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Symptoms of Hard Disk Drive Failure and Data Protection Strategies

Alfred is a long-time teacher and computer enthusiast who works with and troubleshoots a wide range of computing devices.

The disk drive is perhaps the most important component in your computer simply because it is where all your precious data and memory are stored. Damage to the hard disk usually means lost data and most importantly lost memories, especially if it is where you backed up precious photos and music.

For that and other reasons, your ability to read into impending failure is crucial. Rather than stay in the dark, it is always smart to stay informed as to when disaster may strike. Every other day or week, you need to know that your disk drive is fine.

Inside the mechanical hard disk drive

Inside the mechanical hard disk drive

Even before delving deep into the symptoms of disk failure, it is probably wise to have an idea about the makeup and limitations of hard disk drives.

If you did not know, the innards of the hard disk drive in your computer are mechanical by design and they store data by magnetism. The drive is made up of specialized mechanical components called motors, spindle, read/write heads and platters. The latter is where data is actually stored and rotates mechanically at extremely high speeds. High-end hard disk drives today rotate at 7200 revolutions per minute (RPM).

Every one of the aforementioned components is dependent on the others and is prone to failure due to a number of reasons. Failure of one could lead to failure of another. Gradual wear and external forces like sudden power outages, extreme heat, wear of magnetic coating and excessive vibration due to drops can bring the mechanical operation of a hard disk to sudden failure.

Also because of the above reasons, failure can happen anytime between one day to ten years. Ten years is no guarantee though, but I have seen a few disk drives last that long, and they are still operational. I have also seen disk drives that are still under warranty die in less than a week, in the process, dying with lots of data in them.

According to Backblaze research on disk drive lifespan, a typical disk drive should last about six years. The site goes ahead to explain how the expectancy rate of hard drive deteriorates over time.

Thus, data stored in these hard disk drives or other storage devices will not last forever, because every single one of them is designed to die one day. You do not want them to take their final rest with your data.

Rule of thumb is:

  • never trust the hard disk drive entirely
  • watch out for tell-tale signs of failure
  • backup your data in multiple locations and platforms

Symptoms of Hard Disk Failure

Symptoms of Hard Disk Failure

You will have to depend on a few tell-tale signs to read into the impending failure of your storage disks.

1. Computer slows down

This is perhaps the most obvious yet confusing sign of trouble in the making. The computer may slow down suddenly or over time. A computer that booted up in 10 seconds yesterday or one month back could now take two or more minutes to boot up. Of course, the sluggish operation could be as a result of other causes like corrupted operating system files and viruses. Other reasons could be bad data cable, wrong system configurations or even large software updates.

When the computer becomes sluggish, it is time to pay attention. Find out where the problem is and act.

2. Noise from within the hard disk

Any clicking sound from the hard disk is indicative of a dead or dying drive. In fact, such sound should be the last symptom after a drive is already dead. Count yourself lucky if the clicking sounds precede failure. The noises usually stem from a faulty read/write head which is continuously loading and unloading or failed read/write actuator has also become erratic.

When the sounds start, ensure to back up your data immediately.

3. Hard disk not being read

Another rather worrying symptom is when the hard disk is not identified by the computer. When this happens your computer will not boot up and will probably display a Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) and other errors. If it is an external drive, it will not show up under disk management tool.

The disk drive may show up or not in the CMOS setup. This anomaly could be blamed on a faulty data cable or wrong drive setup. Try swapping cables and resetting drive settings before jumping to conclusions.

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How to Protect Your Data

The old adage prevention is better than cure still makes sense even in the age of computing. A few preemptive measures listed below can help steer your precious data away from trouble.

1. Assess the health of your disk drive

From the word go, ensure the disk drive installed in your computer and external drives are in good health.

To do this, install a software utility to help monitor the performance and health of your disk drives.

One such tool for Windows PC is called Hard Disk Sentinel. Once installed in your computer, this utility monitor and let you know about changes in your disks and will make recommendations when the need arises. Hard Disk Sentinel will forewarn you about a disk drive that is seemingly fine but actually nearing its death.

Aside from verifying performance and health, this tool will show estimated power on time, and if the hard disk is in poor shape the probable number of days before eventual failure.

Nonetheless, any disk drive that reports percentage health of less than 50% needs immediate replacement!

Hard Disk Sentinel display details of a good disk drive

Hard Disk Sentinel display details of a good disk drive

Hard Disk Sentinel displays details of a disk drive with poor health

Hard Disk Sentinel displays details of a disk drive with poor health

2. Assess your backup options

Always back up data onto several platforms to ensure longevity. To start with, you can save your data onto various secondary drives, say two or more external disk drives. The wear and heat that affects internal disks which are constantly running are minimal in external drives. But again, external disks are vulnerable to theft and misplacement.

You can, therefore, take advantage of other storage services. Back up your data with online cloud services like Google Drive and Amazon Web services.

3. Do not expose your disk drives to shock treatment

Do not switch off the computer manually by pressing and holding the power button. Many users resort to this method when the computer takes long to respond. Forced shutdown of the computer interferes with the magnetism of the read/write assembly of the disk drives thereby exposing them to read/write errors and physical damage to the platters.

Still on the same note, do not drop your disk drive, so as not to expose your drive to misalignment and damage mentioned above.

4. Upgrade to solid state disk

Lastly, make a point to upgrade your computer to a solid state disk (SSD) if you have not. SSDs are flash-based memory and operate unlike the hard disk drive because they are not mechanical and do not use platters.

A solid state drive is made up of integrated circuit (IC) chips just like RAM sticks, but unlike RAM chips which are volatile, solid-state disk IC assemblies are non-volatile. This means that they are capable of retaining data in the event of power shutdown.

Besides the stability factor in SSDs, they are also fast, consume less power, do not generate excessive heat and are not affected by magnetism.

© 2014 Alfred Amuno


Alfred Amuno (author) from Kampala on July 14, 2014:

Very right thranax about the gentle flower. We take disk drives for granted and how sad we get when data is gone.

Andrew from Rep Boston MA on July 14, 2014:

Very great guide on how to keep your Harddrive safe! Many people just think they are solid metal boxes immune to everything. What they really should be looked at as is a gentle flower.

Thanks for the hub!


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