How To Spot A Failing Hard Drive

The Basics

Hard Disk Drives (herein HDDs) store your files and programs using a spinning platter and heads that use magnets to read and write data to the disk. They have several moving parts that can fail. The disk spins at several thousand RPM while the heads move back and forth, millimeters from the platter surface. 

There are many factors that can cause an HDD to fail. A jolt or drop can cause the heads to make contact with the platter, scratching the surface, mechanical wear over time can cause the platter to stop spinning, and a power surge can fry the sensitive electronics onboard.

Listen, Notice, Acknowledge

HDDs can fail suddenly, without warning. This is why it's so important to maintain regular backups of your files. But more often, failure is a slow process with many warning signs. Learn to spot them and you might save yourself a major headache down the road. 

1. Listen For Strange Noises

If you hear a scratching or squeaking sound from your computer, it could be the heads making contact with the platter. If you continue using the computer, the disk will eventually look like this:

The damage to this disk is so severe that no data can be recovered. But if the owner had noticed the sound earlier and taken immediate action by running a backup, most of the files would have likely been saved. 

2. notice If Computer Runs Slowly

There are many factors that can cause a slow computer. Viruses, little to no free space on the HDD, and temporary files can all cause a computer to run slowly. But a failing HDD can show the same symptoms. If your computer has been getting noticeably slower over the course of days, weeks, or months, perform a backup immediately. 

3. Acknowledge An Error Message or Crash

Whether the error message occurs during startup or the computer crashes while you are moving files, a message like the one below should not be ignored. 

Hard drive error message on HP computer.

Hard drives use S.M.A.R.T, a technology that often detects a failure before the data on the drive is rendered unrecoverable. Missing or ignoring a warning like the one above could be the difference between getting your files back and losing them forever.

But fear not! There are steps you can take to mitigate the effects of hard drive wear and avoid catastrophe. 

What You Can Do

1. Backup Your Files Locally

Use your operating system's built in tools to backup data to an external hard drive. Windows 10 uses File History and Mac OS uses Time Machine. Both create hourly backups of your data and have an easy wizard to recover your files if your primary hard drive fails. We recommend replacing your external hard drive every three years. 

SSDs are faster, more reliable, and are approaching price parity with hard disk drives. If you decide to go that route, we recommend the Samsung T5.

2. Use a Cloud Backup Service

This option requires a constant connection to the internet. Use a service like CrashPlan to regularly backup files to the cloud – cloud storage uses data centers with redundant backups to keep your files safe. You will often pay a yearly fee for this service.

Author's Note: For both local and cloud backups, the cost of regular backups is much less than the cost of professional data recovery, often $1 per gigabyte. For a one terabyte drive, it could cost $1000 or more. For that money, you could buy 20 years of cloud backup service or 15 external hard drives.


Many of our first time clients come to us after their hard drive has failed. Perform regular backups to make recovering your files faster and less expensive in the event of a drive failure.