Hard drive failure is always an infuriating problem.
Mechanical hard drives are destined to fail because of all the moving parts that can go bad. SSDs can last a lot longer, but they also experience wear and tear that will ultimately require their replacement. With that in mind, we’re going to show you how to prepare for the worst by bringing to your attention the warnings you should look out for.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated as of October 2016 with a bunch of new information and tips for properly diagnosing your hard drive.
With almost every component in your PC, you’ll see warning signs of a part going bad and in need of replacement. The hard drive is not an exception. Here are some signs to look out for:
Disappearing files: Files can be lost do to mechanical problems with the disk itself, and in some cases, you’ll be able to tell as the disk usually makes some out-of-the-ordinary noises when things are going haywire.
Computer freezing: A computer freezing is a common occurrence, and it’s almost always solved by a quick reboot. However, if you find that that it’s becoming more and more frequent, your hard drive could be on its last leg.
Corrupted data: If you’ve downloaded and installed files without a hitch, but suddenly out of nowhere, files have become corrupt, it’s possible that your hard drive is experiencing a gradual failure.
Bad sectors: A sector on a hard drive stores a certain amount of data accessible by the user. There are two types of sectors, a hard and soft sector. In most cases, Windows is able to repair a soft bad sector, as it’s almost always related to a software mishap. Formatting the drive will almost always fix this. But, if it’s a hard bad sector, this indicates physical damage, which can not be repaired. You can manually check for a bad sector by right-clicking the drive in My Computer. Select “Properties” and then navigate to the “Tools” tab. Finally, under “Error Checking” select the “Check” button. Windows will identify any sectors that have gone bad. As mentioned, Windows will try to fix it with a restart and doing some behind-the-scenes magic, but if that does not work, you could be, once again, experiencing gradual failure.
Sounds: If you’re hard drive is making sounds that you aren’t familiar with, this could also be bad news, particularly if it’s a grinding or screeching noise.
Diagnosing the problem
hard drive head
You know what the warnings signs are, but now let’s actually try and diagnose the problem. With these things, it’s always a process of elimination. If you have the ability to, open up your PC or laptop and check the connections. If your PC or laptop was working fine beforehand, it’s likely the connections aren’t the problem, but it’s still worth double-checking in the event that something came loose. At the same time, it’s worth popping into Device Manager and checking that your controller/motherboard isn’t going through any issues or failures, as it’s entirely possible that the problem isn’t even related to the hard drive, but something else.
Before deciding that this is in fact a hardware problem, it’s always good to check for viruses or malware. If you’re experiencing strange sounds or even bad sectors that seemingly can’t be repaired as noted above, viruses or malware isn’t likely the problem. However, if you’re seeing other issues, like computer freezing or randomly corrupted data, viruses or malware can cause these erratic problems as well. You can run a standard anti-virus check on your drive, but if the problem is deep in the system files, generally anti-virus won’t be able to check something like that inside of Windows.
Alternatively, 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. This will let you load the special antivirus environment to check your PC for any problems outside of the Windows environment. There are a lot of different types of malware out there, and if your machine gets infected with it, and depending on the type of malware it is, it can cause serious problems like these.
If that last step didn’t net any results, we can try and see if there are any partition on the drive 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.
Well, if none of the above diagnosis’ have worked, your hard drive is dead and you’re going to need a new one. Hopefully you backed up all your data to an external source, otherwise you’re going to have to start from scratch or pay a couple grand at an attempt to recover your data through a data recovery service.
Once you’ve installed your new drive, you set up the new hard drive as usual and re-install all your software. Hopefully, you can restore through a backup and you (hopefully) are good to go. What do you do with the old hard drive? Well, you can just throw it in the trash since the data isn’t recoverable.
Data Recovery Options
You don’t have many options as far as data recovery goes. You can try using the aforementioned 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 it’s not always a 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 (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.
A side-by-side comparison of an HDD (left) and SSD (right). Image Credit: Juxova
A side-by-side comparison of an HDD (left) and SSD (right). Image Credit: Juxova
Like I said, there are no mechanical components that can go bad, but it’s worth noting that there’s still electronic components that can go bad–capacitors, the power supply or even the controller chip.
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.
And that’s all there is to it! Unfortunately, losing a hard drive is a difficult situation that no one wants to go through, especially since there could be very important and sensitive data on there, not to mention great memories from photos you may have stored.
Hopefully these steps have helped you recover at least some of that, but if not, at least create a better plan for the future. Still stuck? Be sure to head on over to the PCMech forum and post your problem to get some additional help from the PCMech community!
Below you’ll find a couple of steps for troubleshooting Integrated Device Electronics (IDE), the interface between a motherboard’s data path and the hard drives/storage. In modern times, you’ll find that the IDE controller is built right into the motherboard, but in many legacy machines it’s separate, which is where the below steps come into play.
If you have an IDE drive, ensure the ribbon cable is aligned properly. Red edge of the cable is aligned with Pin 1 of the connector on the drive. Pin 1 is closest to the power plug, typically.
Master/slave assignment is correctly set if this is an IDE drive.
Once the physical connections have been verified, it’s good to see if the computer can even see the drive at all. If this is an IDE drive, go into the computer’s BIOS and have it auto-detect the drive. If it can detect it, then we know we have a solid connection. It doesn’t mean the drive is good, just that the BIOS can see it.