Is Your Hard Drive Going to Crash?

Category: Hard-Drives

A reader asks: 'Sometimes I hear a clicking sound from my hard drive, but it's only occasionally. Does this mean my hard drive is going to crash soon? Are there any tests I can run to check the health of my hard drive?' Read on to learn the tell-tale signs of impending hard drive doom, and some things you can do now to protect your data...

How Can I Tell If My Hard Drive Is About To Fail?

How long will your hard drive last? Is it giving you subtle signs that a data disaster is looming? How will you know when it's time to buy a new hard drive? Here are some things you can look for. (If your hard drive has already failed, and you came looking for help with that, see my article on Hard Drive Data Recovery.)

Your computer's hard drive is its permanent memory, the critical repository of all your important data, the programs and operating system that make a computer "smart". If the hard drive doesn't work, the whole computer is as useful as a brick. Human memories break down gradually, in most cases, giving ample warning that something needs to be fixed. So how can you tell if your hard drive is close to failing and needs fixing or replacement?

The bad news is that hard drives may give NO warning of imminent failures. Like a tire that runs over a nail, a hard drive most often just dies, leaving you stranded suddenly. The sudden burnout of electronic components; a bearing that blows in a second; a "head crash" in which the read/write head touches and scratches the magnetic platter; these sorts of catastrophes usually happen without warning. Fortunately, they are pretty uncommon.

Hard Drive Failure

But don't take chances -- if you don't have a backup plan in place, I strongly advise you to read my article Hard Drives Are Not Forever and get some tips on backing up your hard drive.

The good news is that modern hard drives last a long time. Look on your drive's label or in its technical specs and you will find a value labeled MTBF - Mean Time Between Failures. That's the average (mean) number hours a whole bunch of drives spun at full speed before something broke in each of them. An MTBF of 50,000 hours is the minimum acceptable today; 100,000 hours is not uncommon. There are about 2,000 hours in a typical employee's work-year.

Note that "average" does not mean "guaranteed minimum." An exceptional drive that runs 400,000 hours may be offset in the average calculation by one that burns out after only 5,000 hours - and that early departer could be yours. You just never know. (Did I mention that you should have a backup plan?)

Warning Signs of Hard Drive Failure

If you start getting read/write errors, i.e., "cannot write to disk" or "cannot access file," something is going wrong. It may be the drive's firmware, and downloading the latest firmware update from the manufacturer's site could fix you right up. It may also be corrupted or cross-linked files. Run CHKDSK to find and fix such errors. These are the easiest and cheapest problems to fix.

CHKDSK comes with Windows, and it's pretty good at detecting bad files and physically damaged sectors. It will lock damaged sectors so that the computer will not attempt to write to them. To run CHKDSK, open a command prompt, then type CHKDSK C: /F /R then press Enter. This tells CHKDSK to scan for bad sectors, and fix any errors found. Substitute the "C:" with another drive letter if you have multiple drives (or partitions) and want to check those as well. CHKDSK may ask if you want the scan to be done on the next boot (start up) cycle. If so, respond with Y for yes.

There are free utilities out there that run more thorough tests. One of the highly recommended utilities is Seagate SeaTools for Windows. The Hitachi Drive Fitness Test is another useful tool. Note that you don't have to have a Seagate or Hitachi brand hard drive to use these tools. They'll work with other brands, such as Samsung, Fujitsu, Western Digital, and Maxtor just as well. Another commercial alternative is Hard Disk Sentinel.

Listen to your hard drive. If you hear a clicking sound, especially during startup, that's often a sign of a damaged disk, and impending data doom. Just like you can hear when a car engine is "laboring," you can often hear when a hard drive is working too hard. That means it's wearing out faster, just like an engine that climbs steep hills every day. If you hear vague rattling noises when your hard drive is accessing data, you should run a disk clean-up and defragmentation right away. The less the read/write head must move to find, read, and write data, the longer it will last. See my article How to Clean Up Your Hard Drive.

