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How to Find Out If Your Hard Drive Is Dying and What to Do About It

Guilherme Radaeli is a lawyer, writer and blogger born in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. Part-time techie and overall mad lad.

Your hard drive is designed to give you clues when its close to failing.

Your hard drive is designed to give you clues when its close to failing.

Nowadays, pretty much everyone works or uses a computer. Be it a desktop or a laptop computer, your info is always stored in a key piece of hardware called a hard drive. This consists of several stacked circular plates that stores info using magnetism, usually made out of a glass or aluminum and ceramic substrate.

Hard drives are one of the computer components that have advanced the most lately, though not due to change in its composition by itself. Hard drive capacity has increased exponentially over the last few decades due to several improvements in information storage techniques, which greatly increased the density of the information that can be stored in hard drives. However, since the hardware itself hasn't changed that much, it still suffers from the rather short lifespan of magnetic storage devices.

One fifth of hard drives fail before the 4 year mark

One fifth of hard drives fail before the 4 year mark

Lifespan of a Hard Drive

Most hard drives have an average lifespan of four years. This does not exactly mean that your data will disappear after exactly four years. It just means that after roughly four years, hard drives start accumulating failures. The disks start suffering from the constant wear and tear of spinning around, getting damaged sectors (bits of the disk which become unreadable, corrupting the info contained therein), which usually signals that it's time to get a new storage device.

There are also several factors which affect a hard drive's lifespan. There may be a factory born issue that causes your hard drive to die much earlier then it should, in which case you should contact your supplier, since warranties usually cover for those kind of failures.

A chart by Backblaze using info collected from several hard drives monitored online through a period of 4 years

A chart by Backblaze using info collected from several hard drives monitored online through a period of 4 years

There is also always a chance of random failure throughout a hard drive's entire lifespan, which is usually caused by a software issue, which can be born out of human error, malware infection and corrupted files. This can cause crashes such as the dreaded "blue screen of death". As your hard drive gets older, though, the risk of failure starts to increase exponentially due to the accumulation of wear and tear caused by the constant spinning of components, heat, etc.

This creates a headache, though. Everyone stores important info on their hard drives, so does that mean you need to be constantly thinking about and monitoring your hard drive in order to avoid the risk of it catastrophically failing and sending your precious data into oblivion?

Not exactly. You see, your hard drive is designed to give you clear clues about its impending death, usually months before it actually fails. The key is understanding these warnings so you can be prepared to backup all that precious info.

But Do I Know If My Hard Drive Is Dying?

There are several ways to find out if your hard drive is close to impending failure. Your hard drive will give you several visual (through software) and audible cues, such as when it's trying to read a damaged sector or its internal failure prevention system kicks in to warn you.

Read on to find out five clues that your hard drive is going to die.

A representative picture showing bad sectors on a hard drive (in red)

A representative picture showing bad sectors on a hard drive (in red)

A quick example of how to check for and attempt to repair bad sectors in Windows 7

A quick example of how to check for and attempt to repair bad sectors in Windows 7

1. Bad Sectors

Bad sectors are essentially parts of the hard drive's surface which have become unable to maintain data. These are usually one of the more hard to uncover signs of your hard drive failing since they don't bother you much due to the fact that operating systems are designed to automatically mask them to not interrupt its operation.

You can (and likely will) eventually run into bad sectors. They can cause stuff like crashes and prevent your operating system scheduling an automatic verification using scandisk (on Windows) on the next time you boot your computer up. If this is happening with some frequency, then it's time to consider replacing your hard drive. You can also detect bad sectors using hard drive analysis software, of which there are plenty out there, such as DiskCheckup. Data defragmentation can also detect bad sectors.

However, all is not lost. Bad sectors can sometimes be fixed by tools such as the ones that come with Windows 7/8/10 following these steps:

  1. Go to Start -> Computer.
  2. Right click on the disk partition (a single drive can have multiple partitions) you want to check and select Properties and switch to the Tools tab.
  3. Click on the Check now... option, this will open another window.
  4. On that window, checkmark the Automatically fix file system errors and Scan for an attempt recovery of bad sectors option boxes, then click start.

Now Windows will check for bad sectors and attempt to repair it. However, sometimes these cannot be repaired, meaning they will remain defective forever. If this is happening to many sectors, then it's time to buy another hard drive.

You can also perform these steps using the command prompt, as seen below.

2. The Click of Death

There are times in which not even specialized software will be able to detect bad sectors even though your hard drive will behave oddly, making strange sounds, like a specific and repetitive clicking sound. You can usually only detect this sound by placing your ear directly over the location of the hard drive, but it's usually loud enough that an attentive user can detect it in a silent environment.

This is the infamous "click of death".

The click is caused by the hard drive's reader head trying to write data on the disk, failing, then recovering from said failure by switching to another sector, causing the characteristic "click" sound. If this is happening in the way demonstrated on the video, then it;s usually too late. Some data may be already lost.

If this is happening to you, consider backing up all data you can immediately.

