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With modern hard disks is necessary to use gnome-power-manager to spin down the hard disks? Or are they prepared to sleep automatically after certain amount of inactivity time?

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Yes, you do need software like gnome-power-manager to spin down hard disks. Modern hard drives sometimes have features like SMART, but this only collects information. Psusi mentions another great utility, hdparm, that plays with power settings (among many other things). Hdparm is more powerful and more advanced, gnome-power-manager is likely easier. More than one way to skin a cat.

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Some ( mostly laptop ) hard disks have such a feature, but not all do. gnome-power-manager works with all disks. For disks that support the APM auto standby timer, you can enable it with hdparm -S, or sometimes -B.

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Really? There are disks that will auto-sleep, without any help from the OS or other external programs? –  djeikyb Feb 14 '11 at 16:37
    
@djeikyb: yes... –  psusi Feb 15 '11 at 1:09

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