Introduction: Hard Drive Maintenance and Troubleshooting

The traditional hard drive is still in use throughout much of the world today. Despite the decreased cost of solid state drives, many still opt for standard hard drives because of its long life and low cost per gigabyte, which makes it ideal for mass storage. However, standard hard drives do eventually begin to degrade and fail; a situation that can result in the corruption and loss of critical data. However, with this guide you'll be one step ahead of failure, allowing you to recover from a hard drive incident almost as if it never happened.

Step 1: What Is a Hard Drive?

Before we can explain the proper maintenance and servicing of a hard drive, it is important to refresh ourselves as to what a hard drive even is. A hard drive is a device that stores your digital information. It holds everything from family photos to important business applications and is essential to the operation of your computer. The hard drive houses the operating system as well as every program and driver that allows your computer to operate and do work. Given the importance of hard drives, it is essential that your hard drive is kept in good health, otherwise you risk losing everything that is stored on it.

Before we move on, let's quickly go over how a hard drive works. For this article, the term hard drive applies to magnetic hard drives. This type of drive features a magnetic platter that is read and written to and from by a read/write head. The platter itself has many tiny bits that can be written to. Data is stored on the platter in binary, where a demagnetized bit represents a 0 and a magnetized bit represents a 1. A motor spins the drive at high speeds while a read/write head positioned several nanometers above the platter uses magnetic fields in order to determine the magnetization of the bits below. In order for the disk to write data, the read/write head applies a magnetic field to the bits, which reverses the bits’ magnetization.

As mentioned previously, hard drives are essential to the operation of a computer. The hard drive retrieves data out of storage and sends it to the ram, where it is held for processing. Once the data is processed, the new data is sent back to the hard drive for storage. Essentially, the hard drive is like ram, except that it is larger, slower, and nonvolatile (data isn't lost when the computer is shut down).

Step 2: Other Types of Hard Drives

And before we begin with the stuff you actually came here for, it might be of use to familiarize yourself with other types of drives, so when you are looking for a replacement drive you know what type suits you best.

SSD - A solid state drive is similar in function to a magnetic hard drive: both store data, share identical interfaces, and interact with the computer in the exact same manner. However, SSDs do not have any moving parts unlike traditional hard drives; they use nand flash memory in order to retain data, which is somewhat similar to the nand chips on a stick of RAM, only that the chips in an SSD are nonvolatile (keeps data without the need for power). This allows SSDs to be shock and vibration-proof; in addition, they are also much faster than hard drives in terms of both read/write speeds as well as latency.

Hybrid hard drives - A hybrid hard drive is a combination of both an SSD and traditional hard drive, all in one unit. Generally, the SSD holds data most frequently accessed, such as operating system files, which makes tasks such as booting up and opening programs much faster. The more mundane files are stored on the hard disk, such as pictures, videos, documents, etc, which do not need quick and fast response times. A hybrid drive combines the best of both worlds whilst generally being cheaper than an SSD of the same capacity.

M.2 SSD: This variation of SSD is a compact version of the normal form factor. An M.2 SSD differs significantly from the other variants in that it doesn’t use a sata port, but rather a M.2 port. This SSD is generally used in notebooks and other slim devices. In terms of performance, M.2 SSDs are generally equivalent with their standard SSD counterparts.

Step 3: The Internals of a Hard Drive

Here is a quick explanation of the parts inside a hard drive (these correspond with the labeled diagram).

Spindle: the central axis that the platters are attached to. The motor that drives the platters is also connected to the spindle.

Platter: a glass or aluminum disk that is coated with a magnetic coating. This platter is responsible for storing the data, which is done in the form of magnetized and unmagnetized bits. Unfortunately, the platter is vulnerable to scratching and pollution, which can corrupt files permanently.

Read/Write Head: a electromagnetic coil of wire that uses an electrical current in order to generate a magnetic field, which changes the magnetization of the bits on the platter.

Head actuator arm: the structure that suspends the read/write head above the platters as well as houses the wires leading to/from the head.

Voice coil actuator: the device that moves the head actuator arm and read/write head across the platters. This device uses electromagnetic attraction and repulsion in order to quickly and precisely move the actuator arm to the desired location.

Actuator axis and pivot screw: this screw is what secures the actuator assembly to the rest of the frame.

Jumper block: a series of pins, that when activated by a jumper, changes the operation and status of the drive. The drive can be set to become a master drive, slave drive, cable select, master with non-ata slave drive, or to limit the available capacity of the drive.

Power connector: this is where the drive receives power from a power cable.

