Why Mechanical Drives Fail (and What You Can Do About It)

Disassembled hard drive from a computer

Mechanical hard drives fail because thanks to physical damage, overheating, everyday wear and tear, and more. Take care of your drive with cleaning, cooling, and diagnostic testing, and make backups of important files so you’re prepared for the worst.

Nothing lasts forever, and that’s especially true for mechanical hard drives. Some might run faithfully for more than a decade, while others will meet their end far too soon. So how do failures happen, and is there anything you can do to prevent them?

The Many Ways Hard Drives Fail

Mechanical hard drives are sensitive, precision electromechanical devices. Really, it’s a miracle that they work at all, let alone as reliably as they do. That being said, there are many different ways your mechanical drive can meet its end:

  • Head crashes: A head crash occurs when the read/write head of the hard drive comes into contact with the spinning disk. This can cause physical damage to the disk and the head, resulting in data loss and drive failure.
  • Motor failure: The motor in a hard drive is responsible for spinning the disks. If the motor fails, the drive can’t access the data stored on the disks.
  • Circuit board failure: The circuit board in a hard drive controls the electrical signals that allow the drive to function. If the circuit board fails, the drive will not be able to read or write data.
  • Wear and tear: Over time, the mechanical components of a hard drive can wear out and fail. This can be due to normal wear and tear or more severe problems such as heat or vibration.
  • Physical damage: Hard drives are vulnerable to physical damage, such as being dropped or subjected to water or other liquids. This can cause mechanical failure and result in data loss.
  • Overheating: Heat can be a major problem for hard drives. The drive can experience mechanical failure and data loss if it gets too hot.

Scary stuff! There are other more creative ways for a drive to snuff it, but your dearly departed drives most likely met their end in one of these ways.

The Warning Signs of Drive Failure

Clearly, there are many ways for a hard drive to shuffle off the mortal coil, often without any clear warning. In some cases, however, you will get enough warning to prepare for failure.

There are several common symptoms of mechanical drive failure:

  • Unusual noises: If a hard drive is making unusual noises, such as clicking, grinding, or buzzing, it could signify mechanical failure.
  • Slow performance: If a hard drive is experiencing mechanical failure, it may be slower than usual in accessing and transferring data.
  • Error messages: Hard drives may display error messages if they are experiencing mechanical failure, such as “S.M.A.R.T. status bad, backup and replace” or “No bootable device.”
  • Inability to access data: If a hard drive is experiencing mechanical failure, it may be unable to access the data stored on it.
  • Blue screen of death: If a hard drive is experiencing mechanical failure, it may cause the computer to display a blue screen of death (BSOD) or equivalent for operating systems other than Microsoft Windows.

It’s important to note that other issues, such as software problems or hardware issues unrelated to the hard drive, can also cause these symptoms. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, running a diagnostic test on your hard drive is a good idea to determine the cause.

How to Prevent Hard Drive Failures

Prevention is better than a cure! There are several steps you can take to prevent mechanical drive failure:

  • Keep the drive cool: Hard drives are sensitive to heat, so keeping them in a cool, dry place is important. Avoid exposing the drive to direct sunlight or placing it near a heat source.
  • Use a surge protector: A surge protector can help protect your hard drive (and computer) from power surges and voltage spikes, which can cause mechanical failure. Modern PSUs should cushion any attached drives, but a surge protector is highly recommended.
  • Avoid rough handling: Hard drives are delicate equipment and must be handled carefully. Avoid dropping the drive or subjecting it to rough treatment.
  • Back up your data regularly: Regularly backing up your data can help protect it in the event of mechanical drive failure. Consider using an external hard drive or cloud storage service to store your backups.
  • Keep your computer clean: Dust and dirt can accumulate inside your computer and cause problems with the hard drive. Regularly clean the inside of your PC using compressed air and other tools to remove dust and dirt.
  • Run regular diagnostic tests: You can use diagnostic software to check the health of your hard drive and identify any potential problems. This can help you catch mechanical failure early and take steps to prevent it.

You can also consider using a RAID array of drives. If you use a RAID setup with redundancy, then one drive can fail without any of your data being lost. It’s highly unlikely that two drives will fail at the same time, giving the opportunity to replace the faulty drive with a fresh one.

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What to Do When a Hard Drive Fails

If the worst happens and a mechanical drive does fail, it’s not necessarily the end of the road. Here are some options for recovering data from a failed drive and getting the drive up and running again:

  • Use data recovery software: Many software programs can help recover data from a failed hard drive. These programs can scan the drive for recoverable data and help you retrieve it.
  • Send the drive to a professional recovery service: If the data on the drive is particularly valuable or you are not comfortable attempting recovery on your own, you can send the drive to a professional data recovery service. These companies have specialized tools and expertise to recover data from failed drives.
  • Replace the failed component: In some cases, it may be possible to replace the failed component of the hard drive, such as the circuit board or motor, and get the drive working again. This option is best left to professionals with the necessary skills and equipment.
  • Replace the drive: If the drive is beyond repair, the most reliable option may be to simply replace it. If possible, make sure to back up any important data before replacing the drive.

It’s important to note that data recovery is not always successful, and it’s always best to have a backup of your data to ensure that you don’t lose important information in the event of a drive failure.