Cooking Dinner At Home: The Flowchart

I believe that most people would like to cook their own food at home, but sometimes the best intentions still end up with me eating Panda Express with those darn little splintery chopsticks! After many weeks of trying to cook meals at home, I’ve tried to identify my roadblocks and organized them into a geeky flowchart:

dinnerflow2

The flowchart helped me identify ways to minimize failure points, like planning meals ahead of time, shopping for all ingredients ahead of time, and slowly building a repertoire of quick meals that I know I can pull off with minimal fuss. Right now I’m still riding a wave of initial enthusiasm, and our food bills haven’t been this low in a long time.

Best Frugal Chicken Broth: Most Flavor For The Least Money?

betterthanbFor me, cooking at home means using a ton of chicken broth and chicken stock (yes there are technically differences between broth and stock but mostly the terms are used interchangeably in recipes). It comes in handy in all kinds of recipes, and basically makes everything taste better (assuming you’re not vegetarian).

At $1 per cup the cost can add up, so I perked up when America’s Test Kitchen ran a Chicken Broth Taste Test. They tested various brands by drinking them straight-up, used in a plain risotto, and reduced in a gravy. The PBS cooking show America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) – which also publishes with Cook’s Illustrated magazine – can be thought of as the Consumer Reports for cooking in that they do not accept any advertising and are entirely subscriber-supported. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about chicken stock:

  • It’s okay to buy chicken broth. Yes, every single food “expert” will tell you that homemade stock is best and it’s so stupid easy you should do it yourself. But did you know that ATK themselves use boxed chicken stock for most of their own cooking? Since their last chicken broth test in 2005, they have used Swanson Certified Organic Free Range Chicken Broth on a daily basis. So don’t fret about it. Apparently it isn’t that stupid easy. Making my own chicken stock all the time is one of those things I’ll save for early retirement. (I admit homemade does taste better.)
  • Most chicken broth is “a science project of flavor enhancers and salt”. Not necessarily something you’d like to hear, but apparently adding nucleotides and glutamates do indeed make things taste more umami and meatier. Many of these additives are considered “natural flavors” because they are made from extracted from things like yeast or soy protein. Also, too much salt may not be good for you but having too little means any broth will taste bland.
  • Brands can change their formulas. As mentioned before, the 2005 taste test winner was the Swanson Certified Organic Free Range Chicken Broth. However, that product was recently reformulated with a new recipe and was no longer recommended in this 2014 test.
  • It’s okay to buy chicken stock concentrate. Most chicken broth in stores is made by the same behind-the-scenes company (International Dehydrated Foods) in the form of a concentrate. Water is then added before final packaging by retail brands. Of course, that makes it heavier and bigger, so it costs more to ship and thus raises the store price. Therefore, a concentrate isn’t necessarily a more processed or more artificial product.

In the end, there were only two fully recommended products after performing the taste test.

The Better Than Bouillon Chicken Base (jar) is their Best Buy as it costs 85% less at $0.16 a cup vs. $1.06 a cup for the Swanson. In addition, the concentrate will last for two years stored in the refrigerator. When you need it, just add water to reconstitute. It has things like disodium inosinate and guanylate which probably interact with the naturally occurring MSG inside the hydrolized soy protein. Curiously, the label specifically states that no MSG is added.

The Swanson Chicken Stock (box carton) is the overall winner regardless of price, and it does not indicate any added glutamates on its ingredient list for those that don’t like that sort of thing. The issue for me is that my regular grocery store doesn’t sell Swanson Chicken Stock, only the cheaper and more popular Swanson Natural Goodness Chicken Broth (which was still rated relatively good but not as good as the stock).

ATK Founder Kimball said the worst one was Pacific Organic Free Range Chicken Broth, which tasted like “possum” or “roadkill”. Ew. I have personally been buying the Costco Kirkland Signature Chicken Broth, which I don’t believe was tested. But I’ve seen the Better than Bouillon at the store, so next time I will try it out. Sounds like a good thing to have as a backup.

