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Hard Disk Failure Is Imminent! What Do I Do?

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I get a message that shows hard disk failure is imminent, please back up your hard disk and have it replaced. So I did the backup with the system built in backup process. But it stopped the process halfway. So some files were encrypted and some files were not. I copied the files which were not encrypted to my external hard disk drive. But the remaining files which were encrypted are not able to copy and open. Please give me an idea to recover my files.

I’m sorry to say it’s very possible that you are S.O.L.: Severely Out of Luck.

I’ll run down what I suspect is happening, what I would do in your situation, and additional options you might have.

And, of course, I’ll review how you could have prevented this in the first place.

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Hard disk failure is imminent

This message means exactly what it says: the diagnostic and status circuitry and/or firmware on your drive has detected that the hard drive is about to fail — soon. In this case, “fail” can mean anything from “you might lose a few files” to “the entire drive will stop working.”

Honestly, you’re lucky you got a warning at all. More commonly, drives simply fail in some fashion without notice. There is no guarantee you’ll be warned.

All that means is that you need to take this message very seriously as soon as you see it.

What I would do

I’m going to assume you’re reaching out for data recovery help because there’s important data on that drive that isn’t backed up elsewhere. I’ll talk more about that in a moment, but for now our focus is on getting what we can off the drive.

Hard disk failure is imminent

The fact that some of the files are encrypted complicates matters. With unencrypted files, partial recovery can still be valuable. Encrypted files, on the other hand, are often all or nothing. In addition, when Windows’ built-in encryption is used, it really needs to be your copy of Windows that decrypts the file. That means moving the drive to another system and seeing what tools you can run or what data you can recover is less likely to be effective.

In a situation like this, where preserving and recovering the contents of an entire hard drive is the goal, my mind turns to SpinRite. In your shoes, I would see if I could get SpinRite to run on this hard drive and possibly recover the contents of the damaged sectors.

A couple of caveats, however:

  • SpinRite hasn’t been updated in ages, but it’s apparently still working well.
  • You’ll need to be able to boot from SpinRite’s CD image.
  • SpinRite is not free. (But they’ll refund if it fails to recover your data.)
  • Depending on the size of and damage to your drive, SpinRite can take a very long time.
  • There’s no guarantee your data will be recovered.

But that’s where I’d go first.

If it’s important enough

If SpinRite can’t do the trick or it’s simply too intimidating (it is kinda geeky), your options are few.

If the data on the hard drive is important enough — meaning it’s worth money to you — your next option would be a data recovery service. I say “worth money” because that’s exactly what it’s going to take to have such a service examine the disk and do what they can. It can be very expensive.

And once again, there’s no guarantee your data will be recovered.

Perhaps it’s worth it, depending on what you’re about to lose otherwise.

I have no recommendations, as it’s never been worth it me. It’s never been necessary, and you can probably guess why.

Hard drives fail

Hard drives fail all the time. They just do. Oh, you can go for years without experiencing it, but then suddenly you see “Hard disk failure is imminent”, or worse.

You must prepare, and preparation is simple: back up.

If you’d had a backup of your data taken prior to the hard drive’s imminent failure, you would simply replace the drive, recover the data from backup, and get on with your life. It would be that simple.

I have lots of different articles on how to back up — the links below only touch the tip of the iceberg. It’s something I preach about and write about often, specifically because of stories like yours.

You see, based on what you’ve told me, I don’t think you’re getting your data back. I hope I’m wrong, but the scenario you outline all too often ends with “…and then I lost everything.”

And that just doesn’t have to be.

Whether or not you get your data back, please, please learn from this experience and begin backing up right now.

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35 comments on “Hard Disk Failure Is Imminent! What Do I Do?”

  1. Spinrite – urgh. Sorry, Leo, but that’s shockingly bad advice. Spinrite should absolutely NOT be used in instances such as this as it’s very likely to cause further damage to the drive, perhaps the data that’s on it permanently irrecoverable. The correct approach would be to either use a data recovery services – DriveSavers, Ontrack – or, if that’s not an option, DIY it with tools that are actually designed to do the job.

