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failing hard driveEvery one of us owns precious files like personal documents, photos, videos, or audio files, and we typically store them on hard drives. Few people realize that most electronic storage devices, including hard drives, have a rather limited lifetime when compared to the ancient ways of storing information, such as stone, papyrus, paper, or old school records. The average lifetime of a stationary hard drive today is around 5 – 10 years, depending on the type and manufacturer, and it rapidly declines if the drive is subject to strong variations in temperature, humidity, and motion as in not being stationary.

Since a majority of people today own laptops and external hard drives, which get dragged around quite a bit, a realistic hard drive lifetime is probably around 3 – 5 years. This is an extremely short time to reliably store important data. In the best of cases, hard drives fail gradually, giving you the chance to react, get a copy of your data, and replace the storage device before facing a fatal failure. There are a host of signs that hint to a gradual failure of your hard drive. If you are unsure how much life is left on your hard drive, read this article to find out what signs may reveal an approaching failure.

1. Slowing Down Computer, Frequent Freezes, Blue Screen Of Death

These are very unspecific signs that can be caused by a million different things. However, regardless of what the issue behind these symptoms is, it is recommended that you immediately make a backup. If these problems occur after a fresh installations or in Windows Safe Mode How To Start In Windows Safe Mode & Its Uses How To Start In Windows Safe Mode & Its Uses Read More , it is almost certain that it is due to bad hardware, and possibly a failing hard drive.

failing hard drive

2. Corrupted Data

If you’re beginning to find files that fail to open and are corrupted even though they saved without errors or if files suddenly disappear, you should get worried. While again this could be due to a multitude of issues, it is also a typical sign for a gradual hard drive failure.

hard drive failure

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3. Accumulation Of Bad Sectors

Bad sectors are areas of the hard drive that do not maintain data integrity. They are automatically masked by the operating system and thus hard to identify, especially if large amounts of the disk are currently in use. If you actually run into bad sectors, however, that certainly is a bad sign.

You can run a manual disk check to identify errors that Windows has not spotted, yet. In Windows 7, go to > Start > Computer and right-click on the disk or partition you wish to check. Select > Properties, in the window that opens switch to the > Tools tab and click > Check now… In the Checking Disk window place a checkmark next to > Automatically fix file system errors and > Scan for an attempt recovery of bad sectors.

hard drive failure

Windows will also check for bad sectors, when you perform a full format or chkdsk command. See this article – The Difference Between Windows Full Format & Quick Format [Technology Explained] The Difference Between Windows Full Format & Quick Format [Technology Explained] The Difference Between Windows Full Format & Quick Format [Technology Explained] When installing Windows, the installer will ask you a strange question - how do you want to format your hard drive? For Windows systems, there are only a few possible answer choices. You either format... Read More .

4. Strange Sounds

When you hear strange noises coming from your hard drive, it may be too late already. A repetitive sound also known as the click of death is caused by the head as it is trying to write data and recovers from errors in doing so. Grinding or screeching noises indicate that parts of the hardware, for example the bearings or spindle motor, are failing.

5. S.M.A.R.T. Data

There are tools that aim to predict hard drive failure by reading the S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology) data that is recorded by the operating system. Unfortunately, like most other methods listed above, S.M.A.R.T. is notoriously unreliable in predicting hard drive failure and the catastrophe will often happen before the warning of S.M.A.R.T. kicks in. If you have a working hard drive, however, and would like to have a look at its S.M.A.R.T. data, check out this article – 4 Tools To Predict and Prevent Hard Drive Failure 4 Tools To Predict and Prevent Hard Drive Failure 4 Tools To Predict and Prevent Hard Drive Failure Read More

hard drive failure

I Think My Hard Drive Is Failing, What Shall I Do?

