Tags: #hard-disk #mac #moan #windows

Companies: #apple

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.
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