How to Tell if a Hard Drive is Failing

Written By: Ontrack

Date Published: August 28, 2022

How to Tell if a Hard Drive is Failing

More of us are using hard drives to store and back up our data than ever before.

The lifespans of hard drives can vary between devices, but they will all fail at some point. Some fail suddenly without any warning, while others can be slowly deteriorating for some time, without the user being aware.

What is a failed hard drive?

There are two types of HDD failure:

  • Physical hard drive failure
  • Logical hard drive failure

Physical hard drive failure means that the hard drive or one of its components has been physically damaged or has stopped working completely.

Logical hard drive failures mean there is no mechanical issue, but the hard drive isn’t functioning normally. With this type of failure, there is damage to the file structure or software of the hard drive.

Why do hard drives fail?

Hard drives depend on moving parts to operate and, at some stage, these moving parts will fail. This can be caused by use or physical damage.

At some point, all hard drives fail. As a rule, they tend to last between 4-8 years with moderate use, but there are several factors that influence how long they last, including how often they are used and how well they are taken care of.

Failure of a hard drive can be caused by:

  • Physical damage
  • A power surge
  • Its age

How to tell if a hard drive is failing

Failures can occur without warning. However, there are several common signs that might mean your hard drive could be failing:

Slow performance

One of the first signs of failure is reduced performance. If you notice that your system is starting to slow down when you’re launching programs, searching for files, or saving documents, it could be an early warning sign that your hard drive is failing. 

Freezing and crashing

All devices freeze or crash from time to time. However, if your device is freezing and crashing frequently, this could be a sign that your hard drive is nearing the end of its life, particularly if it occurs after you’ve installed something new.

Corrupted data

If you’re noticing more corrupted files than usual, your hard drive might be starting to fail. There are various signs of corrupted data, including:

  • Scrambled folder names
  • Error messages when moving or saving files
  • Files failing to open
  • Disappearing folders or files

If you’re seeing corrupted file errors more frequently than usual, it could be an indicator that your hard drive is close to failing.

Bad sectors

Bad sectors are sectors on a disk storage unit that have been permanently damaged. Once the damage occurs, all the data stored in the sector will be lost.

An increasing number of bad sectors can be a sign of hard drive failure.

Unusual noises

Unusual noises such as clicking, grinding, or beeping could be a sign that there is something wrong with your hard drive.

The most common noise is a repetitive clicking noise that occurs when the head is trying to write data, failing, returning to its home position, and retrying repeatedly. As the heads fail, they can drop down onto the platter surface, scratching the delicate surfaces and resulting in data loss.

If you hear unusual noises when using your computer, it’s a good sign that a component in your hard drive is malfunctioning. At this point, back up your data and turn it off to avoid worsening the damage.

S.M.A.R.T Status

S.M.A.R.T (Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology) monitoring provides your hard drive with a level of internal status monitoring. This can detect any coming hard drive failures and inform you so you can take action and back up your data.

If S.M.A.R.T status is showing as NOT OK or a status such as Bad, Caution, or Unknown, you’ll need to keep an eye on the hard drive and back up your data. It may not fail immediately, but the status is a sign that something isn’t right. 

What to do if your drive fails

In some cases, the S.M.A.R.T monitoring will fail. If this occurs, it may not notify you that the hard drive is damaged. This is why it’s important to be aware of the warning signs discussed above.

The sooner you act on the signs of a failing hard drive, the more chance you have of preventing your data from being permanently lost. If you suspect that your hard drive is failing, we’d recommend backing up all of your data straight away and transferring it to another storage device.

If you are unable to transfer your files, power the hard drive down immediately as this will help to prevent data loss.

Get in touch today

At Ontrack, we perform hard drive data recovery from any make, model, brand or operating system.

If your hard drive has failed and you need help retrieving your data, get in touch. 


KLDiscovery Ontrack (H.K.) Limited, 148 Electric Road 12/F, Unit 1203A, North Point, Hong Kong (see all locations)