(Note: All of this info is available via ATK’s freely-available text and video content at the time of publishing. If you register for free on their website (e-mail required), you’ll get more details on their review rankings and other tested products. There is also a paid subscription level with even more access.)

Also see: Best Value in Chef’s Knives?

Dinner: A Love Story Book Review – An Ode to Family Dinners

dinnerlove

Every since completing the Dinner Boot Camp over 8 weeks ago, we have cooked dinner at home at least 5 times every single week (heating up frozen lasagna doesn’t count). Two months! That has never happened before… The weeklong boot camp (see if still online) was done by Jenny Rosenstrach to promote her new book, but I always like starting at the beginning so I read her first book Dinner: A Love Story: It all begins at the family table. Both books were inspired by her popular blog at DinnerALoveStory.com.

The book itself is probably 50% non-fiction story about her journey and 50% recipes. The author felt strongly about the importance of family dinners and kept a journal of every single dinner she cooked for several years. I think the two excerpts below do a good job of encapsulating her views.

It’s for mothers and fathers—working, staying home, single, divorced, any kind—who crave more quality time with their children and have a sneaking suspicion that the answer may lie in the ritual of family dinner, in the ritual of sitting down together at the end of the day to slow down and listen to each other. [...]

…no matter how different and harried family dinner looked during this new baby phase of our lives, it still served its main purpose: It was our day’s deadline. Even when we were in a house in the suburbs with two kids under two and the evening hours between six o’clock and eight thirty felt like we were trapped in a high-speed game of playground dodge-ball, even when the girls got a little older and we’d try and fail and try and fail to get them to eat the same dinner as us at the same time, even though each of us would have our share of late nights at the office, and even though we’d regress to our frozen veggie burger nights more often than I care to admit, the ritual of sitting down together at the end of the day remained our default mode, our time to be together. And a decade later, dinner has happened regularly enough for me to feel I’ve stayed true to my vow.

It helped that we identified with her situation as we also have two kids under two and often felt like the time between 6 and 8 pm every night was like running the last few miles of a marathon. Most recipes in the book are for a family of four. However, having two tiny ones meant we were really just cooking for two adults. So the book works equally well for couples without kids (if you don’t mind eating leftovers for lunch).

Throughout the book, you can definitely tell that she has professional experience as a magazine writer and editor. The writing is approachable and she uses a friendly, self-deprecating tone that doesn’t scare you off.

The best part about her recipes also comes from her editing skill. These are recipes explicitly honed for the tired, busy, working home cook. The recipes avoid being one-dimensional with simple ingredients like vinegar to make it salty and acidic, or honey to make things sweet and salty. There will usually be a texture component (crunchy, crusty, chewy) and at least one fresh herb. There are no added ingredients just for showing off, but if you leave something out you’ll miss it. As Albert Einstein is credited with saying:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

There are many recipes in the book that are not on the blog. These are recipes from this book that I actually made and I could find links for. Of course some recipes we liked better than others, but that is mostly due to personal taste and none of them were bombs.

Bottom line: If you can’t spend all day in the kitchen but the idea of making minimally-processed meals appeals to you, this book includes both a nice personal story and many practical recipes for quick after-work meals. Recipe books are often about style, and I really connected with her style and taste. I would say at least half my cooking for the last 8 weeks has come from this book or the blog. If this speaks to you, I encourage you to try out the Dinner Boot Camp or the sample recipes above.

Zmodo All-in-One sPoE DIY Security Camera System Review

I’ve always been intrigued by those multi-camera home security systems that you see walking around Costco and Sam’s Club, so when I was asked to review a similar unit I took the opportunity. Here is my review of the Zmodo 4 Channel Complete sPoE NVR Surveillance System w/ 1TB HDD, done from the perspective of a mainstream consumer who wants an affordable, DIY-installed security camera setup at home. I will not be nitpicking camera specs or exploring hacking options.

