Like every piece of hardware, hard drives can fail. Mechanical hard drives in particular have moving parts that can (and eventually will) stop working. Even solid-state drives, which have no moving parts, can fail. Every drive has a limited lifespan before it kicks the bucket.
This is why you should always have a good backup—one day, your hard drive will fail, and you may not be able to predict it. But if your drive is acting a little wonky, you may be able to catch it before it dies completely.
How to Tell a Drive is Failing or Has Failed
There are several different types of drive failure. There’s the obvious one, where your drive stops working entirely. Perhaps your computer doesn’t even recognize it when it starts up and you see a message saying your PC has no hard drive, or perhaps your computer begins booting and just can’t get through the boot process.
There are also more subtle drive failures, where the drive appears to be working…but there are problems. Your PC may occasionally freeze, you may hear unusual sounds from the drive, you may experience data corruption, or your computer may detect bad sectors on the drive.
Any sort of clicking noise from a mechanical drive is a bad sign. This indicates the head, which reads and writes the data from the platters on the drive, has failed. It’s best to shut down the drive completely to avoid further damage and use a professional data recovery service if you need your data back. You won’t hear any strange noises from a solid-state drive, as they have no moving parts.
Do a S.M.A.R.T. Check
If you’re concerned your hard drive might be failing, you can check its SMART status. SMART stands for “Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology”, and there’s technology inside your hard drive that attempts to identify whether it’s failing and tell you.
There are some big caveats here. First of all, SMART doesn’t always work perfectly. Even if a hard drive is failing, it may still report an okay SMART status. And, even if a hard drive is about to fail, it may not give you a SMART warning before it stops working entirely.
If you want to check SMART status, you can do so with a third-party tool like CrystalDiskInfo. A bad health status is a clear sign your drive is actually failing. Of course, this assumes you can actually boot into Windows in the first place. If your drive is so far gone that you can’t, you won’t be able to see SMART status in this way. However, you may be able to see the drive’s SMART status in your computer’s BIOS or UEFI firmware settings screen. If your computer displays a S.M.A.R.T. error message when it boots, that’s a clear sign your hard drive is dying, too.
How to Get Your Data Off a Failing Drive
So you’ve done some troubleshooting and you’re sure the drive is failing. If the drive is in the process of failing but hasn’t failed completely yet, you’ll want to get any important data you haven’t backed up off it immediately. You may need to, as we mentioned above, boot to a Windows installer disc or live Linux system and attempt to transfer just the important files off your drive. This may allow you to recover some files even if your system can’t boot its operating system and run it from the drive without crashing.
You can also try pulling the hard drive and connecting it to another computer. If the drive has partially failed, you may be able to copy a few important files off it. You may also be able to use a tool like Piriform’s Recuva, which promises “recovery from damaged disks”. This won’t work if the drive is truly lost beyond repair, though.
Bear in mind that, if the drive is failing, having the drive powered on may cause it to fail faster or become increasingly damaged. If you have truly critical data you’re willing to spend a good amount of money to recover, it’s probably best to stop running the drive and take it to a professional data recovery service.
Recover Your Data With Professional Data Recovery Service
Even if you can’t get your data off the drive, there may still be a way to recover it.
Hopefully, you’ll never need a data recovery service. If you have good, up-to-date backups, a dead hard drive is an easy problem to get over. Just get a new hard drive for your PC, reinstall your Windows operating system, and restore your data from the backup. You’ll be up and running in a matter of hours.
If you don’t have up-to-date backups, things get a lot tougher. Professional data recovery services do exist, and they will actually open the drive in a clean room environment, replace the head inside the drive, and attempt to get your data off the magnetic platters with the new head.
As you can imagine, these services are very pricey, and there’s no guarantee you’ll actually get your data back. But, if you have important business data or something irreplaceable that you can’t get off your drive, they’re your only option. You can also turn to these services to recover data you deleted.
There’s no way to prevent drives from dying. The best thing you can do is to create regular backups, so you can recover your important data from elsewhere if a drive ever fails on you.