Retrodata said the problem is confined to Seagate 2.5-inch drives manufactured in China with a firmware revision of 7.01. The drives use a serial advanced technology attachment (SATA) interface.
To determine whether a MacBook has the drive, Retrodata recommends looking under Serial-ATA for the Revision in the computer's System Profiler. If the machine is using the Seagate hard drive, then Retrodata is recommending backing up all the data and replacing the hardware.
Seagate was not immediately available for comment, but Apple spokesman Cameron Craig said the company was aware that there might be a problem. "We've received a few reports that some MacBook consumer notebooks may have hard drive issues, and we're looking into it," he said.
Duncan Clarke, managing director for the U.K. firm Retrodata, told InformationWeek the firm found that the head in the drive becomes detached from the read/write arms, causing the latter to "gouge deep scratches" in the disk. Unless the user shuts off the computer immediately, then the damage can be so severe that data recovery is impossible.
The reason is the scratches can destroy the operating parameters unique to the hard drive that recovery firms use. Without knowing the operating parameters, a recovery firm can't get the drive data ready so another computer can recognize it, Clarke said. "I'm working on a fix, but it's going to take some time," he said. "I'm not optimistic."
About 50 Seagate hard drives from MacBooks have been brought to Retrodata for data recovery since the summer of 2006. With the exception of two or three cases, the data was lost forever because people ran the MacBook utilities to try to correct the problem. This resulted in more scratches, Clarke said. "If you switch the computer off immediately, you might be able to recover the data."
Retrodata believes the problem is the result of a manufacturing flaw, and not in the design of the drive. Nevertheless, Apple needs to address the problem, much like a car manufacturer would recall a part from a supplier. "It's Seagate's problem, but it's Apple's responsibility to address the problem, since they're providing the part," Clarke said. "Apple needs to own up and take action."
Retrodata has said a recall is warranted, and Apple should offer to replace the drives at no charge.
The hard-drive problem is the latest product troubles for Apple. The company this month released an update to its Leopard operating system that was meant to fix more than two dozen flaws that troubled users since the software debuted in October. Officially called Mac OS X 10.5.1, the Leopard update addressed problems affecting passwords, alerts, and partitioning, among other things.