If noises or errors become frequent, don't hope the problem will go away -- because it won't. Back up all your data and buy a new hard drive. Move everything onto the new drive. Wipe your sensitive data from the old drive using a disk-wiping utility that overwrites every sector so it is very difficult to read what was there. (See Completely Erase Your Hard Drive for help with that.) Then toss the old drive; do not keep it around as an "emergency" drive and do not use it as a secondary drive. You wouldn't count on an old car with a blown engine seal in emergencies or even for backup use, would you?

Do you have comments or questions about hard drive failure? Post your thoughts below...

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Most recent comments on "Is Your Hard Drive Going to Crash?"

Posted by:

Stuart Berg
19 Feb 2013

Bob, I've been told that if CHKDSK starts finding and blocking damaged sectors, you should take that as a warning that your hard drive is "starting to go" and you should consider replacing it soon. What do you think?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Sounds like good advice.

Posted by:

19 Feb 2013

Well for as long as I been working on computer's I have to say I never had one go bad not to say they don't but personally I never experienced one and I been working on them for a long time.

Posted by:

19 Feb 2013

This article should be updated to include a discussion of SSD's. The review should differentiate between the electromechanical nature of HDD's
and the electronic memory of SSD's.

Posted by:

Gloria M. Huffman
19 Feb 2013

I lost a hard drive to Hurricane (Tropical Storm) Irene two years. Long story short, I eventually bought a 1.5TB Seagate external hard drive (on sale at Costco) and sent it with my damaged hard drive across the country for data recovery. When I got it back, I could read the recovered files with no noise from the external hard drive. Yet a few days ago, when I tried to back up my current computer files to that same external hard drive overnight, I woke up the next morning to a message that the backup had failed (error code 0x80070015). There was a loud repetitious clicking noise coming from the external hard drive.

I am totally unused to backups and doing unfamiliar things in order to deal with problems like this. I see many online complaints about backup error code 00x80070015, so I'm not alone, but is it possible that my "new" external hard drive is damaged?

Posted by:

19 Feb 2013

Thanbk you for the reminders, my only comment concerns the disposal of the old drive. Once all the data is transferred I take the old drive apart, by force if necessary. Rmove the magnetic disc and put it through a shredder! Then I beat on the remains of the hard drive with a big hammer. Not only does it make it impossible to get information it makes me feel better to get retribution for the work of replacing the hard drive. If you want to make evem more sure collect the bits of magnetic matter from the shredder, put them in an envelope, give it a good shake and put envelope and contenrts through the shredder.

Posted by:

East-Slope Charlie
19 Feb 2013

I had an old Sony from pre-pentium days (e.g.3/486 chipset). I run my computer 24/7 ever since I learned about World Community Grid (a distributed computing program, like the better known SETI). It chattered for a good 18 months before a video card got lose and it was too old and slow to bother trying to unpack it from it's corner, break the case, and fiddle with the card to get a huge black monitor to turn from black and black to color.

But eventually I had to fix the disk and get rid of the especially critical datum on the hard drive since it contained FAR too much confidential student information and memos to Administration to have it even accidentally fall into the hands of folks outside my department.

That's when I used the 'DOD WIPE' -- AKA "Maffia Disk Doctor". You go out into the desert, hang the drive from a tree limb or put it in the brush, and use (SAFELY) a pistol or rifle to break open the case. When you get the platters lose, you hang those as well and use them for target practice.

The end result is a disk which has warped before letting the bullet penetrate. You have just used the time-tested-and-proven-right way to stop the unauthorized spread of information. Only one person can keep a secret, in this event, it's only you.

To make it even nicer, just frame it on yellow stock paper upon which you have printed 'MAFFIA DISK DOCTOR' and a photo of a 'hit-squad' -- and it's VERY unlikely ANYONE will EVER *EVER* be able to make it talk again.

Before I left that college, my 'ego wall' was NOT filled with degrees and certificates since they generally don't mean much (a 1978 convention of professionals that gives out 'certificates of attendance'. They often tell you more about the personality of the person than it does their knowledge-base).

