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What does it mean if you get a warning that your hard drive is about to fail?

What does it mean when your computer tells you that it is imminent that your
hard drive is going to need to be replaced? What will happen? I have made all
the required recovery discs (I hope). Why would this happen? I bought my
computer recently and don’t do that much with it yet. Basically, I’m just getting
up-to-speed and doing some e-mails, also a little surfing. I’m very careful
going on websites. Both the McAfee and Microsoft tell me I’m protected. All
diagnostic tests show things are A-ok.

I’m going to resist the urge to dwell on what most would consider the obvious:
your hard drive is failing, and it may need to be replaced.

In part, I’m not going to dwell on that because it might not be true (though
it probably is).

Let’s look at the source of this message, and what you should do.

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Almost all hard drives include self-monitoring circuitry built into the drive’s electronics. This allows the drive to keep track of its own health and well being. This technology even has a standard and a name: “S.M.A.R.T.” for “Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology”.

“All hard disks these days have errors writing to and reading from their magnetic media.”

Essentially what’s happened to generate the warning you see is that your hard drive has, itself, determined that the error rate of data being written to and read from the drive has exceeded an acceptable threshold. Too many errors, and the drive thinks that it’s in danger of failing. The SMART technology allows it to report that back to Windows (via the hard disk’s drivers), and Windows passes the warning on to you.

“Errors?” you say, “What errors? I don’t see any errors?”

All hard disks these days have errors writing to and reading from their magnetic media. Sometimes lots of errors, depending on the quality and size of the drive and the density of the information on the media. You don’t normally see these errors because the drives also include error correction technology that actually expects and allows for a certain error rate. All this happens within the drive and is totally transparent. Even the operating system and other test utilities may not see these self-corrected errors.

In fact, you won’t see a disk error until the drive runs into something so broken that it can’t correct it.

So your drive is, whether you realize it or not, pretty much constantly experiencing, and recovering from, read and write errors internally.

When the rate of errors gets to be too high, as defined by that drive’s manufacturer, the warning results. The assumption is that the drive is failing.

What could happen is pretty simple: in the worst case, complete and total data loss.

What to do?

First, Backup! If that “complete and total data loss” didn’t sink in, think about it again. Imagine everything on that hard disk gone. Back it up, if you haven’t already, so that if that happens you’ll simply be inconvenienced and not much more.

In your case you mention that the machine is relatively new. If that’s so, I’d absolutely contact whomever you purchased it from and see about getting the drive replaced. While it might be recoverable, as we’ll see in a moment, these are steps and issues you simply shouldn’t have to deal with on a new machine.

Consider SpinRite. SpinRite is a hard disk maintenance and recovery utility that is the only tool I’m aware of that will operate on the hard drive at a level that may (I have to stress may) actually reduce the number of errors being seen internally. It performs what can be called a “conditioning” pass to write and rewrite the data to the hard drive in ways that can refresh the media and perhaps resolve some of the issues. SpinRite is not free, which brings me to my last point…

Replace the drive. Drives are cheap, and running with what might be a known imminent risk of drive failure just doesn’t make a lot of sense. The downside here is that you must somehow transfer your information – be it using an imaging program to copy from the old hard disk to the new, restoring from your backup, or simply installing everything from scratch, somehow you’ll need to setup the replacement drive for use.

But don’t ignore the warning.

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7 comments on “What does it mean if you get a warning that your hard drive is about to fail?”

  1. I recently stumbled across a freeware program that could be useful in this scenario and it’s called CloneZilla.

    Reply
  2. First of all what you do with a pc has absolutely nothing to do with a hard disk failure.
    Also the fact that you bought it recently is immaterial (unless you’re truly unlucky and got a junker). For a HD to fail all it needs is just a small mechanical shock: maybe some nights ago you left the chair a little to abruptly and gave a passing hit to the pc table.
    To really test a hd you need a real HD tester (McAfee – which is an useless junk – and Microsoft are not one). I use HD Tune , it’s free and very reliable. If it says that your HD is dying then your only option is to change the HD. Luckily you already have done the backup so all you have to do is to contact the seller of your pc.

    Reply
  3. I thought for sure that Leo would touch on something that I’ve seen myself: Spam, brought to pre-installed from the computer manufacturer.

    When I booted up my new desktop, I received a message that my hard drive would “imminently” fail. Wanting to know what was going on, I clicked on the link and soon realized I had been duped by “manufacturer spam”, wanting me to purchase an extended warranty. This was a name brand computer, so I know this practice must be widespread.

    Also, even with up to date security software installed, it’s easier than you may think for malware to infect your computer, give you a bogus message about your hard drive having errors and ask for your cc info to “protect” this from happening to you.

    Like they used to say on the “X-Files”,…..trust no one…..well…..except for maybe Leo.

    Reply
  4. I know it’s a little contradictory, but the link in the above article titled “Your hard disk is more likely to fail than you think.” references a past “Ask Leo” article in which the error reporting in SMART drives has been proven to be unreliable.

    Reply
  5. Concerning moving all the info from a Hard disk to a new one because of a hard drive warning… Every new hard drive I have ever purchased has included software to do this… am I just lucky?

    Reply
  6. IBM – Hitachi Drive Fitness Test 4.16 (free utility) can be downloaded at

    http://www.softpedia.com/get/System/Hard-Disk-Utils/IBM-Hitachi-Drive-Fitness-Test.shtml

    IBM – Hitachi Drive Fitness Test will create a self-booting DOS diskette to run the DFT utility. The Drive Fitness Test (DFT) provides a quick, reliable method to test SCSI and IDE hard disk drives.

    The Drive Fitness Test analyze function performs read tests without overwriting customer data. (However, Drive Fitness Test is bundled with some restoration utilities that will overwrite data).

    Includes the support for the latest drives. The users guide PDF covers how to use Drive Fitness Test and the included utilities.

    Reply

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