So you are worried that a hard drive failure is just around the corner? The truth is, even if you are not worried, it is! The only thing you can do is always keep backups of your data on a second hard drive. The likelihood that both drives will fail simultaneously are very rare. An exception would be natural disasters like floods or fires. For these cases, I recommend to keep a copy of your most important data in a different physical location, for example at work or with a friend, or possibly on a remote server, for example by using an online backup solution.

failing hard drive

For more information how to back up data, read my PDF manual Stuff Happens: The Backup & Restore Guide The Backup & Restore Guide [PDF] The Backup & Restore Guide [PDF] Disasters happen. Unless you're OK with losing all of your data, you need a good backup system. If you know this but haven't got around to setting up backup on your PC, this is the... Read More .

Conclusion

Do not rely on signs or software to tell you whether you have a failing hard drive. It is more likely than not that it will fail unexpectedly and without any warning signs whatsoever. Rather than trying to forecast something that is even less predictable than the weather, you should rely on backups.

What is your worst hardware failure nightmare, did it ever happen to you, and did you actually lose any data?

Image credits: Anyka, malost, lucadp, Matthias Pahl

  1. Renny
    August 21, 2016 at 12:19 am

    I was informed by windows that my hard drive was failing so I copy and pasted my photos to another pc through the wireless network sharing. Now the photos won't open and don't show any thumbnails. Does it sound like they are gone for good? It doesn't show the dimensions in the photo properties either.

  2. Jh
    August 11, 2016 at 12:18 am

    I have a hard drive I purchased after the stock hp hard drive died, I guess its 3 years old or 4 anyways I noticed my pc getting slower and slower, I thought it was just out dated it was from 2009 and came with windows vista. So I built a newer pc and used the old hard drive that is 3 or 4 years old everything was working great for about a week then I noticed clicking sounds when the pc was thinking, opening a program reading data off the hard drive especially at start up. It sounds like a muffled coffee grinder under a pillow in the next room, not too loud but you can feel it when you place your hand on the pc. The only thing I can think of is the way it is positioned in the new pc its horizontal. In the old pc it was vertical. I guess after years of it working in one position to be forced to work in a totally opposite position was too much for it to handle, perhaps over the years gravity has played apart in the internal items inside the hd to become worn and when placed in a different position began to click like the old hd's used to when it was defragmented, the old hd clicking sounds from early 2000's. So anyway hd's are not that expensive and I shall be installing a new one. And yes it is getting slower and slower every day.

    • Jh
      August 11, 2016 at 12:20 am

      And yes I have tested the hd and passed all the test I can find to throw at it.

    • Tina Sieber
      August 11, 2016 at 11:18 am

      My gut instinct was that hard drives, because they contain moving parts, are affected by physical orientation, but turns out that's not true. The vertical installation should be perfectly fine

      Even though you write that you haven't found a test that uncovered an issue, the sounds you describe have me worried that the drive is going to fail soon. I wouldn't store anything important on it. I would keep backups (you can clone the drive or make a system image). And most importantly, I wouldn't let it run while you're not there.

      Did you find any tests that look at read / write speeds, temperature, or spinup time? Try this one: http://crystalmark.info/software/CrystalDiskInfo/index-e.html

  3. Michael
    August 9, 2016 at 12:14 am

    one of my pcs is 14 years old and sill works but i never may no when my pc will die

    so thank you

    • Tina Sieber
      August 9, 2016 at 8:13 am

      Welcome Michael! Just make backups. We recommend Macrium Reflect for complete disk images, i.e. system backups.

  4. Douglas
    July 23, 2016 at 11:01 am

    i am not sure wheater this is the right place to ask,! but since the system is letting me in, so i guess it wouldn't hurt.

    i have 500GB USB External HDD since five years. since i bought it up until quite recently it worked fine, but now two months ago it just stopped working. without warning.

    the problem it shows is like, when i plug it into my computer it askes for format first,
    no i cant format it, all of my important data over the years is in it, my family picture and vides and my other stuff is there, i need a way out, if you please could help me with this , i will literally be in your debt..!

    • Tina Sieber
      August 9, 2016 at 8:06 am

      Douglas, I only just saw your comment.

      You could try to follow the tips in this article: How To Diagnose And Fix A Dead Hard Drive To Recover Data

      Or you could consult a data recovery specialist.

