Hard Disk Drives (HDD) do not last forever. Even with modern manufacturing processes and techniques, infallible hard drives still do not exist.
For the purposes defined in this guide, we must assume that there are two forms of hard drive failure:
- Physical Hard Drive Failure
- Logical Hard Drive Failure
Physical failures occur when the drive’s internal components malfunction or struggle to operate in unfavorable conditions. If your hard disk drive is making some clunking or grinding noise (while it is being used or after it crashed), then you are probably dealing with some physical disk failure.
Logical failure is the term used when the hard drive in view appears to be healthy but the data stored within it is inaccessible. A wide range of events can result in a logical failure; numerous factors or conditions can give rise to the issue. A virus might be responsible; driver conflicts might have triggered the failure; human errors can be blamed, and so on.
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In most cases, you should be able to recover your data from the crashed hard drive somehow. However, the chances of you being successful in getting your stuff back or fixing the hard drive for good is dependent on the form of failure that occurred.
Why do hard drives fail?
First, you must understand that hard drives have not really changed much since they were invented over 50 years ago. In physical terms, we can say that they are now smaller than ever but they hold bigger capacities than before.
Nevertheless, hard drives still store information on one or multiple fast-spinning magnetic platters. A read or write head, which skims over the surface, is attached to the setup.
The platters on hard drives tend to spin at very high speeds. Some of them can spin at 10,000 RPM (revolutions per minute) or 166\167 RPS (revolutions per second). Due to these movements, hard drives are fragile when they are in use. Technically, a small knock or push can disrupt the read/write head or cause it to falter. Such events were associated with disastrous consequences for the data stored on the affected hard drives in early computers, but things are different in modern times.
Hard drives are now equipped with anti-shock components that detect sudden movements or vibrations and act appropriately to move the read/write head out of the way for the duration of the activity. The described setup does not always function as it is supposed to, though. A hard drive failure can still occur even if everything with its anti-shock components goes well.
Given their complicated mechanical structure (or nature or setup), hard drives are actually quite reliable when compared to other electronic devices. They just cannot last forever. It is quite difficult to figure out how long a specific component will last, but people have not stopped trying. Most hard drive manufacturers use Mean Time Between Failures.
Causes of hard drive failures
Firmware or manufacturer faults:
If your relatively new hard drive has already begun to fail, then you must assume that it was defective in the first place. In that case, you have nothing to do with its problems or struggles.
Since the drive is new, it is probably under warranty. You can try contacting your hard disk or computer manufacturer to provide a replacement. They are obligated to give you a new drive without you making any payment. We can only hope that you do not have important data stored on the disk. Manufacturers hardly offer any guarantee to users about the safety of their stored data or the recovery process turning out successful.
When manufacturer faults are not in play, heat is probably the most common cause of hard drive failures. Improper ventilation systems or damaged fans do not do enough to prevent temperatures within drives from exceeding the rated values for normal functioning of hardware components.
Unfortunately, most times, when the breakdown is caused by excessive heat, the damage is irreversible. You can only do so much to recover data from the drive that failed, but that disk is unlikely to ever function again normally.
Electronic or power failure:
If your power supply is poor or if it is delivering inconsistent voltages and currents, then your hard drive (or the entirety of your PC components) will suffer. The hard drive might not spin properly, or your system BIOS will become unable to detect it.
You might stop experiencing issues after you connect your computer to a reliable or standard power supply source. If you are lucky, you might realize that your hard drive internal components have not suffered permanent damage.
Mechanical or internal failure:
The failures here tend to come from bad sectors and blocks. In such scenarios, the spindle motor stops functioning or the PCB board gets damaged, which means the all-important read/write head ends up being unable to move.
Grinding or clicking sounds tend to come from the hard drive when the issues in view are in play. You might notice your files and folders disappearing or your data going down with corruption (with you becoming unable to access them). System freezes and black screens are the other relevant symptoms here.
Corrupted file systems and related components:
The hard drive failures or errors here primary occur due to human mistakes. You might have applied an unethical method to shut down your PC; you might have terminated critical programs the wrong way; you might have modified your system core files and registry settings incorrectly, and so on.
Fortunately, given the way the issues here come to be, you should be able to recover your data with regular recovery programs. You have to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
What is Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF)?