    • Wow. I’ve never once heard of SpinRite actually causing further damage. In fact I’ve had it successfully recover data on more than one occasion. Granted, a data recovery service is the ultimate best shot, but when faced with the cost, especially if the alternative is giving up, I still believe SpinRite to be a viable option. (PS: I’d love to hear your recommendations for the DIY tools you mention.)

      • From Wikipedia:

        “SpinRite attempts to recover data from hard disks with damaged portions that may not be readable via the operating system. When the program encounters a sector with errors that cannot be corrected by the disk drive’s error-correcting code, it tries to read the sector up to 2000 times…..”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpinRite

        Hammering an already ailing HDD with tens of thousands of read requests is absolutely that the last thing you want to do as it may very well kill the drive and cause permanent data loss (it’s also worth noting that rereading sectors over and over is completely pointless: if a sector cannot be read on the 1st attempt, it’s not going to be read on the 2nd, 3rd or 2,000th attempt).

        When working with a sickly HDD, best practice is to subject it to minimum stress (which Spinrite absolutely does not do), while cloning it as quickly as possible and then working with the copied data. As for DIY tools, GNU ddrescue is a pretty good starting point:

        https://www.linux.com/learn/intro-to-linux/2017/3/GNU-DDRESCUE-BEST-DAMAGED-DRIVE-RESCUE

        • I’ll disagree with the “completely pointless” on re-reads. Your OS already does it. Even the tool you reference does it. As I understand it, SpinRite also tries various techniques that, as best I can describe it, attempt to vary the way the head approaches the potentially damaged sector, which results in micro-changes in position that sometimes allow more of the data to be read. It also uses what data it CAN read — even in failed attempts — collecting it to perform a best-effort average of what the data looks like so as to return something that stands a chance of approaching the original content. Is it right for every situation? Of course not. But I’ve got no problem with it reading (and only reading) in situations where a potentially damaged sectors on my hard drive in an attempt to recover the data. (Do not confuse SpinRite’s conditioning operations — which absolutely hammer the disk — with the read/recovery operation.)

          Thanks for the Linux tool link. Agree it’s another tool for the arsenal, and has the additional advantage of being entirely free.

          • “As I understand it, SpinRite also tries various techniques that, as best I can describe it, attempt to vary the way the head approaches the potentially damaged sector, which results in micro-changes in position that sometimes allow more of the data to be read.” – Hard drives are designed to *never* return bad data. Unless the accuracy of the data can be 100% guaranteed, the drive will return an error and the angle of dangle of the read/write head has no bearing on that whatsoever. Back in the day, it was possible to disable error checking and instruct the drive to give up its data by using the Read Long command, but that was dropped from the ATA/ATAPI-4 specification more than a decade ago before being revived as part of SMART.

            HDD technology has drastically changed in the 15-or-so years since SpinRite was created. If it ever had value, it certainly doesn’t now and I suspect that any reports of it fixing modern HDDs are entirely coincidental and simply the result of SMART remapping.

            “I’ll disagree with the “completely pointless” on re-reads. Your OS already does it.’ – Well, that’s really handled by HDDs’ onboard diagnostics which work independently from Windows to relocate data from bad sectors to good. If a manufacturer’s own diagnostics tools – which are specifically designed to work its drives – cannot extract the data after multiple attempted reads, I very much doubt that 15-year-old SpinRite is going to be able to.

            Again, the best practice when dealing with an ailing HDD is to image it in a manner that subjects it to as little stress as possible and then work with the image. This is exactly what data recovery companies do.

            When your car starts spluttering, you either get it towed to the garage or drive it there slowly and carefully. What you don’t do is take it for a few laps around the racetrack. Because that’d be likely to make the problem even worse, right?

    • I had an external USB hard drive that Defraggler told me was a mess when I planned to defrag it. Cannot remember the exact message.
      None of the warnings had been given otherwise. I Immediately looked at the drive to get useful stuff copied. That was successful.

      Spin Rite took a LONG time to finish destroying that drive. Since the info was probably duplicated elsewhere, I was not too concerned. It must have been close to the message you spoke about!

