Everyday Tips from the ComputerMom: Hard Drive Health

A hard drive failure can cause you to lose your precious data. Learn to recognize the signs of impending failure and how to keep your data safe.


In my 15+ years as ComputerMom I have seen my share of both software and hardware problems.  Without question, the most common hardware problem I see is a failing hard drive.  A hard drive failure can cause you to lose all of your precious data, but you will usually get lots of warning that something is amiss.  It’s important to recognize the signs of impending failure and what to do to keep your data safe.

Laptops, being portable, are more likely to suffer from a failed hard drive than desktops, although I see them on both.  Macs are as likely to have a hard drive failure as PC’s – the hard drives installed in all computers are component parts manufactured by just a few companies such as Western Digital and Seagate.  Hard drives can and do fail on new computers – if you think you have a problem on a new computer get it checked out right away, don’t wait until you are no longer covered by a warranty!

What is a hard drive and why does it fail?

The hard drive is the main storage device on your computer, where both your operating system software and your personal data, such as pictures, music, and documents, are stored.  It’s the part of your computer most likely to fail simply because it’s one of the most mechanical components and it’s in constant use.

A hard drive looks like a rectangular metal box, roughly the size of a deck of cards (for a laptop) or a paperback book (for a desktop), mounted inside the main case of your computer.  You can envision it as a sealed record player, with spinning disks and a stylus that reads and writes information.  Just like on a record player, if the disk gets damaged it will skip.  A tiny speck of dust slipping through the seal, an improper shutdown, rough handling  – all of these things can create a small flaw in the platter, which in time will grow larger and eventually cause the drive to completely stop working.  Additionally, like anything mechanical, moving parts wear out.  Up to 60% of hard drive failures don’t have any obvious triggers – it’s just time for the part to fail.

What are the symptoms of a sick hard drive?

Fortunately, most hard drives take a while to completely fail, often showing some easily recognized symptoms.   Like a flickering light bulb, there is generally a period of time when the drive will be balky and inconsistent, prior to an actual catastrophic failure.  Some symptoms to look for are:

  • Clicking or grinding noises while running
  • Files that mysteriously disappear
  • Programs that will no longer run, or run sporadically
  • Locking up during start-up
  • Frequent Blue Screens of Death
  • A freezing computer that doesn’t recover until you turn the system off and on again
  • Very slow standard file processes like saving and opening, even for small files


What should I do if I have any of these symptoms?

First of all, you need to make sure you have backed up all of your important files.   You should always maintain some sort of backup system even if you are not experiencing any symptoms – computers can and do fail without any warning at all! Backup is a very involved topic, one which I plan to cover in another column.  However, at a minimum you should purchase some type of external drive and copy your most important data to that. 

The next thing you should do is run some sort of diagnostic test.  Most computers come with built in diagnostics that will check for hard drive failure.  If you cannot find diagnostics software on your computer there are third party tools that will work as well. 

What if the diagnostics show a failing hard drive?

Fortunately, a hard drive is usually a reasonably easy component to replace, and generally worth it unless the system is very old.   A replacement drive will cost between $50.00 and $100.00, depending on the capacity and speed of the drive, plus the labor to install it and get your system up and running again.  A computer repair technician like me will remove the failing drive and replace it with a new one.  If your old drive is still in reasonable shape, it can often be “cloned” – the entire drive contents will be copied to the new drive intact. This is the best possible case, because if your drive can be cloned you should get your computer back exactly the same as before you had any issues, except, of course, it will no longer show the symptoms of a failing drive. 

If your drive is too sick to clone, you should expect to get your system back looking very much like when you originally purchased it.  A good technician will ensure that Windows is properly installed and updated and that you have an up-to-date antivirus program installed.  If you have a current backup that can be restored you can ask the technician to do that.  In my case, I can often recover your data and settings from your failed drive even if it is too sick to clone, so all is not lost even if you never made a backup.  Once you have your system in hand you will have to install additional items such as printers and software added after you purchased the computer.

A computer is just like any other piece of machinery you own – physical parts can and will fail, and they can and should be replaced.  Since a hard drive failure is an inconvenience at best, and a real tragedy at worst, it’s important to be attuned to the signs of impending failure so you can get things fixed before it goes too far!


Julie Marto, the ComputerMom, has been providing friendly and personal technical support and training in Medfield and neighboring communities for over 16 years. For more information visit http://www.thecomputermom.com/ or like her on Facebook 

To read more blog posts from the ComputerMom click here.

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