Mean Time Between Failures generally refers to the average amount of time an electronic (or mechanical) device functions (or operates) before failing. Being a unit of measurement, it takes into consideration operational time between failures only. Repair times are excluded from the analysis – it does not matter if the item in view is repaired and begins to function again. Any failure is still considered a failure.
From those definitions, you might have figured out that MTBF figures can be employed to project how likely a single unit (or a specific device) is to fail within a specific timeframe. For example, the Mean Time Between Failures for a hard disk drive can be measured to be 300,000 hours. The figure can be as high as 1,200,000 hours, though.
It is important that you understand that a hard drive with 300,000 hours as its MTBF figure cannot work for roughly 34 years without issues or faults. The reported numbers for that hard drive model were probably extrapolated from intensive short-term tests. In reality, things appear to be much more different.
Some tests prove that 25% of a particular hard drive model can fail within a 4- or 5-year period, which means the vast majority of hard drives are reliable (or will not fail in the stated timeframe). Moreover, most reported failures occur when the hard drives are new, and those events are a result of manufacturing defects or shortcomings. Of course, this is why they become noticeable only after a few days or weeks of constant use (with small chances of other variables coming into play).
Other factors are involved in hard drive failure events. We will examine some of them here.
Not all drives are equal. Some tend to fail or crash more than others. According to some reports, hard drives manufactured by Hitachi, for example, are ahead of the competition (drives from Seagate or Western Digital) when it comes to reliability.
You will do well to purchase hard drives from reliable manufacturers or buy models that are less likely to fail than others. Nevertheless, nothing is guaranteed. You might want to go through our tips or recommendations towards preventing hard drive failure (the second part of this guide).
How to protect my system from common hard drive failures; How to prevent hard drive failure
While we already established that hard drives are always prone to failure, that fact should not deter you from seeking out ways to reduce the chances of your hard drive going down with crashes.
1. Defrag your hard drive:
Your hard drive suffers wear and tear slowly, but regular defragmentation operations might help you extend its life. By defragging your hard drive, you get to keep the file structures on it more compact. First, you must understand that hard drives, while saving files, do not follow any particular order or rule. In other words, the stored items end up being distributed across the landscape. Basically, data retrieval becomes harder than it needs to be, and this is where defragmentation comes in.
Defragmentation results in your hard drive being able to find data faster, which means it does less work on average than before. Those decreases correspond to prolonged service in your favor. You can use Auslogics Disk Defrag Pro to perform all the necessary defragmentation tasks.
2. Get rid of unnecessary programs:
Your hard drive has to work harder when many applications are operating on your computer. This hard work extends even more to programs that are configured to run immediately your computer boots up (startup programs) or apps that are always running in the background and constantly utilizing your computer resources.
You can make a list of the programs you can live without or the ones you rarely use. There are likely to be many of them. Bring up the Apps screen in the Settings app or the Programs and Features menu in Control Panel. Go through the list of installed applications there and uninstall the redundant or unnecessary ones. You are likely to get a performance boost after you get rid of several applications since your hard drive’s workload reduces.
3. Stabilize the power supply to your hard disk (or computer):
While you have no control over your power supply or spikes, you can make the necessary preparations to safeguard your computer or its components against unfortunate events. You will do well to purchase a UPS device or electrical stabilizer.
When your computer is plugged into an uninterrupted power supply, you get enough time to save your work and shut down your system – especially in scenarios where your power gets withdrawn unexpectedly. When your PC is plugged into a stabilizer, its components are unlikely to suffer damage from voltage fluctuations or related power shortcomings.
4. Avoid exposing your hard drive or computer to shocks; Pack it well:
Most computers are still sensitive to many forms of impact, shock or vibrational effect. You have to treat or handle your device very carefully due to the hard drive in it. Hard drives have movable components (some of which are not strongly bound to one another), after all.
Your hard drive is likely to be subjected to an impact (whose values exceed its shock rating figures) when you bang or drop your computer suddenly. While some manufacturers equip their drives with a robust casing to help with bumps, we do not advise you to rely on such a component to avoid trouble.
5. Clean your hard drive; clean your PC’s ventilation system:
While we understand that many people struggle to use their devices in a cool-[AB9] conditioned and dirt-free environment, we believe all categories of users can at least clean their PCs from time to time. You do not even have to pull your computer apart. If you clean its external parts and the surroundings where it operates regularly, you might not have to bother with the stuff inside.
