Bart's Stuff Test 5 (Bst5) is a free portable hard drive stress test tool. You can use a hard drive stress test tool whenever you become worried that a hard drive is not working properly. The tool allows you to select drives or individual folders. You can also test network drives, but this also means that you will "stress-test" your network.
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Bst5 uses the free space on the disk, and if you don't stop it, it will use almost all available disk space. So better be careful if you run a "hard drive stress test" on a virtual disk that grows dynamically. However, you can configure how much free space Bst5 will leave. If you are afraid that the disk space that contains data is corrupt, Bst5 won't be of much help.
It makes sense to use Bst5 before you install a new OS on an old disk just to ensure that the hard drive still works reliably. After you format the disk, you can boot Windows PE and launch Bst5 from there.
Bst5 is also helpful if you want to quickly find out how fast a hard drive is since the tool measures the minimum, maximum and average speed for read and write operations. I tested Bst5 5.1.4 on Vista, Windows 7 and Windows PE 3.0.
The commercial edition of Bst5 also supports stress testing on the device levels, without involving the file system. This also allows you to stress test other storage media such as tapes. Prices start at $20 USD.