What's more boring than an old hard drive? Not much ... until it suddenly isn't. When that little package of chips, wires and glass dies, it can be panic time.
It often happens with little or no warning, and if you haven't recently performed a backup, your files, music and pictures could be toast. Sometimes there are clear warning signs of impending failure. If you know what those signs are, and keep any eye out for them, you can usually avoid data Armageddon. (Datageddon?)
The drives most prone to failure are the older, electro-mechanical devices that store data on a rapidly spinning disk. Modern solid state drives (SSDs) fail as well, but it happens less frequently.
How to tell your hard drive is about to die
I recently chatted with David Zimmerman, CEO of data recovery firm LC Technology International, who makes a living rescuing panicked computer users. Here are some common warning signs of a conventional hard drive's impending failure, from Zimmerman.
- Frequent and cryptic error messages while performing typical activities like moving files
- Folder and file names that are scrambled and changed
- Disappearing files and folders
- Really long wait times to access folders and files
- Hard disk is silent for a long period after you request data by opening a file or folder
- Garbled output from open files or printing
- Hard drive grinds away constantly because of noisy bearings
- Frequent crashes, particularly when booting up Windows
"Sound can be an excellent indicator of disk trouble," Zimmerman says. "If you previously didn't hear a peep from your hard drive but now you do, check it. If it seems much louder than usual or makes occasional clicks or grinding sounds, check it ASAP and be prepared to backup your data and replace the drive. It's almost never too late to backup."
If the problem is severe, and you're comfortable with electronics, you can remove the drive, buy an enclosure, and then plug it into a working computer. This lets you pull data off the drive without having to boot it up. Some laptops are more difficult than others to work on, so it can be a good idea to visit a repair shop and have the techies there install the enclosure.
If you can't access the data at all, you still have a few options. Zimmerman's company, and others like it, sell data recovery software that could help. Some of their products will boot machines when their hard drives can't. These types of companies also perform data recovery services, and they can sometimes rescue data from seemingly dead drives. But it's not cheap; data recovery costs anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on the problem.
If you find yourself paying thousand of dollars to recover data, you're not going to be pleased, to say the least. So the biggest lesson here might be to back up regularly to avoid costly data recovery.