Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Hard Drive Failure, Warnings and Solutions

Sooner or later, all hard drives crash. It is only a matter of when. When it happens, the degree of sweat and tears you experience is directly related to how prepared you were for it to begin with. Backing up your data is important. I even have two computers which are set up almost identically so that if the drive on one of my machines dies, I don’t lose any work time or data. Preparation is the best medicine, but this stuff happens anyway.

-: Warning Signs :-

In some cases, you start to see signs of a problem before the drive up and dies on you. Early warning signs include:
  1. Computer freezes often. When it happens, the mouse cursor is unmovable and keyboard input is ignored. Nothing works and a restart is required to recover the computer.
  2. Files Mysterious disappearing.
  3. Frequent lock-up during booting. I say “frequent” because all computers will freeze every now and then and it doesn’t necessarily mean the drive is failing. You’re looking for a pattern here.
  4. File access mysteriously slows to a turtle’s pace. Saving files or open files simply takes forever.
These are typical warning signs of a pending drive failure. When you start to see a noticeable increase in these patterns, backing up your data needs to take top priority. Otherwise you really are playing Russian roulette with your hard drive.

-: Signs of Real Failure :-

When the drive actually fails, it is a mechanical failure. Many times you will actually hear the drive making strange metallic noises. This is the read/write head thrashing around aimlessly and indicates failure. When your system has a crashed hard drive, it will not be able to boot. You may even get a blue screen of death.
Hard drive failure is a black and white thing. If the drive is working at all, you have a drive which is about to fail and is exhibiting the above warning signs in varying degrees. Once actual failure occurs, it just doesn’t work.

-: Diagnostics :-

The first thing to do is run through some inspection of the computer to see if this is indeed a drive failure. Here is a basic checklist. Now, if the PC was working fine and then just stopped working, chances are these items are not the case.
  1. Check to ensure the power cable is properly connected to the drive.
  2. Check to be sure the data cable is properly connected to the drive.
  3. If it is an IDE drive, ensure the ribbon cable is aligned properly. Red edge of the cable is aligned with Pin 1 of the connector on the drive. Pin 1 is closest to the power plug, typically.
  4. Master/slave assignment is correctly set if this is an IDE drive.
Once the physical connections have been verified, it’s good to see if the computer can even see the drive at all. If this is an IDE drive, go into the computer’s BIOS and have it auto-detect the drive. If it can detect it, then we know we have a solid connection. It doesn’t mean the drive is good, just that the BIOS can see it.
Using a bootable diskette for your anti-virus program, reboot and run a scan on the drive. It will scan the drive, including the boot partition, for viruses. If it finds anything, let it do it’s job. If it is able to successfully scan the drive at all, the drive is at least still working.
Use a third-party disk management program or simply FDISK to view the partitions on the drive. If no active partitions are found, then you know the partitions are screwed up. Unfortunately, that would be bad news. You can try a data recovery utility (see below) to recover the data. Otherwise, you will need to re-partition the drive and lose your data in the process.
You may want to run a ScanDisk or Check Disk on the drive. This is best if the drive is functioning partially. If you have a full mechanical failure, nothing will work. If some data is retrievable but others are not, then we have a partial failure. Try running Scandisk or Check Disk to scan the drive. Allow it to perform a full scan and fix anything it finds.

-: Yep, It’s Gone. Now What? :-

Well, first off, my heart goes out to you. If you didn’t use backups, you just lost a bunch of data. If you did, you are minimally looking at the annoying experience of having to set up the entire computer again.
Either way, you will need a new hard drive. Once installed, you set up the new hard drive as usual and re-install all your software. You then restore all your backups and you (hopefully) are good to go. Just trash the old drive. The data is not retrievable in most cases which means that throwing it away with your data on it is not really a risk.

-: Data Recovery :-

Too commonly people lose a hard drive that had data on it that was not backed up. These are the people who are then scrambling for ways to recover the data from a crashed hard drive. In some cases, this can be done. You should know up front, though, that it is going to cost you some money. Perhaps a lot of money. As of now, a quick Google search shows typical price ranges between $300 and $400. It isn’t cheap and you need to weigh out the cost of the service versus the cost of losing the data.
The art of data recovery depends solely on the nature of the drive failure. For example, if the electronics of the drive died but the mechanics are OK, then replacing the electronic board can revive the drive. Also, if the read/write head died but the platters still spin and are intact, then the data is still there. A new read/write head is needed to get the data.
The first thing would be to have your drive evaluated by a data recovery service. Since data recovery is very custom to the nature of the failure, prices vary.

-: Software Options :-

And since I know people will ask, no, there is no software utility out there that can recover data from a crashed hard drive. If the drive is not really crashed, then perhaps a disk utility can help you recover something. But, a true crash is a problem with the drive itself, and no software can overcome that one.
The data recovery software one finds when searching for it is designed to recover from accidental deletes or corrupted file structure. If these thing happen, there is a chance you can recover it on your own. Once the drive actually dies, though, your only option is to use a data recovery service.

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