Hard Drive Failing? Here are the Warnings and Solutions You Need to Know
The first hard drive hit the market in 1956; it was a 5-megabyte drive for an IBM mainframe, it weighed more than a ton, and it eventually failed. All hard drives fail, because despite their connection to electronic devices, hard drives are (or were) mechanical in nature: a physical platter spins at thousands of revolutions per minute and a moving arm equipped with magnetic sensors reads magnetic pulses stored on the platter. Today’s solid-state drives (SSDs) do not have any moving parts and so they last longer, but they too eventually wear out. When a hard drive fails, it can be anything from an annoyance to a catastrophe, depending on the backup system that was in place to keep that data safe and secure. Fortunately, there are some warning signs of an impending hard drive failure, and some things that you can do to protect yourself from a drive failure. In this article, I will show you how to prepare for the worst and the warnings you should look out for.
Note that this article is written with a Windows PC in mind, and the software tools I mention will generally be Windows-specific, but the general concepts discussed apply to Mac or Linux computers as well.
Warnings of an impending failure
Most components on a PC that can fail will give some warning of their deteriorating condition before they just stop working altogether, and hard drives are no exception. Here are some warning signs of a developing hard drive problem:
- Disappearing files: If a file simply disappears from your system, this can be a sign that the hard drive is developing issues.
- Computer freezing: Computer freeze up from time to time, and it’s almost always solved by a quick reboot. However, if you find that you need to reboot more and more frequently, that could be an indication that your hard drive is beginning to fail.
- Corrupted data: If files on the drive are suddenly corrupted or unreadable for no apparent reason, it’s possible that your hard drive is experiencing a gradual failure.
- Bad sectors: If you start receiving error messages about “bad sectors”, “CRC” or “Cyclic Redundancy Error”, that is a sure sign that your drive is developing problems.
- Sounds: If your hard drive is making sounds that you aren’t familiar with, this could also be bad news, particularly if it’s a grinding, clicking or screeching noise.
Diagnosing the problem
Diagnosing hard drive problems is generally a process of elimination. There are multiple points of possible failure, and not all of them are in the hard drive itself.
If your computer still boots to the operating system
The first thing to do is to use Device Manager to check and see whether your controller or motherboard is the source of the problem.
The second thing to do is to run a complete virus and malware check, as malicious software can often cause problems such as freezing or file corruption that you could mistake for problems with your drive. There are many good programs available for this; read this TechJunkie article on the best antivirus programs as well as our article on the best anti-malware programs.
Next, use Windows’ own diagnostic software to see if it can detect any problems. Open My Computer and right-click on the drive, then select “Properties” and navigate to the “Tools” tab. Under “Error Checking” select the “Check” button. Windows will identify any sectors that have gone bad. This diagnostic procedure actually can fix many minor drive problems by detecting which section of the drive has a problem and not using that part of the drive anymore. However, this should be regarded as a temporary fix, and you should back up your data as soon as possible.
If your machine won’t boot from the hard drive
You can try and boot into safe mode, download anti-virus software from there, and check the system. The best way to verify is to use a antivirus boot disc to scan and repair your PC. You can burn the bootable software to a CD or even install it on a USB drive (using a different computer). This will let you load the special antivirus environment to check your PC for any problems outside of the Windows environment.
You can also check to see if there are partitions on the drive at all using DiskPart or another third-party disk utility tool. If it doesn’t see any partitions, it’s likely that there was a partition mess up somewhere along the line. Unfortunately, recovering files from a situation like this isn’t always possible, as you’ll need to repartition the drive.
Check the connections inside the machine to make sure that the hard drive is properly connected to the motherboard. On a modern SATA or SSD this is very simple.
For IDE drives, there are some other things to try. Machines made before 2007 or so will often have an IDE controller rather than a modern SATA controller. Check that the red edge of the drive cable is aligned with Pin 1 of the connector on the drive. Pin 1 is closest to the power plug, typically. IDE machines also use a master/slave assignment for the drives, so check that the jumpers are set correctly. Boot again to the BIOS screen and see if it can auto-detect the drive. This will establish that the drive is properly connected, at least.
Data Recovery Options
You don’t have many options as far as data recovery goes. There are some software solutions, such as a free tool called Recuva from Piriform. The company claims that it can recover lost files from damaged disks or newly formatted drives, but your mileage may vary. It works for some people and doesn’t work for others. Every situation is unique, but it’s definitely worth a shot.
Your last option is hiring a data recovery service. It goes without saying, their services are pricey, no matter what company you go with, and there’s no guarantee that they can recover your data, especially if it was a mechanical failure and not a electronics failure.
A word on SSDs
It’s worth noting that SSD failure (see our troubleshooting guide here) is essentially a different ball game than HDD failure. SSDs aren’t subject to the same pitfalls of hard disk failure simply because there are no moving parts within the SSD. However, they aren’t immune to failing, as there are a number of things that can still go wrong.
The biggest issue is a pitfall of all types of flash memory. You have a limited number of read/write cycles. But, the good news is that usually only the write portion is affected if you run into a read/write issue. In other words, you’ll be able to recover all of that data still on your SSD and put it somewhere else. While an SSD is less likely to malfunction considering that there are no moving parts, it’s still susceptible to the everyday wear and tear.
You can generally follow all of the steps above to diagnose the problem, though SSDs generally don’t produce noises when they’re going bad. All of the other steps do apply, though.
In the future, there’s not much you can do to prevent SSDs or hard drive from going bad. It’s just a fact of life. Just like wear and tear on your car eventually destroys it, wear and tear on your hard drives will eventually destroy them. That goes for almost everything in life, and there’s no getting around it. But there are steps you can take to make the whole situation a lot less stressful when it comes around.
The main thing you can do is create backups often. Once a week is a usual timeframe. If you’re on a Mac, you can do this easily through Time Machine and an external hard drive. On Windows, it’s a little bit different. Your best bet is to use a service like Carbonite that automatically backs up everything on your PC and stores them in the Cloud on an encrypted server.