IDE connector (or SATA, depending on the newness of the drive): the interface of the drive that allows it to send and receive information to/from the motherboard/rest of the system.

Step 4: How to Physically Maintain and Service a Hard Drive

When it comes to hard drives, not a lot of physical work is needed in order to keep the drive running efficiently. However, there are some big things to consider.

In order to make your drive last as long as possible, DO NOT move or shake the drive (including the computer it is mounted in) while it is in use. Vibration can cause the read write head to slam into the platters, which not only damages both components but also the data that was written there. If you need to move the hard drive, play it safe and turn your computer off before doing so.

Although this may seem like its nothing, it is important to never block the breathing hole. This hole is needed in order to equalize the air pressure outside and inside the drive. Should you end up covering the hole, the air pressure can vary significantly, such that the read/write heads may no longer be positioned at the correct height above the platters. This can lead to the inability of the head to read/write the platters, thus resulting in the loss of all of your data.

For desktop owners, you may want to consider using an anti-vibration mount for your hard drive. This reduces the motion and shock from the surrounding environment, thus reducing the chance of the read/write heads scraping the platters and corrupting your data.

Step 5: How to Use Software and Other Utilities to Maintain and Service a Hard Drive

When it comes to maintaining and servicing your drive via the operating system, the following utilities and programs are quite helpful in terms of speeding it up as well as enhancing its lifespan.

Windows' built-in defragmentation utility helps to optimize and speed up your drive. This organizes all of the data into as few sectors as possible. By putting everything in one place, this allows for the hard drive to do less searching when looking for a file. This results in faster boot/load times as well as less wear and tear on the drive itself.

In order to extend the lifespan of your hard drive, go to the control panel, system and security, and then power options. From here select your current power plan, and then click on advanced settings at the bottom. A new window should appear with the option to turn off the hard drive after a set time of inactivity. Set the timer to an appropriate time for you (10-20 minutes is usually fine for most). This extends the lifespan of your drive by reducing the time it's spinning; the less active time a drive has, the longer the lifespan.

In order to keep data out of bad sectors, run windows chkdsk. This utility checks the disk for errors and marks bad sectors such that the drive won’t write to them again. In addition, this utility automatically recovers data that has been written to a bad sector. This will certainly help ensure that your computer is running as smoothly as it possibly can - no corrupt files means no slowdowns, crashes, or frozen applications.

If you want to see how much life your drive still has, download Hard Drive Sentinel or HDDScan. These utilities have features that test the performance of the drive; generally, the worse the performance, the more likely it is that it is failing. These utilities help predict eventual failure, meaning that you won't be taken by surprise when your drive all of a sudden begins to die on you. In addition, these utilities also give a lot of information about your drive, such as S.M.A.R.T. reports as well as performance statistics.

Step 6: How a Failed Hard Drive Can Ruin Your Day

If your hard drive were to completely fail, your computer may not be able to boot at all. Critical data that was stored on failing sectors can result in the computer being unable to perform certain functions, such as failing to open an application. A failure of the hard drive can cause infinite reboot loops, freezing, crashing, corruption, or loss of data.

Step 7: Symptoms of a Hard Drive Failure

Symptoms of a failing hard drive include loud clicking noises, scraping or grinding sounds, slow response times to commands and opening of applications, frequent freezing, frequent crashing or inability to open a file or perform a function, loss or corruption of data, the appearance of a S.M.A.R.T. warning, or other odd behaviors exhibited by the system when performing a task.

Loud clicking noises are caused when the read/write heads are colliding with the internal head stop, which is the platform that they rest on when not in use. They can also be caused by the drive being on a non-level surface, a malfunction in the motors that control the spindle and actuator assembly, or interference with the movement of the actuator arm. To fix this, level the hard drive. If that doesn't work, then a replacement is the only option (repairs on hard drives are nearly impossible to do for the average consumer).

Scraping or grinding sounds are caused by the read/write head making contact with the platters. This can be as a result of the drive being positioned on unlevel ground or being shaken while in use. In addition, scraping/grinding sounds can be created when a part of the casing interferes with the movement of either the actuator assembly or the platters. There is no fix to this; attempting to open up the drive will expose the platter to pollutants, all of which will interfere with the ability of the read/write head to read or write data. Backup your data and replace the drive.

Slow response times/opening of applications can be caused by a number of factors, but when due to a failing hard drive, it is because the platters are so riddled with bad sectors that finding the correct data takes much longer. This can also be caused by a actuator arm that has lost its ability to precisely position itself over the platters. Once again, with hard drives being relatively unfixable, a replacement is the only way to remedy this symptom.