Cost

My specific package model is ZP-KE1H04-S-1TB, which currently has a list price of $349.99 with free shipping on Amazon. Note that this package comes with a 1 TB hard drive pre-installed, whereas other Zmodo packages do not include a hard drive so that you can size it as you like. (There are many grouchy online reviewers who didn’t notice this fact.) This budget-friendly version has 4 channels (4 cameras recording at once), while more expensive models come with 8 channels or more.

What’s In The Box

zmodo1

  • 4-channel security NVR with a 1TB hard drive (ZP-NE14-S) with USB mouse
  • 4 720p bullet IP network cameras (ZP-IBH15-S)
  • 19V 3A power adapter, 3′ CAT5e network cable, two 50′ camera sPoE cables, two 80′ camera sPoE cables

What You Need To Supply Yourself

  • External display with VGA input and VGA cable.
  • A wireless router with one empty port (for remote viewing).
  • Always-on High-speed internet connection with minimum upload speed of >256kbps (for remote viewing).
  • Android (v.2.3 and up) or iOS (v.5 and up) mobile device (for smartphone app viewing)
  • Windows XP, Vista, or 7 + Internet Explorer 6 thru 11 (for desktop viewing).

Setup & Installation

If you buy this unit with the hard drive pre-installed, setting everything up is literally plug-and-play. (Of course, installing the hard drive just takes a screwdriver.) You simply connect everything according to the diagram below. Make sure everything is connected first and then turn on the unit, and the unit will automatically recognize the cameras and display them on your monitor. I was up and running (with the cameras on my coffee table) in under 10 minutes.

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sPoE stands for simplified power over ethernet, which means that both power and video signal travel through one cable to the camera. You’ll still need to drill holes and such for cable installation, but you don’t need to route an additional power cord to every camera. Definitely easier, and many budget systems don’t have this feature. Included are two 50 ft cables and two 80 ft cables. If you need more, you can use standard Cat5 ethernet cable. The only hard part is deciding where to position your cameras and installing the cables, which for me required crawling through the attic. I am also simply pointing one out the window.

The NVR (network video recorder) is like a simplified computer with a hard drive, mouse, ethernet port, and monitor port. You view live streaming video on your connected monitor, desktop computer over internet, or smartphone app via internet. You can only view stored video when on your home network. You can make backup copies to a USB flash drive. The NVR must connect physically to your router via ethernet cable.

More Impressions

I personally barely met the minimum requirements as the only VGA-capable monitor I have currently is our living room HDTV bought in 2007. Also, I have no Windows computers either, so I am restricted to either viewing on my home’s only TV or via smartphone app. I wish they allowed more control via web browser.

I primarily use their iPhone app, which thankfully works fine on work WiFi or cellular 3G/4G data. You can link up your app via a quick QR code scan, but if your smartphone is already on the same WiFi network it also finds your cams automatically. Both are simpler than the traditional method of setting up port forwarding. I can enable motion detector alerts via the app as well as through e-mail. The motion detection is rather sensitive, and you’ll get a lot of alerts if you aim it at windy trees. You can adjust the sensitivity on the main box, but not via app.

The 720p camera video quality is significantly better than my previous Samsung Smartcam indoor WiFi cameras. Daytime video has good colors and night video is crisp. Each camera as 24 infrared LEDs which improves illumination and are quite noticeable at night with a red glow (good for scaring off criminals?). Again, I can’t compare directly with other HD cams but the picture is more than satisfactory. You can also toggle between high and low definition streaming.

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The IP cameras have an outdoor “weatherproof” casing that feels durable and high quality. They are IP-rated 65, which means it is dust-tight and can withstand low-pressure water jets from any direction. The box says the camera’s rated operating temperature is 14 F to 122 F so I’m not sure about extremely cold climates. You mount the cameras with screws, so the only real tool you need is a drill and screwdriver.

With a 1 TB hard drive, I can keep 30+ days of past footage from all 4 cameras using their “intelligent” setting which increases the video quality when motion is detected but maintains a lower quality when there is no motion detected. The recorded footage is marked with times of motion detection, so that you can go directly there without viewing the entire thing.

