What to Do When Your HDD Fails

What to do when a HDD breaks

If your hard disk drive is going bad, data loss is either imminent or already happening. If you don’t have a solid backup plan in place, now is the last opportunity for some disaster recovery.

If your hard disk drive is going bad, data loss is either imminent or already happening. If you don’t have a solid backup plan in place, now is the last opportunity for some disaster recovery. Of course, what all you can do really depends on what kind of failure is occurring. Assuming you’ve already ordered your replacement drive, lets take a look at how to handle data still on the old (and failing) one.

What causes a HDD to die?

There are three major causes of hard disk drive failure.

  • The most common culprit of this is known as a head crash. Under normal operating circumstances, there’s a small arm with an optical head on it that sits just nanometers above the surface of the actual hard disk platter.  A head crash is the result of the small optical head rubbing against the disk itself. One major cause are dust particles sitting on the surface of the drive, which drags across the surface when the optical head passes over. This is why it’s important to regularly dust your computer case out and keep the internal environment as clean as possible. Another cause is when a drive is bumped or mechanically jolted by physical trauma. Portable (i.e. laptop) hard drives have a built-in unloading technology that detects such movement and distances the head from the platter in such an event, but most desktop hard disks do not. Chronic head crashes can lead to the magnetic surface of the disc completely wearing away and the head unit itself becoming inoperable. If this type of failure becomes prominent a loud clicking sound may be heard from the drive whenever it is powered on.

hard drive internal

  • Bad Sectors. A sector on a disk is essentially a set amount of space in the shape of a full or partial ring on the physical platter. If you’ve ever drawn on the top of a spinning disk with a marker, the sectors look similar. There are two different causes for bad sectors. This can happen during from physical trauma to the disk, such as the magnetic surface being worn out. It can also happen because of logical errors and problems with the cache or formatting. All disks come out of the factory with bad sectors, however due to SMART technology most drives automatically recognize these sectors and put them on an “ignore list” so that they are not used. Bad sectors usually aren’t a problem, but if they become rampant it is a good sign the hard-drive is near the end of its lifetime or may have a worse underlying problem. Failure to defragment your hard drive on at least a quarterly (3 month) basis can lead to an increase rate of bad sector accrual.

hard drive disk sectors

  • Other physical failure. Keep in mind that aside from cooling fans, the hard drive is one of the only physically moving parts in your entire computer. Bearings may wear out. Circuits may short fuse. The spindle may wear out. The hard drive may make strange pinging noises in this case. However, as long as the disk platters are undamaged there shouldn’t be any loss of data — you just might not be able to read it.


If you already back up your drive using CrashPlan or another cloud service, then this may not be necessary. But if not, the first thing to do is set up where you will migrate any sensitive data from your drive to. This is where a large thumb drive or external drive comes in handy. Depending on how far gone your failing drive is, you might have a few options.

Note: If Windows or another operating system is installed on the drive, stop booting from it immediately. Data recovery is much more likely if the drive isn’t being constantly spun up to read and write a complicated system. Avoid writing (saving) anything new onto the drive.
  • Acronis, Macrium, and Clonezilla are all disk cloning solutions. If your HDD isn’t too far gone you may be able create a direct copy of it onto a new drive. Mac Computers have a built-in application called Time Machine that handles this natively.
  • If the drive is still in decent shape, you may be able to manually pull the files from one drive to another. This can be done  with Windows File Explorer but requires hooking the drive up to a working computer.
    manual software data recovery
  • Professional recovery software such as Prosoft’s Data Rescue, Kroll Ontrack, and GetData RecoverMyFiles may be able to pull data out, but for a steep price. Most of these apps run anywhere from $99 to $200 or more.
  • The freezer. That’s right, the conventional freezer attached to your refrigerator. When all else fails, freezing a drive may bring it back long enough to pull some data off of it. Here’s what you do: Place the drive in an air-tight Ziploc bag and then put it in the freezer for at least two hours. You may want to use two bags, the key is to keep moisture out of the drive as that will only cause more damage. After the drive is completely frozen, just hook it up like normal to the PC and attempt to pull data.

Physical Repair of the Drive

If the drive is completely unreadable on a software level, or is making a pinging noise, that might mean further damage is happening just because the drive is spinning, the only way to pull data off the drive may be physical repair. Unfortunately, physical repair of an individual drive is both complicated and costly. Drives are extremely fragile, and while do-it-yourself home repairs are possible — it’s more likely to end in disaster.

hdd guru

When a drive is completely unrecoverable at home, you may have to turn to a professional. There are dozens of companies that specialize in data recovery. Popular Mechanics ran an article in 2008 where one such company was able to recover 99 to 100 percent of data on damaged and water-soaked drives. But if you have to such a route, get ready to empty out your pocket book. Professional drive recovery can cost anywhere from $500 to $1200 per hard drive depending on the size and extent of damage.


Recovering data from a dead drive is possible, but it can be a pain and there is no guarantee you’ll get all if it back. Create backups of your sensitive (irreplaceable) data as often as you update it. For the busy or lazy a cloud solution might be the way to go. Or if you’re a fan of keeping everything local, system image and cloning software is another easy backup plan.

The bottom line to avoid data loss, it to back up your data to one or more locations. We recommend using an off-site solution like Crashplan, as well as backing up to an external drive, NAS, or Home Server too.



  1. Chris

    How about Norton GHOST ?

  2. Abhay

    You can try various available hard drive recovery utilities like one from Stellar Phoenix to recover useful data from damaged or failing hard drive.

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