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Hard drives form the basis of our computing. The use of computers comes down to manipulating data, and the hard drive is, of course, where we store all our data; family albums, music, work documents, email, the list goes on.

Most of the components in your computer are electronic devices. They don’t fail with time like a mechanical device such as a car. But your hard drive is one of the few mechanical devices used in modern computing, and as such, it’s destined to die eventually.

It’s important to learn to recognize the warning signs of an imminent hard drive failure, since you might not have the budget for an extensive back-up system, so you can rescue all that data before it’s lost—sometimes forever, not retrievable at any cost.

Why do hard drives fail?

Logical Failures

Logical failures occur when the electronics of the hard drive failure or the software (firmware) has a problem. This kind of failure is usually the cheapest and easiest to have fixed. Unfortunately, it’s also an uncommon failure.

Media Failures

If the hard drive has been handled roughly, or the magnetic platters are scratched, have read/write errors or low-level formatting problems, this is a media failure. These are also relatively uncommon. Once the platters are scratched, the data should be considered scrapped.

Head Failures

A head failure occurs when the read/write head crashes into the platters (the head crash), has an “improper flying height” or the wiring between the logic board and the head is faulty—among other failures related to malfunction of the read/write head. This is a common failure. The head crash is particularly nasty.

Mechanical Failures

Mechanical failures probably make up the bulk of hard drive failures. The motor burns out, the drive overheats, bearings get stuck—the kind of thing you’d expect to find when a car fails. These can be nasty but if the failure didn’t affect the platters, you might have a chance of recovery, but at a cost.

How do I find out when it’s going to fail before it fails?

That’s not always possible, and sometimes a hard drive will just die—but it’s still important to keep an eye on the symptoms of an imminent hard drive so you have the chance to back-up your data and get professional help.

Hard drives are incredibly sensitive bits of hardware, so don’t try to crack it open and have a look inside unless you know what you’re doing. And most definitely ensure that if you do crack it open, the platters don’t get exposed to the open air—hard drives can only be opened in Class 100 clean rooms or they’re pretty much instantly destroyed by dust.

It’s a lot easier to back-up than to get your data recovered. Once you detect any of the signs of failure you need to ensure that you have a back-up and if not, make one. Then when the drive dies, you can claim your warranty if you still have it, or buy a new drive, and be on your way.

Recovery can cost thousands and thousands of dollars; it sure is a ridiculous amount to pay, but there’s not much you can do but shop around and find the best price. The cost of transferring a back-up onto a brand new drive is much cheaper than having a recovery specialist do the same for you.

Strange Noises

Sometimes hearing strange grinding and thrashing noises means your drive is beyond repair—for instance, if you’ve had a head crash, it very often is. Or it could just be that the motor has failed or your hard drive is grinding away because of noisy bearings. If you’re hearing strange noises then act very, very quickly—you probably don’t have much time.

Disappearing Data and Disk Errors

Computer won’t let you save a document? Or you’re sure that you had a file on your desktop yesterday that’s nowhere to be seen today? Programs that always worked suddenly stop working, asking where a file it depends on is stored?

These are all potential signs that your hard drive is on its way out. Of course, it could be that your kids moved your files for fun or a virus is eating through them, but disappearing data is never a good sign for your drive if you can rule out those alternative causes.

Your computer stops recognizing your drive

This may seem obvious, but if your computer no longer recognizes your drive chances are there’s a problem with it, not the computer. Test it in a friend’s computer and see if your hard drive is recognized by it.

Often, this will be a logical failure—unless you can hear strange noises that indicate a severe mechanical or head problem.

Computer Crashes

Does your computer regularly blue-screen or suddenly reboot? Does it crash often, especially when booting your operating system? If your computer is crashing, especially at times when the computers is accessing files (such as during the boot sequence), it may indicate a problem with your drive.

Really Slow Access Times

It shouldn’t take half an hour to open a folder in Windows Explorer, or two hours to empty the trash. I’ve come across this problem plenty of times over the years, and it’s always followed by a failing hard drive within a month or two.

If you have this symptom on your computer and your drive does not fail, please uninstall Vista from your 486.

Sound is a great indicator. As soon as the sound changes from the norm, or you get plenty of clicking and grinding from your hard drive, you need to power it down immediately. Get to know the sound of your hard drive while it’s young and in working order, because you’ll need to be able to hear the slightest differences when it gets older.

What next?

Don’t try to be a hero. If there’s time, get your data backed up. If there’s not—nasty noises, for example—get it out of the computer or enclosure, wrap it in anti-static plastic or aluminium foil and keep it safe until you can send it to a professional. Hard drives are very sensitive, just like those kids who die their hair black and write poems about suicide. Don’t mess with them.

When you contact a recovery specialist, they will give you details on shipping the drive, though they tend to prefer you hand-deliver it to prevent further damage.

When it comes to hard drives, just remember to keep an eye on it and act quickly. And, of course, keep extensive back-ups, even if you have to skip groceries one week to do so.

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