When a hard drive fails the first question people often ask is can it be fixed? This isn’t a straightforward question to answer as it depends on which component of the hard drive has actually failed. For the most part the answer is no as when a hard drive fails it’s often to a degree that it can’t be repaired. There are, however, some instances where you can raise your hard drive from the dead. Let’s investigate hard drive failures in terms of identifying them, the causes and possible solutions.
Is my hard drive failing? Is there even a problem with it?
First things first, let’s establish whether your hard drive is even faulty. The main reason you would question your hard drive’s integrity would be because you cannot see or access your hard drive, or certain data stored on it. If you hear, see or smell anything out of the ordinary then it’s quite obvious to assume there is a hardware problem. Hearing clicking noises, seeing or not seeing indicator lights that you aren’t used to, smelling smoke, these are all signs that there’s something wrong with your hard drive. Let’s skip these obvious signs and move to the examples where everything seems normal, but your drive or data isn’t available. We will need to break this down into Mac and Windows variants as the test for each is different.
In Mac OS X you can use the Disk Utility to check the basics. Click on the spotlight search icon on the top right of your screen and search for Disk Utility to launch it. When it’s opened up you should expect to see all of your attached disks, similar to this example below where we see a 240GB SSD boot drive, a 2TB and 3TB hard drive along with the SuperDrive. Below each hard drive you should see the data volume with its name, in this example Gigantor and Time Machine.
If you’re not seeing your hard drive on the desktop then there’s a good chance it’s either not showing here at all, or the hard drive is listed yet the volume name is greyed out. This means that the volume is not mounted and you cannot access the data. You can try to verify or repair the disk permissions, but if your hard drive has issues you’ll like get red error messages like in the example below. Whether you can see the volume and you get errors when trying to repair it, or you cannot see the hard drive listed at all, you know you have hard drive problems.
If you’ve come to the conclusion that the hard drive you use with your Mac is faulty, it’s time to determine what’s wrong with it… once we’ve covered the Windows angle of course.
With a Windows computer you have two different methods of checking whether or not your hard drive is accessible. The first is through the BIOS screen when you switch your computer on. BIOS systems have changed a lot over the years and you may or may not be presented with a list of hard drives depending on how your BIOS has been configured. If quick boot is enabled it’s unlikely you’ll have a chance to see what drives are available. If you want to use this method you can also go into the BIOS itself and check which drives are visible. Some typical keys to push on startup to get you into the BIOS are F2, F12 or delete. Here’s an example of what to expect to see, with all of your working hard drives listed.
If a hard drive is visible in the BIOS it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s working correctly. From within Windows you can have a closer look at your hard drives by right-clicking My Computer, selecting Manage and the choosing Disk Management. This will give you a list of storage devices connected to your computer, separating them into devices and storage volumes. Below is an example of Windows Disk Management showing the bootable 500GB C: drive, a secondary 250GB E: drive and empty D: drive optical drive.
If the hard drive in question is missing from that list, or the drive is visible but the partition is showing up as unallocated, there’s a good chance that you’ll need to move onto the next step of this article which investigates determining the fault with the hard drive.
OK, there’s a problem somewhere, what next?
At this point we’ve established that there is indeed a problem with accessing your data, nothing that a simple reboot can fix. Next up is to determine if the fault is on a software or hardware level. What we mean here is determining whether the hard drive itself is still working correctly as a storage device, but the software side of things is at fault. Or the other, more serious, problem of a faulty hard drive itself. Earlier we agreed that if there are obvious physical signs of damage then we need not fiddle further, there’s definitely a problem. What to do if the hard drive seems to be acting normally, though? It’s spinning up, the lights you usually see are flashing happily and you can’t hear any odd noises. Let’s talk about how to distinguish between software and hardware faults.
Let’s assume that your drive is showing up in Disk Utility or Disk Management, but there are no signs of your data or partition. This could mean two things, either that the drive is failing or that the problem is purely software related. If you find that your computer hangs, freezes or performs slowly when dealing with the hard drive in question there’s a good chance that this is more than likely a hardware issue. Let’s look on the bright side and imagine that nothing seems odd other than missing or inaccessible data. In this case you can try any number of free or paid for data recovery software packages. For the Mac platform there is a great application called Prosoft Data Rescue which comes highly recommended. It isn’t free, but nothing good in the technology world is. On the Windows side there are a number of options, but let’s go with something free and suggest Recuva. It’s not as powerful as the paid options, but if it’s a simple dodgy partition this should sort out your problems. If you choose to go this route and start a scan of your drive it’s important to stop your DIY recovery attempt if the process slows down or hangs. Any strange or inconsistent scan behavior is an indication that the drive itself is struggling, and stressing a failing hard drive with a deep scan is only going to make your problems worse.
So you’ve established that this is more than just a corrupted partition or something simple that you can solve with some downloaded data recovery program. Your computer is hanging, the recovery software you tried acts up, whatever it may be you can tell that it’s the hard drive that’s the weak link here. It’s important not to stress a failing drive as it can very easily go from bad to total destruction. We have seen many examples of hard drives coming in to us for data recovery that suffered a fairly routine failure, but were pushed over the limit by endless DIY recovery attempts. If the data on your hard drive is valuable it’s vital that you stop fiddling and book it in with a reputable data recovery company. That aside, there are some tools which allow you to assess your hard drive’s health if it’s still detected by the computer. These tools read the SMART data from the hard drive and report back on it, giving you an idea of what’s going inside. The SMART functionality is a built in health check available on all hard drives. On the Mac side there is DriveDX which will give you a full report on your hard drive health. Disk Utility also gives you a very basic yes or no report, but it’s not particularly useful. For the Windows users, the top pick is Hard Disk Sentinel which offers a great looking interface, giving you basic information at a glance, with more detailed reports and tests available if you drill down into the functionality. Here’s a quick glimpse into what Hard Disk Sentinel offers you.