    • Douglas
      August 9, 2016 at 1:45 pm

      Well, thank you, but still i haven't found anything, this is gonna kill me soon. i just need on day of it working, then i could extract everything in it,! i've tried everything to my knowledge,.

  5. Christopher John Ulrich Burke
    July 23, 2016 at 5:32 am

    Just a Cautionary Tale....

    Couple of years ago, I went back to XP - which I still use - from 7 because none of my lovely music software liked 7 even in XP mode. I had antiviruses, Avast, Malwarebytes, the lot on it. Thought I was totally safe - till one day nothing would fire up. Everything looked the same, nothing worked. Then I started getting bleeping sounds, sirens, 'Your Disc has been Found To Be filled with Porn and the Police have Closed it Down....'

    Of course it wasn't. Hallo Ransomware. Now I THOUGHT I was lucky, because finding that kinda stuff is sorta my good point. I went in with Hiren's, all guns blazing, found all the files and nuked the lot. Thing IS - that attack had pushed the hard drive over the edge and I hadn't even realised it was coming to the end of its days. Wouldn't boot. Used Hiren's, Mini XP, various rescue tools and a LOT of patience and over the next few days recovered most of the files.

    In fragments. Which meant no music software. Wasn't going to let a virus beat me. I went in with a hex editor - believe it or not - and pieced the software back together just like a jigsaw puzzle. That took me about three weeks. Then - on a new hard drive - I had to manually install all the files as I didn't know how to repackage them for the installer to do it. That took another week and a half. I've ended up with my music software working - I'm actually quite proud of that - and a backup disc image on another separate drive. How the viruses had gotten past everything - here's the cautionary point - is there's a function on XP which lets people operate it remotely and I hadn't heard of it, so it was left on. Which gave the system a back door straight past Avast. And the viruses had found it.

    If 7, 10, or any of the others also has Remote Access, make sure it's always turned off, Avast AND Malwarebytes cannot spot viruses entering that way!

    By the way - two hard drive cures you haven't mentioned. If your hard drive death-ticks, putting it in the freezer overnight wrapped in clingfilm should give you another couple of uses out of it so you can rescue stuff. If it's just dodgy, taking a disc image, saving disc image on other drive (or online/Cloud) deep-formatting drive and then putting disc image back onto the drive - which should include Windows, think of it as transferring a snapshot of your hard drive to a safe source, then transferring the picture back onto the hard drive like putting it into a picture frame - doing that should cure the hard drive - for awhile. But remember it has warned you!

    Chris.

    • Tina Sieber
      August 9, 2016 at 8:12 am

      Thank you for your elaborate comment and the great tips, Chris!

      The freezer trick didn't work for me (covered in another article), but others swear by it. :)

      You can be proud of yourself for piecing software back together like that. It sounds like an excruciating task to me! So does using Windows XP. How will you keep it safe when the anti-malware software for it isn't updated anymore?

  6. Rockey
    July 12, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    hi, i am face a problem from long time. A red light on cpu is continously on-off and a beep sound comes from system than whole system gets freezes for a long time ,than unfreeze and suddenly freezes again,the red light ON with high brightness.is my hard disk going to dead,please help me,my all data my photos ,videos ,all memories saved in this,what i do?
    my system installation year was 2011 and one thing due to freezing again and again i close the system without shut down more than 1000 times, is my hard disk goes to dead.
    SYstem configurations-

    window 7 64 bit
    hdd -seagate sata 500 gb
    core 2 duo E7500 cpu

    • Tina Sieber
      July 12, 2016 at 9:24 pm

      Doesn't sound good. You should definitely back up your data if still possible. You could boot from a USB drive and see whether that makes it easier to back up the data.

      When the backup is done, you can try to scan the hard drive for bad sectors. If the scan comes out negative (no issues), just reinstall Windows (you can upgrade to Windows 10 for free until July 29). Otherwise, replace the hard drive and upgrade to a solid state drive if you can.

  7. Fraser
    June 25, 2016 at 10:27 pm

    I keep getting a BSOD then on reboot I can't find the drive unless I unplug the SATA cable and re-attach it. It's always when trying to access programs or files on the drive that goes missing. Pretty sure it's about to fail.