Like for many physical components, overheating is bad for your hard drive. The same thing goes for dirt, unnecessary clutters, debris, and unclean particles that accumulate heavily on or within your computer’s ventilation system. If your PC air circulation gets restricted, you must know that overheating is a likely outcome.
6. Monitor the health of your hard drive or its state:
If your hard drive is bound to go down with an issue, you would prefer to know about it in advance (or get clues of the unfortunate event, at least). You must be proactive in dealing with problems. You can easily monitor the essential parameters (or variables) for your hard disk through monitoring utilities, which have been specifically designed for such tasks.
The vast majority of the monitoring programs we are referring to here tend to be equipped with disk background monitoring and control functions. Some of them provide data on temperature history and trends. You might also see scans and displays for bad sectors through such applications. If the key parameters are known and all the necessary data become available, then you should be able to predict or avert potential damages to your hard drive.
7. Free up disk space: Keep as little items as you can on your hard drive (when possible):
Some reports indicate that users are better off keeping roughly about 40% of their hard disk drive space free. This setup is supposed to help with their system performance and at the same time ensure that their drives work optimally.
Typically, when your hard drive is full, even simple or basic searches tend to trigger a lot of movement within your disk. In other words, the rate of wear and tear increases significantly in hard drives with little space. If you want to give your hard drive all the help it needs to serve you well and for a long period, you now know what to do.
8. Configure your hard drive to spin down (when it is not in use):
If you tend to leave your computer running on its own (or alone) for prolonged periods – especially scenarios when you are not doing anything on it – then this tip should benefit you. You can configure Windows to instruct your hard drive to spin down after a specific period or timeframe. This option is included as the Turn off hard disk after function in recent versions of Windows.
To make the necessary changes, you have to navigate through the appropriate menus in the Control Panel program to reach the Power Options screen, go to the Advanced settings tab, and then work on the configuration pane or properties window for your hard disk.
We need not tell you about the importance of keeping a reliable backup. We expect you to know such things already.
What happens when a hard drive starts to fail?
Most hard drive failures are preceded by errors in Windows. If you notice your files going down with corruption (or if they refuse to open), then there is a reasonable chance that your hard drive is going to fail. When these signs are there, if your computer still manages to function without issues, you can check your hard drive for errors with the built-in utility on Windows.
We recommend that you perform the recommended checks when you have nothing to do on your computer. The processes involved take a lot of time. It is best you let things run overnight.
If your device is running Windows 10, you must go through these steps:
- Launch the File Explorer app. You can perform this task through this keyboard shortcut: Windows logo button + letter E key.
- Once the File Explorer application window is up, you have to click on This PC. Now, you should see your system drive or disk (C:), which you have to right-click on to see the available options. Choose Properties.
The Properties window for the selected drive will be displayed now.
- Click on the Tools tab to go there, and then click on the Check button (under the Error-checking menu and description).
Windows will now bring up the required utility and initiate the necessary operations. Follow the instructions or guidelines to complete the process.
If your device is running Windows 7 instead, then here are the steps you must go through:
- Launch the File Explorer app. The Windows logo button and letter E key shortcut works fine here too.
- Assuming the File Explorer program window is up on your screen, you have to click on My Computer. Now, you should see your system drive or disk (C:), which you have to right-click on to view some options. Select Properties.
Windows will bring up the Properties window for the selected drive or disk now.
- Click on Tools to go to that tab. Now, you must tick the checkboxes for Automatically fix file system errors and Scan for and attempt recover of bad sectors to select these options.
- Click on the Start button. Your system is supposed to initiate the error checking operations now.
What should I do when my hard drive fails? What if my hard drive is already dead?
- If you backed up your files (especially recently), then you can consider your hard drive failure a minor setback. If it worries you too much, you can simply replace it with a new drive and restore your data.
- On the other hand, if you lack a backup (in any form), then you must understand that things can become complicated. You have to proceed delicately and act fast. First, you must stop using the drive that failed. The longer your troubled hard drive is left to run, the higher the chances of a catastrophic failure occurring, and this is one event you are unlikely to recover from.
We recommend that you disconnect the hard drive from your computer. Get your PC to run with a new hard drive, connect the troubled hard drive and then try to copy as much important data as you can from the old drive to the new one. Depending on what form of failure your hard drive suffered in the first place, you might succeed in moving over all your files or you might fail abruptly.