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Data Recovery Blog

Why do Hard Drives Fail?

Jan 28, 2021

Forget moving to a new house, having a faulty or failed hard drive is the most stressful event someone will go through, especially if you don’t have a recent backup! We’ve all heard those horror stories where people have lost years of their lives writing a novel before their hard drive fails and it’s gone forever. But why do hard drives fail? We’ll explain the reasons in this article.

Your hard drive is what makes your computer your computer. Not only does it store your files, games, work, photos and documents, but it also contains your computer’s operating system. Your computer quite literally cannot function without it. Replacing a broken hard drive with a brand new one is like starting with a blank slate, but it doesn’t bring back your files and personal settings.

Understanding the inside of your computer

Don’t feel intimidated by the various components inside your computer! They’re a lot less scary when you have a basic understanding of what they all do.

All of these components are connected to both the motherboard and power supply in some way. Some components, including the hard drive are connected using cables, whereas other components have dedicated slots and pins on the main body of the motherboard.

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

In the case of the hard drive, instructions and data pass between the motherboard and the hard drive.

Moving Parts inside your computer

A computer is an extremely complex machine, yet it has relatively few moving parts. The fans inside your computer spin constantly while they’re powered on and some advanced gaming PCs will have fans with variable speeds.

The only other moving part inside your computer is the hard drive. That itself should give you your first clue as to why hard drives are more likely to fail than other components.

All machinery with moving parts is susceptible to wear and tear, and eventually total failure.

You should be able to hear your hard drive making a scratching sound during operation, which is totally normal.

Not all modern PCs have hard drives, as many are manufactured with Solid State Drives (SSDs) or other media like eMMC, which operate silently.

If you hear a faint scratching noise occasionally when your computer is ‘busy’ or you’re opening a file, that’s the hard drive doing its hard work!

How Hard Drives Work

Your hard drive is a series of round disks stacked on top of each other, all your files and data are stored on different segments of each disk. Every time you want to open a file, a small spindle locates the exact area of the disk and reads the data from the segment.

As you can imagine, these parts are extremely sensitive, and the tiniest malfunction could result in the drive failing.

Hard disks drives are called hard because the disks are physically rigid, compared to floppy disks which, as their name suggests were physically floppy!

Types of Hard Disk Drives

  1. Internal hard drives – these are permanently installed inside your computer’s case. If your computer is switched on, then so is your hard drive.
  2. External desktop hard drives – these are connected to your computer using a USB cable. These can be switched off, unplugged and disconnected when not in use. They’re designed for desktop use, usually fairly bulky and not very portable.
  3. Portable hard drives – these are also external hard drives, but much smaller and lighter the desktop drives. They are designed to be portable. These are commonly used by students or workers who regularly travel with their data.
  4. Rugged hard drives – these portable hard drives have extra durable casing or armour designed to absorb shock. Rugged hard drives are ideal for travellers and photographers who carry equipment through harsh conditions and want extra peace of mind.

All these different types of hard drives have the same internal components and function in the same way.

Labelled Hard Drive
A labelled diagram of the inside of a hard drive

8 Reasons why Hard Drives can Fail

1. Mechanical Failure

We’ve already discussed the inevitability of wear and tear on moving parts. If the spindle motor or actuator arm stopped working or became damaged over time, then the drive would fail, but the data stored on the disks is likely recoverable by a specialist.

If you notice that your hard drive is making louder noises  than it did before, or has started making more prominent clicking/scratching sounds, then that could be a sign of imminent mechanical failure, so now’s a good take a backup and plan ahead!

2. Electrical Failure or Static Damage

A sudden power surge or fluctuating power levels can potentially cause damage to your hard drive’s circuitry. The circuit board inside a hard disk drive is extremely sensitive to static electricity.

Hard drives are always shipped inside anti-static bags. You should not touch your hard drive’s circuit boards or internal components because your body poses a risk of electrostatic discharge. If you ever do need to handle your hard drive, ensure that you’ve grounded yourself and lower the risk of static by touching the metal chassis of your PC while it is plugged in but powered off.