    • Tina Sieber
      June 26, 2016 at 2:23 am

      Well, make backups and prepare to swap out the drive. Could also be a bad cable, though.

    • Fraser
      June 26, 2016 at 10:36 am

      Cables are good, swapped them out for new ones already. Definitely the drive. I have around 1.7TB worth of steam games on it so I'll probably just scrap the drive.

  8. Njoyz
    June 23, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Guys, I need an advice.. My computer is extremely slow, CPU usage at minimum, at first there was a problem when opening files, so I did a reinstall, and I was certainly surprised to see that the problem still occurred. As of now, the problem is still present, even in safe mode, with the HDD staying silent long after I demand an action. Also the boot time of win7 is awful at about 15mins. I also run into constant freezes even when only browsing. Do you think it might be the drive or something else?

  9. Diana Hrekova
    June 15, 2016 at 7:15 pm

    I think it's good

    • Tina Sieber
      June 23, 2016 at 4:33 pm

      You mean your own hard drive? Glad to hear, Diana.

  10. ray
    June 13, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    mine is to late when iam backing up the pc hangs and says error by i/o device
    my 1 tb sshd has 2400 hours on record

    • Tina Sieber
      June 23, 2016 at 4:34 pm

      Time to replace I guess.

    • Douglas
      July 23, 2016 at 10:58 am

      i am not sure wheater this is the right place to ask,! but since the system is letting me in, so i guess it wouldn't hurt.

      i have 500GB USB External HDD since five years. since i bought it up until quite recently it worked fine, but now two months ago it just stopped working. without warning.

      the problem it shows is like, when i plug it into my computer it askes for format first,
      no i cant format it, all of my important data over the years is in it, my family picture and vides and my other stuff is there, i need a way out, if you please could help me with this , i will literally be in your debt..!

  11. Howard
    May 18, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    I was getting a blue screen and would not load my updates right...I would have to start in a safe mode every time it started up...I thought it was my windows program but was not it was the Hard Drive...

  12. Shabdik
    May 17, 2016 at 6:59 pm

    My problem is whenever i turn on my pc it works fine but when i download something or playing games it gets stuck with a ***CLICK*** sound which is comes from my HDD.whenever i face this problem i check my ram and again turn my pc on and it works well but this problem doesn't solve.this problem happen not regularly but sometimes..when i face it i check my ram again and again and it works but not for long :(

    My point is : Is this my HDD failure issue or others hardware problem????

  13. Conundrum
    February 28, 2016 at 6:50 am

    Also worth mentioning, I invented a new method to recover data on drives which combines 2 different well known ones with a new one which isn't in the literature.
    Interested? its actually a lot gentler than the freezer method and preserves the warranty.
    Had some success but hoping to launch a Kickstarter some time soon.

    I can be reached on andre [a{] lanoe [d0t] net

  14. Conundrum
    February 28, 2016 at 6:47 am

    Just had a drive fail with little or no warning. Had a single isolated BSOD on the system when playing a DVD qbout a week earlier but then it recovered fine until this morning.
    Interestingly the diagnostics message was about a problem with the USB, maybe power related?

    I have a theory that on some newer drives they draw too much power and eventually cause an overload in the voltage regulator, this becomes particularly critical if the laptop battery is low.

  15. Dillor Zaarour
    December 15, 2015 at 1:54 am

    SSD

    • Captian
      February 1, 2016 at 3:23 am

      5TB4freepls

  16. Anonymous
    December 24, 2014 at 10:04 pm

    What should i do when my computer freezes and went blue screen??!

    • danny
      May 5, 2015 at 1:13 pm

      Take a brush and paint a wallpaper on the screen

    • RandomNerd
      March 10, 2016 at 7:19 pm

      Reboot The Pc??