Rather, I put up disks that some 'unknown hit-men' (and women) had 'taken out' - each labeled in the form "name, college president, 19zx-20xx" with an engraved brass plaque at the bottom of the nice wooden frame. Or 'Name, Department Chair, 198x-200x". Not only does it give people a chuckle, I was handing them back to the people who'd given me the hard drive that needed destruction, and for the price of a good hand-frame, glass, and professional mounting they, too, had a 'trophy' wall of their own.

Some skeet and duck hunters would also have a friend toss the disk into the air and they'd try to hit it with shot - but only heavy shot will penetrate the metal disk. I find it MUCH more fun, faster, effective, and gives a peace of mind that the data on the disk is right there, hanging on your wall. So you KNOW where the disk is, and where ALL of that VERY sensitive information is. Right there in front of you.

Kind of like "The Governor' and his fish tanks. The Spinning Dead.

Posted by:

Rick Hodgens
19 Feb 2013

In re: to Disk wiping.

As inexpensive as hard drives (and Memory, in general) have become, I am of the opinion that a 3/8" Electric Drill and bit will do a superb job of disk-wiping.

I haven't checked lately, but MTBF Data used to be almost impossible to find online; got any sites that provide this handy 'Bench-Mark"?

Posted by:

Kit Kimes
19 Feb 2013

I have been using Acronis Drive Monitor for a while. It is a free utility from there web site and works great as long as the drives are a newer ones with SMART drive monitoring built in (most have for some time now). It shows current readings (including temperature) and a history that rates your drive up to 100%. It monitors all drives attached to you computer, even the external hard drives.

Posted by:

East Slope Charlie
19 Feb 2013

QUESTION: Bob, a friend just gave me an Android tablet while I await the arrival of my new lap-top. (thanks by the way) - I've noticed that to use my LAN I have to give permission to ALL the apps (even NPR's) to access any part of my 'computer' -- is that the tablet only? or is it ANY part of ANY computer that happens to be live on the LAN? (generally I am hard-wired [Cat-5] to my router and the wi-fi part has been 'disabled'). The lap-top will generally be about the same I suspect. (oh, BTW, did I mention a thank you for your help?). thanks again - pg

Posted by:

20 Feb 2013

I opened command prompt & as suggested, I typed CHKDSK C: /F /R & clicked enter but it said access denied, as I do not have sufficient privileges. I have to invoke this utility running in elevated mode???? I have NO IDEA what it is talking about! What do I do now to run this check on my hard drive?

Posted by:

22 Feb 2013

I have been running the same Western Digital 74g Raptor drive for the past 10 years and so far without any problems. When I purchased it I also got a second one in case of failure.
If, in the event of failure, there will not be any great loss as I have only the OS and programs on C: therefore I see no real need for myself to make any back-ups.
However, for someone with only one hard drive it would make perfect sense to make back-ups on a regular basis (perhaps once a month or more often if you constantly edit sensitive files).
As always thank you for a very well-written and useful article.
Keep up the good work! :-)

Posted by:

06 Mar 2013

Thanks Bob...Since 1986, I've had 3 hard drives go on me, the last one was the most devastating. It was a 1 year old 1T hard drive inside a WDTV Live Hub with a half-a-ton of movies, pics and music on it. WD replaced the thing with no problem at all but since the drive was relatively new I always said "tomorrow I will back it up." One day I turn it of and it told me there was no local storage and all it did was "click". No warning at all. Since then everything the I don't want to loose gets a back up.

Posted by:

Mr Erin B
14 Jun 2013

Hurrah! At last I got a webpage from where I be able to actually obtain valuable facts regarding my study and knowledge.

Posted by:
09 Aug 2013

I have a lot of computers over the years that have crashed and I strip them and usually take the hard drives and slap them in an enclosure and turn them in to an external hard drive. Thanks for sharing with us all.

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