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
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:
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
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