If you compare this with the popular Dropcam Pro, that only comes with one indoor camera and costs $200. Dropcam also has easy installation and live streaming to smartphone, but no storage option unless you pay at least $10 a month for cloud storage. The video data travels via WiFi, but you still need a power cable so that’s still one cable going to the camera. So the Dropcam offers cloud storage capability and easier portability, but this Zmodo package offers four indoor/outdoor cameras and 30 days of hard drive storage for no ongoing cost. I think the Zmodo is ideal for small business owners that want an affordable security option and the ability to review lots of past video, and also for homeowners who want permanent, outdoor surveillance and are willing to perform a DIY installation.

Pros

  • Quick setup and easier installation with power through ethernet cable.
  • Past 30+ days of video stored on included 1 TB hard drive.
  • Access live video feed from PC or smartphone.
  • Free in-app motion alerts.
  • Can connect with traditional alarm system.
  • Competitive pricing.
  • No ongoing monthly fees which add up to $100+ a year with other cameras.

Cons

  • Doesn’t interact with other home automation protocols.
  • Can’t remotely reposition cameras.
  • No Mac OS X support (iOS app available).
  • No cloud storage option.

I received this unit for free to review with no editorial restrictions and no other compensation. All opinions expressed are my own. You can interact with Zmodo and enter periodic contests via their Facebook page.

Amazon Fire Streaming Stick 50% Off with Prime

fire_stickOffer expired, now $39. Many cable TV “cord-cutters” get their TV fix using an HDTV over-the-air antenna and/or a streaming video device like the Roku, Google Chromecast, or Apple TV. Amazon has just announced their new Amazon Fire TV Stick. The regular price is $39, but if you have Amazon Prime and order it by 10/29/14 at 6am Pacific, you can get it for just $19. Here’s a comparison chart against similar competitors provided by Amazon (click to enlarge):

fire_compare2

Notably, Google Chromecast does not support Amazon Prime Instant Video and does not include a physical remote. Fire does not support HBO Go.

Not a Prime member? Join as Amazon Mom for a free 1-month Prime trial and get 50% off diapers. Join as Amazon Student with a .edu email address and get a free 6-month Prime trial.

I have an older Roku box that I’ve been using on and off for the last couple of years – it is useful for Plex which streams my own media from my hard drive to my TV and also for various kids shows on-demand from Amazon Prime Instant Video. (I cancelled my Netflix subscription after having kids since I don’t have time to binge-watch TV anymore.) So why am I going to buy this? Because my 2-year-old lost/hid/ingested the remote, and this new gadget is cheaper than buying a replacement Roku remote!

Republic Wireless: Unlimited Talk, Text, 3G Data for $25/Month, Moto E for $99

motoeSeveral updates. Republic Wireless uses WiFi coverage to place mobile phone calls and texts whenever possible, saving both you and them money. They have quickly become a popular frugal option for cell service. When WiFi is unavailable, you fall back onto Sprint cell towers. No contracts, but you must buy a phone specially programmed with their WiFi software. Some recent updates:

  • Moto E. This newly-released value phone costs just $99. It won’t compete with a cutting-edge phone and is 3G-only, but it will do nearly everything you need – email, text, Facebook, internet. The reviews are actually pretty positive – read the Engadget and Verge reviews. Looks like the weakest point is the camera.
  • Moto X. Their premium phone is the Moto X at $299, which has 4G capabilities and also has solid reviews at a higher price point. See Engadget and Anandtech reviews.
  • Switch between plans for free. You can switch between any of the new plan options, up to twice per month, with no penalty. This means you could upgrade to cellular data for a week or a month if you need it, or downgrade to the $5 or $10 plan if you are traveling or don’t plan to use any data that month. Nice flexibility, and you can switch plans directly from your phone without calling customer service.
  • MMS and text short codes now supported. MMS (multimedia/picture texting) is now officially working with all major carriers and most regional carriers. You can also now text shortcodes.