Frequent freezing/crashing/inability to perform a task are both caused by the corruption or loss of some critical file that was needed to open and run the application. This is mainly due to the file having been written on a sector that had failed, meaning that the file is either inaccessible or completely missing. Running chkdsk (how to in the next part) can fix this, but that largely depends on the severity of the damaged sectors. Otherwise, if that fails, your best bet is to backup what you can and replace the drive.

The loss or corruption of data is caused by the same exact circumstance as described above - data was written to a sector that was damaged or corrupt, which rendered the data it contained ether inaccessible or deformed beyond acceptable use.

A S.M.A.R.T. warning indicates that the operating system has recognized that one of the drives is about to fail. In this case, backup your data immediately! However, do note that S.M.A.R.T. warnings often come too late, so don't wait for the warning to take action.

Step 8: How to Diagnose and Troubleshoot a Potentially Malfunctioning Hard Drive

If the symptoms above appear on your computer, then it may be likely that your hard drive is nearing its end. At this point, take the following actions (presented in order of importance):

Immediately terminate disk-intensive programs and any application that is open.

In order to be safe and not sorry, get a large external drive that you can backup your most critical data to (this may be the drive’s last moments).

Quickly check to ensure that the hard drive is secured properly to the computer frame. During these moments, it is vital to ensure that the drive itself is not causing any further damage to itself. Also be sure that the breather hole is open.

After copying over your most important data, restart the computer. If the symptoms are not a hard drive issue, a simple restart should be able to fix those issues.

Run chkdsk - this windows utility will flag the failing sectors and attempt to recover data that has been written to a bad sector. In order to run chkdsk, go to my computer, and then right click on the C: drive. Click on the tools tab near the top of the screen, and then click on error checking. Click on scan and chkdsk will begin checking your drive for bad sectors and errors.

At this point, if everything before this has not fixed the issue/symptom, then make a full backup of the drive.
Make a system image or, if you have software like acronis, make an exact clone of the drive to another healthy hard drive. If you are unable to make a backup, then try to salvage as much data as possible.

Check if the issue is related to an application and not the hard drive. Open up various applications. If everything freezes, crashes, or takes a long time, then it is related to the hard drive. If it is linked to only one or a select few applications, try updating or repairing that application. Worst case situation, just completely uninstall and reinstall it. Corrupt applications and abnormal behavior can be caused by other factors besides a malfunctioning hard drive - malware for instance can sabotage vital files, thus hindering functionality.

If everything presented so far doesn't work, shut off the computer immediately in order to prevent further damage to the hard drive. Bring it to a repair shop in order to get a second opinion and decide on a course of action. More than likely the repair shop will offer data recovery services, which will probably be the only means of transferring everything to a new drive without having to reinstall and reconfigure everything.

By now you've been able to deduct that the issues that you were facing were related to the dying hard drive. But you may be asking whether or not it would be better to buy a new drive or repair your existing drive. Well, you would have to buy a new drive - for the average user, there is no way to repair a damaged hard drive. With the cost of these drives being much lower than before, replacing the drive is far easier and cheaper than attempting a repair. Technically, you can repair a hard drive, however that would require a laboratory-level clean room as well as specialized equipment that most individuals lack access to.

Step 9: Tips for Dealing With a Hard Drive Crisis

Here are some tips for when the time comes and your hard drive starts to fail.

1. At the first signs of failure, start making a backup of your most important data first, then that of the rest of the system. Time is critical!

2. Don't wait until your drive starts failing for you to make a backup. Make backups periodically, and make sure that they are backed up to an offline device. If your internet upload speed is good, then you can also upload your data onto the cloud. For the lowest risk of losing data, back your data up to both of these locations.

3. If you hear clicking sounds coming from the hard drive, be extra careful to not move the hard drive. Any shift in movement can potentially worsen the clicking.

4. Be sure to discharge your static potential before touching the hard drive, especially the underside of it. Ground yourself with an anti static wrist strap or touch some grounded metal object.

5. Ensure that your system is up-to-date and protected from malware. Oftentimes the behavior of malware can mimic that of a failing hard drive, so preventing malware from infecting your system will save you a lot of work and time.

Step 10: Walkthrough: How to Use HDDScan in Order to Determine the Health of Your Drive

Hopefully this guide has helped boost your understanding of hard drives and what failure is like. Now you'll be more prepared for when your hard drive decides to take a permanent break.

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