  2. My computer just told me my hard drive had failed. Not true…. windows 10 updates caused the issue. I ran diagnostics said hard drive fine.
    These updates cause a lot of problems.

  3. Leo:
    The article brings up one concern of mine. I regularly B/U my W7 PC via Macrium Reflect. I do an image B/U.
    Let’s say my computer goes totally kaput.
    Suppose I buy (used) the exact same model PC.
    Would I be able to restore that image I saved?
    Same question, assuming I got another W7 laptop, but not the exact same model.

    Mel

    • Exact same model: yes. Different model: you would not be able to simply restore the image, but you would be able to restore your data from the backup after installing the OS and applications from scratch.

      • Macrium Reflect paid versions can restore images to dissimilar hardware. The free version cannot. I have done this several times, and it’s worked all but one time. I believe this is also the case with most, if not all, other image backup programs.

        • It’s not something I would ever rely on — reinstall from scratch is the more appropriate solution — but, yes, I realize that there are tools that try to provide this functionality. My concern is simply that there’s just no way they can be 100% reliable.

      • Hey all,
        Whether you have Macrium Reflect Free or purchased if the disk failure is just a bad sector (maybe the boot record or BCD), but the drive is otherwise still functioning and you have created a bootable Macrium Reflect Rescue CD/DVD or flash you can access the folders on the drive and copy what you want to another disk or flash drive using the file explorer on the rescue medium.

  4. My back-up strategy: All my hard drives are mirrored on a second one. I start with two identical drives and then schedule Folder Clone to run every night (early morning). I sleep well at night. When 6T drives are available for ~100 USD, it’s a no-brainer.

  5. Been using SpinRite for decades. Sadly it does NOT work with GPT formated drives. (One gets a mysterious ‘MBR Followed by EFI error) so modern systems are out of SpinRite’s 10+ year old wheelhouse until a long promised update occurs RSN.

    Spinrite is Great for recovering and maintaining drives. Do agree it is a good idea to clone the drive first. Spinrite has never made a drive worse, and often has allowed it to boot and data retrieved.

  6. When my hard drive totally failed I took the computer to Best Buy/Geek Squad. They couldn’t get the data files from it. They recommended that I authorize them to send it to a data recovery service. That service charged $150 and ultimately saved almost all of the files. As I understand it, the service took the hard drive apart and put the recording media into their own machine. The Geek Squad then placed the recovered files on a new drive and installed it. Try it.

  7. I’m glad you posted this article. Last week “After an Update” like D. Spencer had mentioned my computer said pretty much the same thing, but I thought it was a virus because of the wording:
    “SMART Hard Disk Error”
    “The SMART hard disk check has detected an imminent failure. To insure “not” data loss please backup the content immediately and run the hard disk test in System Diagnostics.
    That last sentence isn’t correct. It should be “no” data loss.
    Then it goes on:
    Hard Disk 1 (301)
    F2 System Diagnostics
    Enter: Continue Startup
    For more information please visit: http://www.hp.com/go/techcenter/startup

    So lo and behold, I go to visit the site and voila there is the correct wording:
    On startup, you may see an error message like the following:
    The SMART hard disk check has detected an imminent failure.
    To ensure no data loss, please backup the content immediately and run the Hard Disk Test in System Diagnostics.

    Last June I fell for the scam where it says your computer is infected, call this number, bla, bla, I did, and I almost lost everything, they even locked me out of my computer. I had a wonderful computer man hack into my computer and recover everything..Praise the Lord!!

    So hence my concern with this message… Is it real, fake or a virus?????

    • I’d be concerned with a misspelling like that. A misspelling in an error message is possible, but if it doesn’t match up with the message on the screenshot in the computer’s official website, I would be suspicious.

  8. There is an old method that works depending on the type of failure
    1. remove HD drive and seal it in a zip-lock bag
    2. place bag in a freezer
    3. after an hour or two remove and return HDD to PC.
    4. Try to copy data.