Plan Options

Here’s a new graphic that explains the plans pretty succinctly:

  • $5/month = WiFi only. This is basically like VoIP home service, but on a smartphone. You must route all calls and text through WiFi.
  • $10/month = WiFi + Talk + Text. Unlimited talk and text, no cellular data.
  • $25/month = WiFi + Talk + Text + 3G Data. Unlimited talk, text, 3G data.
  • $40/month = WiFi + Talk + Text + 4G Data. Unlimited talk, text, 3G/4G data.

Prices don’t included taxes and surcharges. Below is information quoted about their Acceptable Use Policy:

Our policy is targeted toward the top 1% of users, based on mobile data consumption —that means users who consume more that 5GB of cellular data or 100MB of roaming data. The vast majority of our users will never reach these limits. In fact, the first time you hit this threshold, we give you a free pass —once in any six-month period we’ll allow you to exceed the limit— and your speed won’t be reduced. If you hit the threshold twice within a six month period, your speed will be reduced to 2G speeds for the remainder of the month of billing. We’ll make sure you’re aware if your usage starts to approach either benchmark.

My Thoughts
I think Republic Wireless has found a good balance between offering “unlimited” data and still making sure people use WiFi at home/work whenever possible as that is critical to their business model. If you remember, their initial limit back in 2011 was about 500 mb of data, which many (including me) thought was too restrictive. Now, it’s 10 times as much at 5 GB of data, and you get a free pass every 6 months. I like that they are continually improving their service in a relatively open and transparent manner.

With the announcement of their new $99 Moto E phone, I finally bought one with the goal of letting my parents use it (and play with the technology myself…). Their previous phone was a Virgin Mobile Kyocera flip phone, so this should be a huge upgrade. They do have an iPad, so it shouldn’t be too hard to pick up. Hopefully, they can cycle between the $10 and upgrade to the $25 plan when they travel. I don’t think they need data on a daily basis. Learn more at RepublicWireless.com.

Which SUV, Minivan, or Crossover Is The Most Space-Efficient?

siennaIn the October 2014 issue of Car and Driver magazine, they have an article “Space Exploration” comparing the space-efficiency of “hatchbacked” vehicles – hatchbacks, wagons, crossovers, SUVs, vans. Their definition of space efficiency was carrying capacity compared to the amount of ground a vehicle occupies. Specifically, the maximum seats-down cargo volume divided by footprint (length times width). Trucks don’t count.

I can’t find a version of the chart online, so here is my rundown of the findings:

  • The most space-efficient vehicles were cargo vans usually bought for commercial use. Not surprising, as these are often seen as airport shuttles. Examples are the Ram Promaster, Mercedez-Benz Sprinter, and Ford Transit. The extended body, high roof versions of these vans have ratios as high as 3.69.
  • After that, the minivans rule: Toyota Sienna 1.38, Honda Odyssey 1.33, Chrysler Town & Country 1.30. (Nissan Quest was only 1.00.)
  • Huge SUVs are next: GMC Acadia 1.06, Ford Expedition 1.08, Toyota Sequoia 1.06.
  • After that, things get more interesting. The Scion xB is 0.86 is actually a bit better than the Toyota Highlander at 0.83 and the Mercedes GL at 0.79. The Honda Fit is 0.71, on par with the Jeep Grand Cherokee at 0.68 and Audi Q7 at 0.67. Relatively disappointing small cars include the Nissan Juke 0.46, Ford C-Max 0.49, and Kia Sportage 0.62.
  • Want electric? The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is 0.80 while the Nissan Leaf is 0.35 and Chevrolet Volt is a paltry 0.12. I would note the MiEV is tiny though, it looks like a golf cart driving down the road.

As you might expect, in general tall and boxy shapes make for high numbers. Space-efficiency isn’t everything, but it can be an important factor to consider if you have a growing family or certain hobbies. It would have been nice if they also used the alternative definition to be cargo volume divided by base retail price (space per dollar).

