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Symptoms of Hard Disk Failure and How to Implement Data Security

Updated on June 21, 2016
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Alfred is a long time teacher and computer enthusiast who works with and troubleshoots a wide range of computing devices.

This article looks into the symptoms of disk drive failure and data security strategies at home. It covers the following subtopics:

  • The mechanical disk drive
  • Life expectancy of disk drive
  • Signs of disk failure
  • How to implement data security

Inside the mechanical hard disk drive
Inside the mechanical hard disk drive

The Mechanical Hard Disk Drive

For those that don’t know, the precious data in your computer is stored in secondary storage devices i.e. disk drives, external disk drives, optical discs and SD cards.

The data in these storage devices will not last forever because every single one of the devices is designed to die one day. You do not want them to take their final rest with your data.

For example, the hard disk drive, which is still the most popular internal storage device, is mechanical by design.

A hard disk drive is made up of moving mechanical components like motor, platters and read/write heads which rotate at extremely high speeds. Every one of these components is prone to failure of some kind if one of the other stops functioning or operates erroneously.

Gradual wear and external forces like sudden power outages, extreme heat, wear of magnetic coating and excessive vibration due to drops can bring the mechanical operation of a hard disk to a sudden failure.

Life Expectancy of the Disk Drive

Like I mentioned earlier, various mechanical reasons can make the drive to stop functioning. This failure can happen anytime between one day to ten years of active service!

Ten years is no guarantee, but I have seen a few disk drives last that long, and they are still operational. I have also seen an external disk drive under warranty die in less than a week, in the process dying with lots of data in it.

According to Backblaze research on disk drive lifespan, a typical disk drive should last about six years. The site goes ahead to explain how the expectancy rate of hard drive deteriorates over time.

Rule of thumb is:

  • never trust the hard disk drive
  • watch out for telltale signs of failure
  • backup your data regularly

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Above is the IDE and SATA hard disks  for desktop and  for laptop computers
Above is the IDE and SATA hard disks for desktop and for laptop computers

Signs Of Disk Drive Failure

While mechanical activity takes place in the disk drive, you will have to depend on a few signs to read into its impending failure.I have listed three of them here:

  • The disk drive may show up or never in the CMOS setup when you next switch on your computer. Equally true is that the operating system may load or not at different times because of this anomaly. If it is an external disk drive, it may show up My Computer window or not. This anomaly could be blamed on a faulty data cable that connects the disk drive to the computer motherboard. Try swapping cables before jumping to conclusions.
  • The computer may slow down over time. A computer that booted up in 10 seconds a year ago could now take 2 minutes to boot up. Of course don’t rule out the effects of corrupted Windows files and viruses. Bad data cable and system configuration may as well lead to sluggish computer operation.
  • Sudden clicking sounds within the disk drive that has been quiet can be another sign of trouble. The noises usually stem from a faulty read/write head which is continuously loading and unloading, or failed read/write actuator becomes erratic.

Hard Disk Sentinel to the rescue

Just to be sure that the above symptoms are indicative of a failing disk drive, install a disk drive tool to check its SMART status.

Besides, most computers have SMART utility installed and configured in the CMOS setup. Ensure it this feature is working and active.

For concrete assessment though, third party software tools can do the job pretty well. One tool that I recommend is called Hard Disk Sentinel and you will be surprised how useful it is.

One tool that I highly recommend is Hard Disk Sentinel and you will be surprised how useful it is. Hard Disk Sentinel is designed to monitor health and temperature of the hard disk drive, with the health being measured in percentage.

You will be warned when the health gets too low and estimated number of days the hard will continue functioning if its in dire state.

Hard Disk Sentinel at work: The external disk drive in this example work perfectly well but the tool warns of impending failure, and the need to backup data immediately
Hard Disk Sentinel at work: The external disk drive in this example work perfectly well but the tool warns of impending failure, and the need to backup data immediately

Most of these tools will indicate failure related to performance and health and may forewarn you about a disk drive that is seemingly fine but actually nearing its death. Hard Disk Sentinel is one such tool.

Aside from verifying performance and health, this tool will show estimated power on time, and if the hard disk is in poor shape, how many probable days it still possesses.

Do not take the latter reading as gospel truth though. Any sign of impeding death should be addressed immediately by backing up data elsewhere and replacing the disk drive.

Data Security At Home

The old adage prevention is better than cure still makes sense even in the age of computing. A few preemptive measures listed below can help steer your precious data away from trouble.

  • Install disk drive utilities

Start by installing a good software tool to help monitor the performance and health status of your disk drives. Ensure these disk tools are running even when you connect your external drives. Above I have mentioned Hrad Disk Sentinel, which is pretty good at its job.

  • Do not expose your disk drives to shock treatment

> For example, don’t manually switch off the computer by pressing the power button. Many users resort to this method when the computer takes long to respond. Forced shutdown of the computer equally shuts down the disk drive forcibly.

Of note is that mechanical disk drives operate by magnetism. Magnetic forces depend on electricity to hold up the read/write heads and these will crash-land on the platters every time there is a forced shut down! This will create read/write errors and damage to the platters.

> Don’t drop your disk drive: Just like it is improper to drop your laptop so is improper to drop your hard disk drive. A forced drop will cause considerable shake-up of components inside the disk and any misalignment may lead to immediate failure or start up a gradual one.

  • Save data onto several external disk drives

An external disk drive is a safer bet for your data in that it is not part of the marathon activity the internal disk drive goes through.

This means that the wear and heat that affects internal disks are minimal in external drives.

But again, external disks are vulnerable to theft, misplacement and drops of death. You are safer with more than one external drive devices, or take advantage of other storage devices and services.

A hard disk drive (left) and solid state drive (right) side by side
A hard disk drive (left) and solid state drive (right) side by side | Source
  • Upgrade to Solid State Drive

A solid state drive operates unlike the hard disk drive because it is not mechanical and does not use disks.

A solid state drive is made up of integrated circuit (IC) chips just like RAM sticks, but unlike RAM chips which are volatile, SSD IC assemblies are non-volatile. They are capable of retaining data in the event of power shutdown.

  • Save your data to the cloud

Saving your data with cloud storage services is perhaps the most secure solution. It is designed to ensure unequaled data integrity.

A cloud service is online storage solution that makes use of arrays of servers to store data in a kind of logical pool. This kind of service is run by hosting companies who implement secure data centers strewn around the world, and can offer as much data storage.


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    • thranax profile image

      Andrew 2 years ago from Rep Boston MA

      Very great guide on how to keep your Harddrive safe! Many people just think they are solid metal boxes immune to everything. What they really should be looked at as is a gentle flower.

      Thanks for the hub!


    • amuno profile image

      Alfred Amuno 2 years ago from Kampala

      Very right thranax about the gentle flower. We take disk drives for granted and how sad we get when data is gone.

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