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150. When Hard Drives Fail

By Andrew D. Wright

You're copying over family snaps to the home computer. You hear a harsh grating sound and your computer pops up a scary message about your data not being written to the hard drive.

Often a failing hard drive gives some warning first. Like earthquakes to people living on the sides of volcanoes, these warnings should be listened to, but not everyone does.

There are two main sorts of early warning: a change in the sounds a hard drive makes and SMART warnings.

SMART stands for Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology. It's built into hard drives made since the late 1990s. The hard drive records a long list of attributes such as how many times its been powered up, its operating temperature, number of read errors, and so on.

SMART can be implemented slightly differently from one hard drive manufacturer to another and there may be some issues between hard drives and motherboards about passing on the SMART information but when all is said and done, SMART can be a useful indicator of future hard drive problems.

Google, the search engine and information archive, released a study on hard drive failure rates which determined that when SMART showed a hard drive producing scan errors and data reallocation errors it was probable that drive would fail soon.

Unfortunately they also found that slightly more than half the time a hard drive would fail without giving any SMART warnings so by itself SMART is a useful but limited tool. Its warnings should be heeded but its silence should not be taken as a guarantee of no problems.

SMART as on option is usually enabled by default on most computers but can be turned on and off in the computer's BIOS, which is the first part of the computer to turn on. Usually any SMART warnings will pop up when the computer boots up or as a popup warning in Windows.

HD Tune is a Windows program with free and paid versions that can read a hard drive's SMART data, scan the drive for surface errors and benchmark the hard drive's speed.

Newer hard drives make very little sound but when they do, it's usually not a good sign. Hard drive failures can be make and model specific and usually happen to either brand new drives with manufacturing issues or older drives near the end of their expected operational life. Impacts like being dropped can also cause hard drive failure.

Data recovery company Data Cent have a web page with sounds of failing hard drives listed by manufacturer. Different kinds of breakdown produce different sorts of sound.

When your hard drive is starting to fail you should copy off any personal or valuable information you can right away. Minor disk surface failures can be corrected with the Windows checkdisk tool. Go to Start - Programs - Accessories and select Command Prompt. If running Windows Vista or later right click on it and select Run as Administrator.

In the command prompt window type in:

chkdsk  /r

Checkdisk will ask to be run at the next computer startup and will scan the entire hard drive surface. It will recover any information it can from damaged sectors and write it to a safe sector. This can take a few hours with larger hard drives. With luck the error might be a one-time instance but if more bad sectors start showing up that drive's getting close to complete failure.

In extreme cases freezing a failed hard drive may get it running long enough to copy off critical data.


HD Tune (free and paid versions):


Sounds of hard drive failure:


Freezing your hard drive:


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Originally published 3 April 2009


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