If your hard drive’s health is anything other than 100% you can be sure that it’s either a ticking time bomb, or one that’s already exploded. Unfortunately, when a hard drive starts to fail, even in the smallest way, it’s an ongoing cycle of degradation and usually not long until it fails completely. If this is the case with your hard drive and you’ve now determined that there is indeed a hardware failure, it’s time to decide on your next course of action.
Hard drive repair or data recovery?
Let’s cut to the chase and answer this question quickly. There is only one hard drive component failure that is repairable in a way that it will allow the hard drive to be used again reliably, and that is failure of the PCB (printed circuit board). If you’re interested in a comprehensive explanation of how a hard drive works, have a read through our other article which details what happens inside a hard drive. PCB failures are either due to wear-and-tear or, more often, voltage spikes. The latter happens when someone plugs the wrong power adapter into an external hard drive (think 19 volt laptop charger into 12 volt external hard drive) or as a result of a power surge or lightening strike. Either way, the result is usually the same. The hard drive presents itself as completely dead and will not even spin up. Usually, the damage is limited to the PCB itself whilst the rest of the hard drive components are left undamaged. In the good old days you could simply source a matching hard drive, swap the PCB over and, like magic, your hard drive would fire up again as if nothing happened. Things have changed though, and current hard drives are designed differently. Each PCB is programmed to work with the particular hard drive it was manufactured with, as it contains information unique to that particular drive. Different manufacturers handle this slightly differently, but the end result is the same. No longer can you merely find a matching PCB and install it on your failed drive, it won’t work. That unique information needs to be extracted from the faulty PCB and written to a new replacement, otherwise you’re out of luck. Once again, certain hard drive manufacturers approach this differently and extracting this unique PCB data may be straightforward on failed PCB X and a nightmare on PCB Y. At the end of the day, PCB replacement is possible and, if this was the only damaged component, you can carry on using your hard drive reliably once a new PCB has been programmed for it. Only if your hard drive is completely dead is it likely to be a PCB problem. If the drive does anything at all when you apply power to it, the PCB is 99.9% not the problem.
Data recovery it is then!
Unless you’re one of the lucky ones and you’re able to repair your hard drive as above, you’ll need to think about data recovery if you need or want your data back. There are two ways you can go, the DIY route or the professional route. We’ve seen numerous cases where a client has botched a DIY recovery and taken the drive from a recoverable state to total destruction in seconds. Don’t believe us? Here’s just one example of DIY data recovery gone wrong. You only get one chance, so if you value your data rather find a data recovery specialist instead of asking your local IT guy to have a go. There are so many examples of bad advice on the internet which we suggest you steer well clear of. Some people suggest putting the hard drive in the freezer, others recommend you knock it on the side of a table. Scary, horror story stuff.
If you decide that professional data recovery is more in line with your needs, we salute you. It’s important to find a reputable and well-reviewed data recovery company as there are some sharks out there. Google and Facebook reviews give a good indication of the service to expect, so it’s best to base your choice on other people’s experiences. For example, we have a very long list of positive customer reviews which gives potential clients an idea of what to expect. Once you’ve selected your preferred data recovery service provider you should expect to receive a free quote and assessment from them. Once the drive has been assessed you’ll be able to get an idea of what type of failure your drive has experienced, what the chances of recovering the data are, along with pricing and time frames. Typical hard drive failures include:
- Bad sectors. These develop over time or as a result of the drive being dropped or knocked. A large number of recoveries we do are as a result of bad sectors, it’s a fairly straight-forward recovery process.
- Firmware problems. Hard drives run a mini operating system which allows them to turn your storage commands into physical magnetic changes. The firmware hosts common modules such as a translator which tells the hard drive where each sector is relative to the heads and platters, a G list which stores the growing list of reallocated bad sectors, and many, many more. These firmware issues can be addressed with specialised hardware data recovery tools.
- Faulty read/write heads. Tiny read and write heads fly nanometers above the platter surfaces, reading and writing your data. They can fail for no apparent reason, or as the result of the hard drive being dropped. If the head has failed catastrophically it will no longer fly over the platter, but instead dig into it and destroy your data, like this example of a dropped hard drive. Faulty heads usually present themselves audibly as you’ll often hear the ‘click of death’, a repetitive clicking noise when you power up your hard drive. If you have dropped your hard drive or hear any clicking noises, power it off straight away as each and every time it’s powered on the faulty heads will cause further damage. Hard drive recovery from this failure requires extensive lab work, removing the faulty head assembly and installing a donor set in order to recover the data.
- Stiction. A strange word, but quite descriptive. Stiction happens when the heads don’t get to park on the parking ramp before the drive is powered off. Instead of parking correctly, they stick to the platters and render your hard drive useless. This problem can arise if you eject your hard drive whilst it’s still busy reading or writing data. Recovery from stiction also requires lab work, and sometimes donor heads if the originals are damaged.
There you have it, a guide to help you determine if you have a hard drive problem and, if you do, how to handle it. If you’re in need of a hard drive recovery get in contact with us and we’ll be sure to assist you in recovering your valuable data. If your hard drive ends up in our lab as pictured below, we’ll be sure to treat it like our own.