Every 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, it is almost certain that it is due to bad hardware, and possibly a 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.
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.
Windows will also check for bad sectors, when you perform a full format or chkdsk command.
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 our article on tools to predict and prevent 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.
For more information how to back up data, read my PDF manual Stuff Happens: The Backup & Restore Guide.
Don’t Let Your Hard Drive Fail!
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.
If it’s too late, here’s how to diagnose and fix a dead hard drive to recover data.