Diagnosing Hard Drive Failure

All hard drives fail

Hard drives, like most things, have a lifespan, and like many things, you may not be able to know when a hard drive is about to fail. This is why it is imperative to keep your data backed up. Even though a hard drive life expectancy can vary greatly, there are generally two points in time when a hard drive will fail.

In the beginning

Hard disk failures occur within a short period after installation if there has been a defect in manufacturing. This is usually a catastrophic failure in which the device is not instantly recognised by the computer.

Other types of mechanical failures, such as bearing issues or the dreaded ‘head crash’ are a risk with early failures. While many of these issues have been reduced by strict quality control and testing methods, from time to time a large number of users may experience manufacturing defect issues.

At the death

The most common type of hard disk failure happens when the hard disk drive is nearing its end of life, usually after 3-4 years of usage.

When a hard disk drive gradually starts to fail, you will notice intermittent errors or failures that may appear to be due to programs or the operating system software. The frequency of the failures is a clue that a hard disk drive failure is imminent.

Failing hard disk symptoms

A failing hard disk may start to exhibit these symptoms. The quicker you respond to the symptoms and protect your data the less likely you are to go through a data loss incident.


Possible cause

Data protection steps

Computer crashes frequently or when under heavy use.

  • CPU overheating; memory overheating; bad areas on hard disk drive that is being continuously accessed.
  • Immediately backup your data.
  • Check the computer’s ventilation areas for dust build up.
  • Perform a computer diagnostic.
  • Perform a memory diagnostic.
  • Perform a hard disk diagnostic.

Computer startup takes an excessively long time.

  • Depending on where the delay is happening, this may be due to the start of a hardware failure or a hard drive failure.
  • Additionally, there may be weak or failing areas on the hard drive and this is preventing the system from starting up.
  • Immediately backup your data by putting hard disk drive into a USB external drive enclosure and attaching it to a working computer system.
  • Check the computer’s ventilation areas for dust build up.
  • Perform a computer diagnostic.

Data files are missing.

  • Deleted files due to a virus.
  • Possible file system corruption, but original data is present.
  • Possible weak or failing areas on the hard disk drive.
  • Immediately backup your data.
  • Call Kroll Ontrack or a reputable data recovery service.

File explorer takes a long time to display the contents of a folder.

  • Possible file system corruption, but original data is present.
  • Possible weak or failing areas on the hard disk drive.
  • Call Kroll Ontrack or a reputable data recovery service.

Hard disk drive diagnostic shows many SMART errors.

  • Hard disk drives have self-monitoring technology (SMART) to give an advanced notice of failure.
  • Immediately backup your data.
  • Replace hard disk drive.
  • Copy data to new hard disk drive. This will require the use of hard disk imager software.

Important! Contact Kroll Ontrack as soon as possible if you have experienced a storage media failure. Attempts to extract the data without professional data recovery services may lead to irretrievable data.

Is my hard drive operational?

You may be able to diagnose whether the hard disk drive is operating properly by making the following observations.

During the startup phase of a computer, the hard disk drive may be listed as it becomes identified.  This is one way of determining operation. In some more modern systems, however, the hard disk drive may not be listed. Therefore, the only way to identify it would be to go into the computer BIOS setup and find the serial number or hard drive model. If the hard drive is not listed in the BIOS, then the hard drive may be faulty.

Mechanical hard disk drives operate with spinning platters. Depending upon where the hard disk drive is located within the computer, it may be possible to hear the hard disk drive start up. It must be acknowledged that most of today's high-performance computers have multiple fans inside that may make an audible test impossible.

If you notice any loud mechanical noises from the computer and it will not start, it is a strong indication that the hard disk drive has failed. In a case like this, cease all diagnostics and contact Kroll Ontrack directly.


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