Hard Drive Failure

If you’ve lost data due to a broken hard drive, you might not know where to go to or who to turn to for answers to your most pressing questions or the help you need to recover your files. Gillware’s experts have been helping victims of hard drive failure for well over a decade now. We know all of the symptoms of hard disk failures, how to tell if a hard drive has crashed, and how to fix a hard disk failure. Not only can we answer your questions, but we can reunite you with your lost data as well, whether it’s family photos, Quickbooks files, or your business’s mission-critical SQL database.

What would cause a hard drive to go bad?

What makes good hard drives go bad? Is it bad parenting? Do they fall in with the wrong crowd? Or are they born bad?

There are many sensitive components inside your hard drive, and its inner workings are incredibly complex. These drives work on the scale of nanometers. With such small tolerances, it’s easy for things to go wrong. Manufacturers do try to make these sensitive devices as resilient as possible, but nothing can make a hard drive invulnerable. Your hard drive can go bad as a result of sector failure, a failure of its mechanical components, or due to a phenomenon called adaptive drift (in which the drive’s performance slides out of line with its initial calibrations).

Hard Drive Failure Causes:

Sector Failure

A hard disk drive will fail to boot up if certain sectors become corrupted, such as the Master Boot Record (one particular sector that maps out all of your data). This corruption prevents your computer from being able to find your files. However, with powerful analytical tools, data recovery specialists can still salvage the data on your drive.

Corrupted boot sectors may be a symptom of a more severe underlying issue with the drive, such as a failing headstack. A hard drive that won’t boot should be treated delicately.

Headstack Failure

Mangled read/write heads as seen under magnification. Read/write heads are a common point of physical hard drive failure.

Mangled read/write heads as seen under magnification. Read/write heads are a common point of physical hard drive failure.

The read/write headstack inside a hard drive performs one of the most important tasks: reading and writing your data. They do this using incredibly tiny electromagnets mounted on metal arms. Unfortunately, because they work so hard, and due to the heads’ tiny size (even a grain of dust is larger than they are), they often fail sooner than any other component. A failed headstack can sometimes cause damage to the drive’s platters, resulting in scratches that may cause permanent data loss.

Failed read/write heads will often make clicking noises. Only skilled experts can safely replace a failed headstack. If you have a clicking hard drive on your hands, find a professional data recovery service to aid you immediately.

Learn more about hard drive read/write heads

Motor Failure

The hard drive spindle motor spins the disk platters at thousands of revolutions per minute. If it stops, you cannot read any data on the drive. Motors can seize up or burn out if prevented from spinning, or if their fluid bearings dry out. Seized spindle motors are especially common with Seagate 7200.11 and 7200.10 model drives. A failed spindle motor must be replaced within a clean room environment.

Electrical Shorts and Surges

Power surges can cause damage to a hard drive’s electronic components. The damage caused by a surge prevents electricity from flowing into your hard disk–and data from flowing out. Electrical shorts can also be caused by liquid on the circuit board.

Adaptives Deviation

No hard drive is perfect, and every manufacturer knows this. In its firmware, every hard drive has a list of its imperfections called the adaptives list. The manufacturer calibrates the drive to work by them.

However, in a phenomenon known as “adaptives deviation” or “adaptive drift,” your hard drive’s baseline operating conditions change. This change can be due to little things like the headstack wearing out over time or even things like the drive’s neodymium magnets losing 0.1% of their magnetic flux density over ten years. When the baseline conditions change, but the adaptives list remains the same, the drive is no longer properly calibrated.

In this situation, the drive’s components might still be “healthy,” but its performance has dipped below the threshold for a normal computer to read it. Special, fault-tolerant tools must be employed to access the drive and salvage its data. Since no two hard drives have the same calibrations, even replacing failed components cannot return a failed hard drive to perfect health.

Learn more about hard drive firmware

How can a hard drive be damaged?

A hard drive can be damaged by:

  • Physical Trauma (hard drive dropped, crushed, circuit board shorted, etc.)
  • Unsafe Environment (excessive heat/cold, fire/water damage, etc.)
  • Data corruption (damage to filesystem or glitches in firmware)
  • Old age (bearings wearing out, degraded electrical components, etc.)

