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Data Recovery Case Study: The Story Behind Hard Drive Beeps

Beeping hard drive

The client in this case study got in touch with us after the hard drive in their computer started beeping on startup. At first, their local computer repair experts thought the beeps were coming from the PC’s motherboard. But upon closer inspection, they realized that what they were hearing were hard drive beeps. The sound was coming from the computer’s hard drive itself, and not the motherboard.

Data Recovery Case Study: The Story Behind Hard Drive Beeps
Drive Model: Seagate ST500LM000
Drive Capacity: 500 GB
Operating/File System: Windows (NTFS)
Data Loss Situation: Hard drive beeping
Type of Data Recovered: Photos, music, documents
Binary Read: 49.2%
Gillware Data Recovery Case Rating: 9

”Why Is My Computer Beeping?” A (Brief) Look At Computer Beep Codes

We tend to associate beeping with electronics. Even your computer will beep—but when it’s coming from your computer, it’s not a sound you want to hear. Generally, when you hear your computer beeping, it’s bad news.

That beeping doesn’t come from your speakers. Instead, it comes directly from your computer’s motherboard. And the length and rhythm of those beeps has a great deal of rhyme and reason behind them. These are computer beep codes, produced by the BIOS to report system errors.

The BIOS is the tiny bit of software that runs all the hardware in your computer, and it lives on the motherboard. When you turn your computer on, the first thing the BIOS does is run a test called POST (Power On Self Test), which makes sure your computer has a clean bill of health. If it doesn’t, that’s when you hear those computer beep codes. Usually, the beeping relates to a hardware issue—commonly, something with the RAM, CPU, or graphics card in your machine.

These beeps speak a language of their own. Each distinct pattern of beeps—the number of beeps, the length of beeps, and the rhythm—conveys a specific message. Unfortunately, each of the three major BIOS chip manufacturers (AMI, Award, and Phoenix) speak totally different computer beep code languages, which can make using these beep codes to troubleshoot your computer’s issues difficult. However, there are plenty of online guides to decipher these computer beep codes.

Hard drives can beep too, as the client in this data recovery case study found out (unfortunately, by personal experience). Hard drive beeps, though, aren’t quite as difficult to decipher as computer beep codes. Your hard drive will beep for one reason and one reason only. And that reason is not good.

What Happens When Your Hard Drive Beeps

Hard drive beeps aren’t an intentional feature built in by the manufacturer, like BIOS beep codes are. And so there aren’t any distinct “hard drive beep codes” that can clue you in on hard drive failure. Instead, these are sounds you hear as a result of hard drive failure, just like the “Click of Death”.

When your hard drive beeps, what you are hearing comes from the spindle motor inside the drive. The spindle motor usually spins the hard disk platters inside the drive at thousands of revolutions per minute. If something happens to impede the motor’s movement, you get those beeps you hear. The beeps are the result of the spindle motor trying (and failing) to spin the platters.

There are three things that can commonly cause a hard drive spindle motor to seize up, producing hard drive beeps:

  1. The lubricant inside the motor dries up, causing the motor to overheat and break due to friction.
  2. The hard drive read/write heads, which normally float just above the disk platters, crash onto the platter surfaces and clamp onto them, preventing them from moving.
  3. Flipping a hard drive over, or otherwise roughly handling the drive while it’s running, can cause the spindle motor to seize up as well.

Beeping Hard Drive Data Recovery

HBecause the problematic components of a beeping hard drive live inside the hard drive, these hard drives can only be fixed by being taken apart in a contaminant-free cleanroom environment by professional hard drive data recovery technicians. Fortunately for everyone with beeping hard drives on their hands, Gillware’s ISO-5 Class 100 workstations and hard drive repair specialists more than meet these criteria.

We opened our client’s hard drive up and found that the read/write heads had clamped down on the platters. This had caused the hard drive beeps our client heard. It also created a series of “dings” on the platters, where the impact had scraped off small portions of the platters’ magnetic coating that held all of the data on the drive.

To get the drive up and running again, we had to carefully pull the read/write heads off of the platters and make sure the motor could still spin freely without the obstruction. It did. Next, we replaced the read/write heads with a healthy set from one of our donor hard drives and burnished the hard disk platters to wipe off any accumulated debris from the head dings.

After we’d taken these steps, we still had to fix a hard drive firmware issue caused by the read/write heads failure. But once our engineers had solved these three issues plaguing the hard drive, we were able to successfully recover 98% of the client’s files. We rated this data recovery case study a 9 out of 10 on our case rating scale.

Will Ascenzo
Will Ascenzo
Will is the lead blogger, copywriter, and copy editor for Gillware Data Recovery and Digital Forensics, and a staunch advocate against the abuse of innocent semicolons.