Even a tiny amount of electrostatic discharge can cause a hard drive to completely fail to power on, however the data may still be recoverable.

3. Shock or Impact Damage

Hard drives are also vulnerable when they’re dropped or suffer some form of shock or impact damage. If you attempt to power on a drive after it’s been dropped, you’ll likely hear a grinding or loud scratching and clicking noise that’s much louder than its usual sounds.

If you suspect your hard drive has suffered some shock or impact damage, then do not power it on as that can severely damage the disks and potentially make your data unreadable. Contact a data recovery specialist in the first instance.

4. Water Damage

Computers can be damaged by burst pipes, water leaks or even rainwater depending on where they’re stored. There’s also a risk of accidental spillages.

You should never attempt to power up a drive that you suspect has water damage as it’s obviously incredibly dangerous to add electricity to something containing water! It’s possible to dry electronic equipment using silica gel or bags of rice to absorb the excess moisture, but even then, you won’t be able to tell if it’s completed dried out.

A water damaged drive may fail to boot or make some unpleasant noises and not function correctly. There’s a good chance your data is recoverable if you speak to an expert as soon as possible.

5. Heat Damage

On rare occasions, hard drives can become damaged due to excess heat. In most cases, hard drives and other computer equipment contain heat sensors and will shut down if it reaches a certain temperature. This is a safety feature designed to prevent damage to the computer.

However, prolonged exposure to excess heat can cause permanent damage to your hard drive and other parts inside your computer.

Heat sinks and fans are commonly used to cool computer parts to safe temperatures, but fans (which contain moving parts) can sometimes partially or completely fail.

Related: How to keep your Hard Drive cool

6. Software Faults

Manufacturers of hard drives include essential firmware that’s directly loaded onto the device in the factory. If there’s a fault with this, then the drive may not function correctly or it may become unreadable/unwritable by operating systems. This would mean that Windows or MacOS won’t recognise the hard drive when its connected.

If this happens to you with a brand-new drive, contact the retailer or manufacturer for a replacement as soon as possible. For older drives which are out of warranty, the data may still be readable but requires specialist equipment. Contact an experienced data recovery technician if you’re concerned about a software fault.

7. Hard Drive Malware and Ransomware

Malware such as ransomware is a serious threat to businesses and individuals. Ransomware works by encrypting your files in such a way that only the hacker is able to decrypt them. Usually, hackers will demand a ransom to be paid before unlocking your files.

Whilst ransomware doesn’t necessary destroy the hard drive or cause it to fail, it’s still considered damaging.

More worryingly, hard drive malware exists which is designed to infect Master Boot Records which can cause serious damage to your computer and cause the drive to be completely inoperable. Your computer may not

The best way to avoid falling victim to this type of malware is to never click on links in unexpected emails, even from friends, colleagues, and family. Malware is known to spread autonomously, email phishing messages are becoming more sophisticated and are designed to look highly realistic, just like real emails from shops, banks and colleagues.

You should also have a functioning firewall and antivirus software to protect yourself from malware and malicious hackers.

8. Magnetic Damage

That scene in Breaking Bad where they destroy the evidence stored on the laptops was based on real science! It is possible for hard drives to become potentially damaged by magnets.

Have you seen shop counters that have an area that says “do not place credit cards on this surface”? Those surfaces demagnetise security tags and anti-theft devices used in shops. Data is stored on credit card magnetic strips which would be unreadable if it was swiped along the demagnetising surface.

Hard drives use electromagnetic fields to store digital data, and swiping a magnet across your hard drive would damage that data.

However, the metal case of a PC is also magnetic, so many users innocently decorated their case using fridge magnets without knowing there was a risk. It’s rare, but possible for small fridge magnets to damage hard drives and the data stored on them.

Related: Can a wiped hard drive be recovered?

If you suspect you have a failed hard drive, whatever the reason, time is of the essence. Hard drive data recovery is a delicate process. The sooner you act, the higher than chances of recovery are. It’s important that you contact our data recovery specialists as soon as possible for the best possible chance of recovery.

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