  17. Springfield
    December 3, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Two tips:
    1) A trick I learned from a PC repair guy to recover data from a dying drive: Put it in the freezer.  In a baggie for about an hour.  Then put it back in the computer, boot up, and be ready to copy the data to a DVD if it works.
    2) An old software utility called Spinrite can be used to refresh formatting and even recover corrupt data if it's not too far gone.  Many times the drive hardware is OK, but after 3-5 years the magnetic marks that tell the heads where the data is (low level formatting) begin to fade.  Spinrite re-writes the low level formatting with the data in place.  Can make an old drive like new.

    HTH
    -Springfield from NBR

    • Tina
      December 21, 2011 at 5:53 pm

      Thanks for the tips, Springfield!

      I also tried the freezer one and later heard it was a myth. Didn't work for me at the time. To my luck, however, the drive miraculously did work again after lying on a cupboard for two years.

  18. John5247
    November 30, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    My friend at colllege had the best data security. Every week he sent a DVD home to mom of his current essays. If he fell into a party one weekend and forgot, mon would call and nag him to send it .... simple!

  19. John5247
    November 30, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    All Hard drives fail as sure as death and taxes. Until the recent floods in Thailand drives had never been cheaper. When they get back down "normal" price again - what was it? 50 dollars a Terrabyte!  Promise yourself you'll buy 4 and a NAS box and set up 2 RAID arrays.
    Put the NAS box as far away as you can from your computer - preferably in the next State or at least in your Grandma's house. Only now you can ease up on the paranoia ....

  20. Daniel Aniegbuna
    October 1, 2011 at 3:38 am

    There are many ways we can lose information on a computer - a destructive virus, a power surge, lightning, floods, a big magnet, or sometimes equipment just fails. Customer experience shows that data backup is one of the least things a computer user wants to do on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Generally, most PC users consider data backup a necessity immediately after they have experienced PC disasters, such as hard drive failures! Data recovery can be expensive, unfortunately, since we can neither prevent natural disasters nor certain PC disasters, we should at least be ready for them. Technically, one sure way to be ready for PC disasters is by backing up data regularly and keeping multiple backup copies onsite (using preferred external media drives) and offsite (via remote storage).
     

    • Tina
      October 1, 2011 at 10:50 am

      Yes, backup is a must.

  21. Tom
    September 25, 2011 at 1:00 am

    To recover data on failed hard drives download a copy of Puppy OS. Burn it to a CD and boot with it. It will display any data on most problem CDs. It is Linux software and actually runs in your ram.

    • Tina
      September 25, 2011 at 8:31 am

      When the hard drive is the issue and not the operating system, then not even Linux can save your neck, but it sure is worth a try!

  22. Cell Travis
    September 23, 2011 at 5:35 am

    I've had 2 hard drives fail in the last 10 years, and on both occasions there was data on them that could not be recovered. Since then, I've been maintaining multiple backups both on a physical external drive and online, in cloud storage.

  23. Tim bain
    September 23, 2011 at 3:52 am

    If you have an external enclosure and the software you can usually recover files with cheap or free software, Recovermyfiles isn't bad. Hardrivehealth is a nice little app thats free and shows problems developing (HDDhealth).

  24. Mango Wodzak
    September 23, 2011 at 2:32 am

    I'm pretty sure that for most failed harddrives, the data is still recoverable. There are centres around that will recover the data for you at a cost.. (doing exactly what you suggest Lee) here in australia, it'd cost around $1000 I'm told. So EdinJ, I wouldn't throw away the disk. maybe when you can afford it, you could sent it off for recovery..

    I'm wondering whether disks are deliberately not designed to last, as I'm sure that technologically it must be possible to create a disk that'd last a lifetime. Likely the short life of disks is all part of the consumer, money thing.. keep people buying new things.. Sad state really.

    • Tina
      September 23, 2011 at 11:29 am

      Unfortunately, you're right. But it's not a conspiracy. :)

      I think the problem is hardware manufacturers can not afford to put in the amount of development or quality of hardware required to make devices last longer. If they did, the product would be more expensive and the amount of consumers willing to pay that price may be too small. So yes, money is the issue, the margin would be too slim.