Infographic Map: Cell Phone Taxes By State

The nonpartisan Tax Foundation has released a new report on Wireless Taxation in the United States 2014. The average US wireless consumer pays 17% in combined federal, state, and local taxes and fees. Folks in Chicago, Baltimore, Omaha, and New York City have combined tax rates over 25 percent! Here’s their state-by-state map breakdown:

celltaxmap720

They also point out that these effective tax rates are much higher than normal sales tax.

Actionable advice? If your area is subject to high cell phone taxes, it may be better to switch to a prepaid plan rather than the traditional postpaid. I’m not sure exactly how these work, but somehow the taxes are averaged out and baked into the flat price. Note that depending on your area, you may still be subject to a e911 fee and sales tax. You can often bring your own off-contract phone and save even more. Most discount providers now accept phones like the iPhone and Galaxy.

I’ve heard of some people fudging their billing addresses to stay in a low cell tax state, but that may be more expensive or trouble than it is worth.

More Research on Buying Experiences vs. Things

travelsignpostYou’ve probably heard the advice that you should buy experiences and not things. (Except maybe when things help you experience.) This Atlantic article explores new findings from behavioral research about the differences between experiences and material objects.

With experiences, people are less competitive and worry less about keeping up with the Jones’:

Gilovich’s prior work has shown that experiences tend to make people happier because they are less likely to measure the value of their experiences by comparing them to those of others. For example, Gilbert and company note in their new paper, many people are unsure if they would rather have a high salary that is lower than that of their peers, or a lower salary that is higher than that of their peers. With an experiential good like vacation, that dilemma doesn’t hold. Would you rather have two weeks of vacation when your peers only get one? Or four weeks when your peers get eight? People choose four weeks with little hesitation.

Experiences elicit positive feelings and promote social togetherness rather than creating impatience and worries about scarcity.

Those waiting for experiences were in better moods than those waiting for material goods. “You read these stories about people rioting, pepper-spraying, treating each other badly when they have to wait,” he said. It turns out, those sorts of stories are much more likely to occur when people are waiting to acquire a possession than an experience. When people are waiting to get concert tickets or in line at a new food truck, their moods tend to be much more positive. [...]

Research has also found that people tend to be more generous to others when they’ve just thought about an experiential purchase as opposed to a material purchase. They’re also more likely to pursue social activities.

Baby Gear Reviews: Diaper Pails (Part 4)

diaperpailsHere is Part 4 of my series on baby gear, organized in the order of Amazon’s Baby Registry. The entire multi-part series can be found with the Baby Gear tag here. This time I’ll talk about our experiences with diaper pails.

Gotta put the poop somewhere, right? I’ll focus on diaper pails for disposable diapers. Most of them have some sort of mechanism to help prevent stinky odors from escaping the poop bucket. We got a Diaper Genie Elite from our baby registry, which was one of the two recommended by the Baby Bargains book. (The other was the Dekor.)

It works more or less, but like with razors and printers, the bag refills are where they make their profits. Each refill canister is really only 3-4 bags of diapers and they cost $6-$8 each. So essentially you’re paying upwards of $2 for a plastic bag! Compare this with under 10 cents for a kitchen trash bag from Costco. Also, the advertised “count” refers to an imaginary pile of newborn diapers that are vacuum sealed or something because I’ve never fit that many.

Parents have come up a number of ways to frugalize the diaper pail:

  • Wrap up your diapers as tightly as possible.
  • Throw the pee diapers in the regular trash and only the poops in the diaper pail.
  • Don’t waste too much bag when cutting and tying. Make sure you squeeze all the excess air out. Some use scissors instead of the provided cutter. I used to use those wire twist ties from other bags.
  • Use a plain kitchen trash bag wrapped around an empty refill canister. Note that it won’t fit perfectly and we got mixed results.
  • Buy generic refills. Note that Diaper Genie changed their design so they might not fit right anymore on new models. Check it out. Rather lame attempt at keeping their monopoly, in my opinion.
  • When your Diaper Genie bag is full, place a regular trash bag underneath and cut only the bottom knot. Let the diapers all fall into your 10 cent kitchen trash bag and throw that away. If you keep your wrapped diapers clean your refill liners can last 5 times longer or more.