    • In the case of drives made within the last decade or so, the freezer trick is very, very, very unlikely to work. In fact, it’s much more likely to make the problem worse and could well result in the data being permanently lost. It’s something you should try as a Hail Mary only if you’ve exhausted every other option and either can’t afford professional recovery services or don’t consider your data valuable enough to warrant the cost of those services.

  9. Leo
    After reading yet another story of someone losing data because of a failed hard drive, (your last email) I was reminded of my experience last year. My Dell laptop was 5 years old with the original hard drive. At your advice, some time ago I had installed the free version of Macrium Reflect. It had worked perfectly for a couple years. Then, when I would come into my office in the morning, I would see that my computer had rebooted. I traced that to every time the backup began at 11 pm the computer would crash and reboot. Obviously I wasn’t getting those incremental backups for several days,. I initially thought that the backup software was at fault. Then my wife told me, “Your hard drive is failing”. I had no other indication of this except when the backup was started. Naturally I didn’t listen to my wife (what does she know?) Within a few days my hard drive failed completely.
    I ordered a new hard drive and installed my last good backup from Macriunm Reflect. Everything was fine except that I had lost the last month of data. On a hunch, I ordered an external USB enclosure for the old hard drive. Thankfully, although my laptop wouldn’t boot to the drive, all the data was fine. I was able to recover everything.
    I’m glad you keep harping on backups. It’s not hard to do and it is not expensive, but it sure saves a lot of grief.

  10. Leo, I need your help. I have a desktop computer that is about 7 years old and the OS is Vista. I know the hard drive is going to fail one of these days and I am confused about replacing the drive and restoring. My confusion is about image copies which I take regularly and clones. I use Macrium for all backups and I notice it has a clone option What is the difference between the two and do I need to clone my disk also or can I restore it with the image copy? I have your backup book and I think it should cover this, but it don’t., so could you please explain what to do.

    • I’ve replaced hard disks using an image. It’s the easiest. Just be sure you can boot from your rescue media before beginning. (And … Vista? Might be time to consider replacing that too. 🙂 )

  11. Am also getting the same failure message at the time of booting…am not bothered about my data in it….and I didn’t need any backup…only thing I want my hard drive back into normal working condition…. whether it is possible…?and how…? please let me know… through a mail

    Mail id -{removed}@gmail.com

    • In theory somewhere in that message should be an indicator of some sort. If not all you can really do is pay close attention to what was happening — which drives were being accessed — at the time.

  12. Hello,I have a HP notebook and lately I have faced some problems with it
    1:has been so sluggish
    2:can’t move or read some files (error :can’t read this file or disk ) despite of file size
    3:disk usage is mostly %100
    4:boot menu check disk fails
    5:l can’t reinstall Windows 10 (error :windows can’t be installed in this drive it may fail soon )
    6:every time the notebook stars up this error appears on the screen : The smart hard disk check has detected an imminent failure…
    but
    1:in disk management window all partitions are marked as healthy
    2:Drive error check finds no error
    3:all drives can be defragmented successfully
    4: more than %50 of disk is free (Marshall_produced at 2016)
    5:hard disk sound is normal
    based on what I said above ,what can be the problem ?a malware or hard disk is going to fail .could you please help

    • It sounds like disk failure is really imminent. The first step would be to perform a system image backup. Then replace the hard drive and restore the system from the backup. Hopefully, you’ve been taking image backups regularly as it’s possible some data might already be lost.
      Replacement hard drive: how can I copy files from a failing drive to its replacement?
      There’s even a possibility that restoring from a backup might even fix the problem. After the backup, run a chkdsk.exe /r to repair and damaged sectors before restoring from the backup.
      CHKDSK: What Is It and How Do I Run It?

    • Your hard disk is at risk. I would replace it. Disk management “Healthy” doesn’t mean physically healthy, it means that files are stored properly. Drive error check — not sure what tool you mean — but again, could be checking something unrelated to the physical health of the drive. That defrag works doesn’t really mean anything, other than you’re putting your hard drive at greater and greater risk if it indeed is about to fail. Sound also means nothing. SMART is a technology within the drive itself that checks things at a level the OS and Driver’s cannot. If it’s telling you that the drive is about to fail REPLACE THE DRIVE.

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