Laptop Hard Drive Crash

Category: Laptops

The surprising thing is not a laptop hard drive crash, but the rarity with which it happens. When you think about hard drives and what people do with laptops, it's surprising that laptop hard drives don't crash more often. But it does happen. Here are some things you can do to minimize the risk of a laptop hard drive crash, and to recover if one does happen...

laptop hard drive crash

What Causes a Laptop Hard Drive Crash?

A hard drive mechanism is an incredibly precise device. A typical laptop hard drive spins at 5400 rpm, and a standard disk is just 2.5 inches in diameter. A little math reveals that a point on the disk's rim is moving at just over 40 miles per hour. Hovering over that speeding surface, less than a hair's width away, is a metal read/write head. Even better, the head is constantly zipping back and forth across the radius of the disk, reading and writing data in different sectors. If head meets disk... crash!

We're talking about a serious physical crash, not just a software error. The head digs into the disk's surface, gouging up bits of the magnetic film that stores data. Anything written on that part of the disk is gone forever. Nothing will be written to that scratched part of the disk again. The head itself, a delicate thing, may be damaged and unable to read or write data anywhere on the disk.

Now think about how you use your laptop. You turn it on and the disk starts spinning with head and surface dangerously near one another. Then you pick the laptop up and carry it, none to steadily, to a wobbly table in a café. Or you balance it on your knees, shifting your position every couple minutes. You close the lid, turn the laptop sideways, shove it into a bag, and let it swing from your shoulder as you walk. Why on Earth doesn't the laptop hard drive crash constantly? The secret is cunning engineering.

Preventing Laptop Hard Drive Crashes

The disk platter is kept stable by cushions of air above and below it. Filters, or valves, in a laptop hard drive's case maintain proper air pressure inside the case even as altitude, temperature, and weather cause air pressure outside to fluctuate. The read/write head is also supported on an "air bearing" while the disk is spinning, but it does land upon the disk regularly.

To minimize the risk of a laptop hard drive crash damaging areas of the disk that contain data, the head is "parked" or rested upon an area of the disk that doesn't contain data when the head is not actively seeking, reading, or writing data. This "landing area" is usually near the center of the disk, which is not used because it moves slowest and reading/writing data from there would be slowest.

Some laptops have a "drop detection" feature, which quickly parks the head when it thinks your laptop is accelerating toward the pavement. This feature is available in Apple MacBooks, and some other high-end laptops from Dell, Sony and other vendors.

Laptop hard drive heads are generally designed to survive at least 50,000 take-offs and landings before the probability of a failure rises above 50 per cent. Therefore the older your laptop hard drive is, the more likely it is to fail in a laptop hard drive crash.

If Your Laptop's Drive Crashes...

Not every laptop hard drive crash is fatal. A head may crash against a bit of dust on a disk without destroying any magnetic film. Friction from such a very brief rubbing heats up the head beyond its operating range, and the head shuts down temporarily. But it works again when it cools down.

Sectors of a hard drive disk damaged in a laptop hard drive crash can be detected by the operating system's "check disk for bad sectors" function and marked "do not use". Then it's safe to keep using a slightly damaged laptop hard drive. To run a check for bad sectors in Windows:

  • Click Start then highlight My Computer to show a list of available drives.
  • Right-click on the hard drive you want to check and select "Properties".
  • Click the "Tools" tab and then click through the "error-checking" options.

There will be an option to check for bad sectors and attempt to repair them. If you enable this option, the disk check will take quite a long time during which you will not be able to use your laptop. But you will end up with a disk whose bad sectors are marked "do not use".

The most vulnerable moment for your laptop is when it is shutting down or powering up. A lot of reading and writing of data occurs during these events and a laptop hard drive crash can be disastrous. When you close that laptop lid, wait until the disk activity light goes out before moving the laptop. Don't power on your laptop while it's in motion.

Do you have a comment or question about laptop hard drive crashes? Post your thoughts below...

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Most recent comments on "Laptop Hard Drive Crash"

Posted by:

03 Jan 2010

seems like it would be best policy to never move or tip up a desktop computer that is powered up. better to wait till power is off to baby the hard drive.

Posted by:

03 Jan 2010

WOW...we learn something new every day. This is VERY INFORMATIVE & helpful to me. Sometimes I walk from room to room with it in my arms "sideways". I didn't realize I was being "abusive" to my laptop. I've had it a year now and haven't had any problems but I know NOW, I must be more careful.