Other sounds, such as screeching or and grinding sounds, can mean that one of the platters or other components, like the motor that spins the plates, are starting to fail, which can cause catastrophic failure of the whole hardware.

Corrupted files can mean a lot of things, including impending hard drive failure

Corrupted files can mean a lot of things, including impending hard drive failure

3. Mysteriously Corrupted Files

A whole lot of things can cause corrupted files, such as malware infection, problems that happened when the file got saved, closing your operating system or shutting down your computer incorrectly.

However, if the file saved normally, without giving any error messages, worked perfectly before, and you have checked you computer for viruses using a good antivirus software, and it still got corrupted, it may be a sign that your hard drive already accumulated a lot of serious damage. This means your files are already endangered. There isn't much you can do at this point other then trying to save whatever data you can salvage.

Of course, this can be caused by multiple different things, so if you suspect hard drive problems, always perform a disk check (while also listening to the sounds your hard drive makes). The best advice in any situation is, when in doubt, create a backup.

Example of an older S.M.A.R.T data bad prompt

Example of an older S.M.A.R.T data bad prompt

4. S.M.A.R.T Data

S.M.A.R.T is a cute little acronym that means Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology, which is a utility used by pretty much any hard drive nowadays to monitor the hard drive's health in a general sense.

It's essentially an early warning system, reporting any potential problems before data becomes corrupted and/or the drive becomes unusable. A "SMART data BAD" error is given usually when the hard drive is about to fail, meaning you should immediately backup all data you can.

This doesn't necessarily mean your hard drive is going to fail the next time you boot you computer, in the next weeks, or even in the coming months. However, it does mean that it has a significant chance to happen in the near future, and when it happens, you won't get a chance to save any data, so SMART warns you in advance so you can do it now.

The warning, in modern computers, is usually given with a message that shows up right when your OS starts, instructing you to backup your data before failure happens. It will periodically warn you of this, and some users, annoyed with the message, turn it off using a checkbox that comes with the message and end up forgetting about the warning, passing it off a false positive as the hard drive keeps working fine in the next few months.

I advise against this practice, as 95% of the time, SMART warnings are NOT false positives and are to be taken seriously. If you're in doubt, use third party SMART monitoring tools. such as Data Lifeguard Diagnostic.

SMART error messages are usually accompanied by automatically scheduled disk checkups done at startup before your operating system boots up, so if this happens to you, keep an eye out for those error messages.

After a SMART warning is given, it's inevitable that your hard drive will fail. You can't save it in any way, so get to creating that backup while you can!


5. Other Problems

Various problems, like slowdowns, "blue screen of death", and random crashes, can have multiple different causes. A failing hard drive can be one of them. In order to rule out other possibilities, follow these steps:

  1. Make sure your computer is not infected with malware. If you do not have a good anti virus program, usually a full scan with an updated Windows Defender (if you use Windows) can get the job done.
  2. Clean your system's registry, as multiple corrupted entries can sometimes cause crashes. CCleaner is an excellent tool for this.
  3. Close any suspicious processes using task manager. A good way of making sure malicious tasks don't cause trouble is using msconfig to stop non-Windows services and tasks from running at startup (again, if you're using Windows).
  4. If you're getting a blue screen of death, see what it is trying to tell you. Contact a technician if you can't understand it.

If you computer is still slow, try checking if the computer's cooling fan is working properly, and if any components are overheating. If you're still getting any of these issues, then there's a decent chance your hard drive may be failing and needs to be replaced as soon as possible, as it is usually about to die.

Author's Comments

Now, I know you're probably disappointed, since except for doing a disk checkup to maybe fix damaged sectors, there isn't much you can do other then create a backup and replacing your hard drive, but that is just the reality of things. Do not believe any software you find on the internet that claims it can magically fix a hard drive that is already giving out S.M.A.R.T warnings; none will actually fix your hard drive.

Trying to use a software to try to save a hard drive from imminent failure is kind of like giving chicken soup to someone with cancer in its terminal stage. It may help a little bit, but it may only delay the inevitable at best.

Worst case scenario, said software can put your hard drive under more stress and it may just be the straw the breaks the camel's back, so whatever you do, always try to backup your data first. This article is meant to be informative, but nothing compares to assistance provided by a professional technician, so contact one if you can!

Reader's Poll

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Comment section

Happy on October 27, 2018:

Helped me out. Thanks

Seel71 on February 19, 2017:

Regarding the infamous click of death, which is definitely as bad sign. There is a way to recover data by yourself, called a live pcb swap...Worth mentionning as it can save quite some money for user out there. Here is the full process with pictures and explanation. Hope this helps:

ant on October 25, 2016:

i had a 320G back then and tiny ants found a way through the connectors and into the platter. no sweets near the drive then

Tomhackth on September 21, 2016:

When you get to know about your hard drive bad health or it is about to die, then first take the backup of your precious data. Once hard drive got damaged, then data recovery from that drive becomes a very difficult task, only a professional data recovery tool ( ) can help you out in this situation.