The most dramatic instances of hard drive failure that spring to mind are the first three options. But it is old age that kills the most hard drives. As you use your hard drive over time, all of the components that come together to let you store and access your data slowly break down, just as the human body eventually does. In other words, near the end of your hard drive’s lifespan, it starts needing a cane to walk. Most hard drives fail within a ten-year period unless they are used sparingly.

What happens if your hard drive fails?

While often mistaken for the read/write head, this is actually the spacer that helps the heads stay airborne over the platters. The actual heads are much smaller.

While often mistaken for the read/write head, this is actually the spacer that helps the heads stay airborne over the platters. The actual heads are much smaller.

There is a wide range of hard drive failure symptoms, running the gamut from early warning signs such as frequent freezes and system crashes to signs of irrevocable damage, such as clicking or beeping. In the early stages of failure, you might notice your computer freeze and crash more often. Files might appear to be corrupt one moment, yet work fine the next. These are all telltale signs that you should start backing up important files (if you aren’t already).

When your hard drive fails, you might encounter boot errors in your BIOS when starting your computer, or “USB device malfunctioned” error messages when plugging in a failed external drive. You also may notice some physical signs of failure, such as clicking, beeping, or other strange noises.

Why is my hard drive not booting?

If a constant boot error greets you whenever you turn on your computer, your hard drive may be at fault. This error can be due to a corruption of the drive’s boot sector, or more serious physical damage to the device.

Why is my hard drive clicking?

The clicking noise you hear occurs when the read/write heads can no longer read or write. The heads are mounted on an arm that swings back and forth, and when the heads stop functioning, the arm continues to move, producing the noise. The “click of death” often happens because the heads have failed or have been severely damaged. Continuing to run a clicking hard drive without repairs can cause the drive’s condition to worsen considerably, so hard drives exhibiting these symptoms should be sent to a professional data recovery lab immediately.

Learn more about hard drive platters

Why is my hard drive beeping?

A hard drive will beep if something is preventing the platters from spinning. The beeping noise comes from the drive’s spindle motor as it tries to spin the platters. Typically, this symptom occurs when the read/write heads fail to float above the platter surfaces and instead clamp down on them. Only data recovery specialists can safely address this issue.

Why isn’t my hard drive spinning up?

Burn damage to the PCB of a failed hard disk, the result of a power surge, as seen under a microscope.

Burn damage to the PCB of a failed hard disk, the result of a power surge, as seen under a microscope.

A hard drive will not spin up if electricity cannot flow through its printed control board (PCB). This situation can occur if the circuit board wears out or develops an electrical short. Common culprits include water damage to the PCB and power surges. Only a professional can successfully repair or replace a failed PCB.

A hard drive will also fail to spin up if its motor is impeded.

Why is my hard drive smoking?

If you can see smoke coming from an external hard drive, or smell a burning odor, it is a rare sign that the drive’s PCB has been burned. These burns and shorts typically occurs due to an electrical surge.

Can a hard disk be repaired?

Unlike other appliances or your car, hard drives are not meant to be repaired, partially because rather than being an important device you own, a hard drive is only a container for important information you own. In other words, your data, not the hard drive itself, is valuable. Hard drives are easily replaceable commodities.

The other reason hard drives are not meant to be repaired is due to their inherent complexity. Due to their adaptives, even replacing a hard drive’s failed components will not return it to working order. When hard drive manufacturers recertify broken hard drives, they must re-calibrate the drive and create a new adaptives list, wiping all data from the drive permanently in the process, to give the drive a clean bill of health.

Fixing hard drives requires a clean and contaminant-free environment, as well as a host of specialized tools. Only specially-trained expert engineers in a professional data recovery lab can repair hard disks safely and effectively. And even then, a repaired hard drive will not perform well enough or last long enough for it to be used. It will only last long enough for data recovery experts to salvage its data.


Still hungry for more information about hard drive failure?

Curious to learn more about Gillware’s capabilities?

Check out our case study blog series to read about the types of casework Gillware handles on a day-to-day basis.

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