Posted by:

03 Jan 2010

Gibson Research Corporation (GRC for short) has a pretty good utility called SpinRite. It's a hard disk scanning and data recovery utility that's been around since 1988. If used on a working hard drive it can analyze and predict a pending failure. If used on a drive that's already crashed, it has a pretty amazing record of recovering data and repairing the drive. It's not cheap ($89. for first time buyers) but it saved my irreplaceable data on several occasions (XP Pro laptop.) I have no personal experience using it on Vista or 7.

Posted by:

03 Jan 2010

I just replaced my laptop 160GB (7200) with a 500GB (7200) because of space, but performance had gone so bad boot time to ready was almost 30 minutes (Dell/XP) after an easy upgrade using the Apricorn wire device I replaced the drives, rebooted and was running in less than 2 minutes. Software? Hardware? MUST be hardware since the SOFTWARE was exactly the same (Backup/Restore), Ran all the diagnostics but no errors. When (not if) I have time will run stress tests on old drive. BUT the new drive only cost $100 at Frys so who cares about the old 160GB...

Posted by:

Keith Collyer
07 Jan 2010

Hi storageman

what you experienced was probably nothing more than extreme fragmentation of the drive, scattering files into several pieces. Even worse if the page file is fragmented as regular defrag tools won't touch it (I use pagedefrag from sysinternals). I once had a page file fragmented into 4000 pieces, sometimes nothing responded for minutes. Ran pagedefrag a few times, in conjunction with a good defragger to get clear space and now it is hugely better.

Posted by:

07 Jan 2010

You didn't mention the SSD (Solid State Drive).
My Netbook came with one, and proved to be very valuable. I dropped it while it was running, creating a nasty dent in one corner, but there was no ill effect at all.

Posted by:

09 Jan 2010

Solid State Drives (SSDs)do not fit in this article as they do not have the moving parts which create the problems related here by Bob. SSDs are indeed superior to the HDDs in use today, not only for the safety of drops or not possessing moving parts to wear out, but also because they are faster with reads/writes and degrade much slower which keeps data safer in storage far longer.

However, SSDs are cost prohibitive, as most major advances in computer hardware. As time goes by SSDs will most likely one day replace the ones in use today, but until then only individuals with lots of money can afford to fully implement SSD technology. Some companies are integrating a small (16 gigabytes or less) along side larger traditional drives. This provides some of the benefits of SSDs while keeping cost down.

Posted by:

17 Jan 2010

I recently went to power up my laptop, and my hard drive was not recognized. Long story short, I went to reformat the hard drive with my system restore disk, and it didn't even recognize that the hard drive existed. I went and bought a new hard drive, formatted it and I am up and running with the new one. I bought a hard drive usb docking station with hopes that I could pull all the information off of it to my new hard drive, but it still does not recognize the hard drive, even when I try on other computers.
I had all my information backed up on an external hard drive, but the funny thing is that when I plug it in to any computer now, the external hard drive is not recognized either. It appears I have very bad luck, but I am hoping somebody might know of some way that I can recover my data off one of the 2 drives.

Posted by:

Yau Lau
28 Feb 2010

I'm not sure if it is my hard drive or not, but when I turn on my Gateway desktop computer not signal is getting to the monitor. At least that is what the message on the monitor says "no signal." The light on the power button keeps blinking, and I don't remember if it always did that after I turn on the computer.

The fan for the processor is blowing, and the DVD drive doors open and close, so I'm assuming there is power to the computer. If there is power to the computer, and the hard drive crashes shouldn't there be some sort of signal getting to the monitor.

Could it be that the battery for the cmos needs to be replaced? I don't know where to start. I don't want to start buying new parts only to find out that it was something else. Does anyone have any suggestions?


Posted by:

06 Jun 2010

Hi, my laptop toshiba Satellite L300D, just turned off, and when i tried turning it back on, itr came on thge setup menu with the following: hard dik drive-none and no booting options. No recovery CD was delivered at purchase, so i tried to boot with a windows vista clean CD to no avail, any suggestions please, i have a feeling i lost all data:(
thanks for any suggestions

Posted by:

28 Jul 2010

I like it! I have a 120 gigs laptop that I got for study in college. I still have my desktop hard drive that is also 120 gigs. My cousin used the other parts to build a computer for his friend .Anyway; I am running out of storage on my 120 laptop hard drive and want to use the 120 desktop hard drives as an external instead of backing everything up onto DVDs or CDs. Is it possible? If so please add a website where I can purchase one of these cables.

EDITOR'S NOTE: It's not so much a cable you want, as an external enclosure kit. See

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