      A different model would be to sell the service rather than the hardware. Let hardware manufacturers sell storage space rather than hard drives. They could provide a guarantee of keeping data save. This model would be an incentive for them to manufacture long life hardware.

    • Cicas
      September 26, 2011 at 2:55 pm

      I agree with Tina:) 
      Think about buying 500GB hard drive, which could last for, say, 50 years. But after just 10 years, what will 500GB be? Nothing. You will put this in to your phone as a card. I can imagine someone saying something like "500GB? What is it for? I can put ther just one movie and an year old game! Tsss.." Remember floppy disc? :D

    • Tina
      September 26, 2011 at 8:14 pm

      Good point, Cicas.

  25. Lee
    September 23, 2011 at 1:27 am

    Just thought of this, and I don't really know much about exactly how hard drives work, but if a part of your drive fails, couldn't you take another part from a different hard drive and replace it? Obviously it wouldn't work for the platters but what if it was the read head that failed? Could you replace it with a different read head just to recover the data?

    • dustin
      September 23, 2011 at 8:26 am

      yes, but its a very tedious, and even touchier process. If a read head failed, keep in mind these things hover no more than the height of a piece of paper above the drive platters, it takes the patience of a brain surgeon. outside of mechanical failures, however, one of the biggest killers of hard drives is the circut board. you can usually find a circut board from the exact model drive of another one thats died and replace it, although im not sure of the process behind any of it.

    • Tina
      September 23, 2011 at 11:24 am

      As Dustin said, it is possible and it does requires a lot of skill, precision, and a dust free environment. There are professional data recovery labs that physically recover data by fixing broken parts of the hard drive.

  26. Anonymous
    September 23, 2011 at 12:49 am

    Unfortunately, I have a dead hard drive with hundreds of my two kids baby pictures.  Told myself time and again to back them up, but never did.

    • Tina
      September 23, 2011 at 11:22 am

      Let it sit for a few years. If you can ever afford it, have the data recovered. If you can never afford it, try the drive again sometime.

      A drive I thought was dead suddenly worked when I gave it a 'last chance' two years after is failed. I could rescue all my photos. I totally didn't expect it to come back to life because it sounded horrible when it failed and only made strange sounds afterwards. Now it sounds ok actually still works, some four years after failing. I obviously haven't used it for storing important data.

    • Sony Lindberg
      December 20, 2011 at 3:26 am

      You can change the circuitboard of the hdd with one from a identical HDD (the same size, manufacturer and model).
      And, is the drive external or internal?
      If it's an external drive the IDE/SATA to Usb/firewire circuit might have failed (pretty common). You can try to open the case and install it in your computer, that might just work.

  27. Mango Wodzak
    September 23, 2011 at 12:12 am

    so what's the most reliable form of drive to backup ones data? are there any disks out there that have a lifetime of a decade or more? Will DVDs last longer if kept in a case and unmoved, or will they fail over time too? Are modern 2 and 3 terrabyte drives more reliable than older drives, or do they all have this limitation?

    • dustin
      September 23, 2011 at 8:22 am

      Its a debatable discussion. I don't really worry about the media as much as i do how i backup. For example, my primary os drive is an SSD drive that except for a few files i do not keep backed up. My second drive is a 200 gig storage drive that holds temporary stuff, program files i don't need on my ssd drive, and an acronis image of my primary storage which brings me to my 3rd drive.

      Technically, its two, set up in a raid mirror. I also keep a small external drive i back that up to.

      I think, with any backup solution you will eventually face data degergation in some form after some time - even cheap dvd's, so my advice is, despite whatever media you use, keep multiple backups of your backups if its important. This will minimalize data degergation and the risk of loosing your only backup.

    • Tina
      September 23, 2011 at 11:33 am

      There is no real reliable way of backing data up any one way. The only way is to keep multiple copies, i.e. backups of your data.

      High quality (I think gold based) DVDs have a pretty long lifetime (30 to 50 years?), but in the end they degrade as well. Early CDs from the 80s were said to have a lifetime of about 20 to 30 years. Newer CDs are said to have less than that (10 to 15 years), but generally longer than a hard drive.

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