We experimented all these things (with my prodding). In the end, my wife didn’t want to deal with any added hassles and we just buy the overpriced refills at Sam’s Club. I personally throw all the non-stinky diapers that I change straight in the regular the garbage.

  • Verdict: Considering you only fit around 50 diapers max at $2 a bag, that’s 4 cents a diaper which is an additional 20% of the cost of the diaper itself. In the end, you either think the reduced odor and convenience is worth the extra cost (my wife) or think you should just throw your diapers in a regular trash pail and wrap up the stinky poops in an extra plastic bag (me). For what you’ll be paying in refills you could buy a really nice trash can that will last for a long time.

Eat Anything You Want, Just Cook It Yourself

Want to learn how to eat well without the need for fad diets or deprivation? This short video narrated by Michael Pollan does a nice job of explaining his simple “just cook” rule:

Found via Farnam Street. Also see my book review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Some other thought-provoking videos on the same RSA channel as well.

It’s now been nearly a month of cooking mostly at home from scratch. With proper planning, the cooking hasn’t been too overwhelming and we are definitely spending less money on food. But I must admit I haven’t lost much weight. The food is so good and new and interesting… I’m eating too much! Hopefully I’ll adapt and perhaps I’m getting healthier in other ways (less salt, preservatives, binders, fillers, etc).

Backup Hard Drives: Expect Failure and Plan Accordingly

In the past month, both of my Western Digital 1 TB external backup hard drives have failed on me. This was pretty disconcerting considering I bought two of them specifically so they could be redundant backups. I was a bit lazy and barely had enough time to transfer my data while the last drive was limping along.

I turns out there isn’t that much data on real-world hard drive failure rates. When searching, many reference this post by online backup site BackBlaze which has owned over 25,000 hard drives (also see their recent update). In both posts, Seagate drives had much higher failure rates than Hitachi or Western Digital. However, other tech experts point out the flaws in drawing that conclusion. Brands don’t matter as much when they keep merging with each other anyway.

Really, the only conclusions I would confidently draw are (1) don’t buy specific “low power consumption” models of Seagate hard drives and (2) expect hard drives to fail on you. Imagine how little can go wrong in order to fit 4 terabytes of information on a little spinning disk. This Backblaze post is the one you should actually read. It cites other studies that say hard drives fail much more often than the MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) statistics put out by manufacturers, and it is hard to predict impending failures even with regular hard drive checks. Here is a chart showing that hard drives tend to fail either within the first year, or after 3 years.

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Here is a chart of survival rates over time.

hdfail_bb

That’s roughly 1 in 5 drives failing within 4 years, and maybe half will fail within 6 years. That starts to make a service like Crashplan at $60 a year more palatable.

In the end, Backblaze still buys Seagate drives because their cheaper price more than offsets any expected unreliability. Perhaps that is what consumers should do as well. Forget brands, buy whatever is cheapest, keep redundant backups in expectation of failure, and save your receipts. Of course, hard drive warranties keep getting shorter and are now usually only a year long (perhaps an admission of their unreliability?). Here’s my plan:

  • Purchase with an American Express that offers their Extended Warranty which will double the manufacturer’s warranty, up to one year.
  • Purchase from Costco whatever is on sale, due to their generous return policy. While even 90 days is relatively good, but I also do not see hard drives included explicitly in their 90-day electronics return policy – “We guarantee your satisfaction on every product we sell with a full refund. The following must be returned within 90 days of purchase for a refund: televisions, projectors, computers, cameras, camcorders, touchscreen tablets, MP3 players and cellular phones.” Do accessories count?
  • Keep my important documents and family pictures on multiple formats (cloud, flash drives, multiple hard drives).