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Why does my laptop hard drive keep failing?

I have a Dell Latitude D610 laptop. It is 2 years old. I am on my third hard
drive. I just started receiving “CRC” errors. Is there something about this
laptop that could be causing all of these hard drive issues? My use is
typical… internet, office suite activity, adobe suite activity, music. My
security is good… Trend, firewall on router (Modem -> Router/Firewall
-> Access Point -> me). I am at a loss as to why my hard drives are not
lasting for more than several months!

For the record, I actually have three of the Latitude 600 family. I run a
D620, my wife has the D610 you have, and my older D600 is being used by an
assistant.

And they’re all on their original hard drives.

The good news is that the type of failures that you’re seeing can help us
narrow down the search as to what might be going on. The bad news is that it’s
a short list.

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CRC errors are physical errors on the hard drive. Right away that
eliminates almost all thoughts of software. The fact that you’re running
typical applications and have a reasonable security set up is fantastic, but
doesn’t really apply to the kinds of things that would result in CRC errors
increasing over time.

So what does matter?

As I said, it’s a physical problem, so we look at physical causes. For hard
drives that typically means temperature extremes, and for laptop hard drives it
also means what I’ll call “handling”.

Heat

Like almost all components in your computer, hard drives both create, and
are sensitive to, heat. By that I mean that if they get too hot, they’re going
to fail. Typically that failure is either sudden and complete (it just stops
working), or possibly as you’re seeing, surface errors increasing on the
internal hard disk media resulting in CRC errors.

“CRC errors are physical errors on the hard drive. Right
away that eliminates almost all thoughts of software.”

The problem is that the amount of heat that’s typically required to get a
hard drive to fail is much higher than you might think. So the fact that your
hard drive might be hot to the tough isn’t necessarily a sign of a problem –
they do run hot. In order to fail they have to get really hot. (I
know, that’s not a technical term, but how hot is too hot varies from drive to
drive, so I’ll just leave it at “really hot” as we discuss the concepts.)

Really hot can happen for two reasons:

  • Bad ventilation. One of the biggest problems with laptops
    is how to keep them cool in general. There are fans trying to blow cooling air
    through the machine, but depending on how you have things set up it’s often
    very easy for the ventilation to be blocked or otherwise impaired. In other
    words, the cooling system doesn’t, and the entire machine gets too warm.
    Typically other components suffer first, but it’s certainly possible for the
    hard drive to show failure symptoms first.

  • Continuous, hard use. First I have to say that with proper
    ventilation this shouldn’t happen, but the practical reality is that
    it does. If you use your hard drive continuously, and by that I mean the disk
    activity light is on, solid, for hours and hours at a time, the drive is going
    to get hot. Remember I said that the drive generates heat, and that’s not just
    the drive spinning, which it does all the time,. but also the arms within the
    drive moving back and forth as data is read and written to the various
    locations on the hard disk platters.

And of course, both of those two things can happen at the same time: blocked
ventilation coupled with really hard disk activity over a long period of time,
and the drive could certainly overheat.

Handling

I’m sure you haven’t dropped your laptop recently. And it’s probably obvious
to you that doing so isn’t a good thing to do. A true drop is likely to do
external damage and dislodge components, but it could also do internal damage
to the hard drive as well.

What I see a lot of people do that makes me a little nervous is leaving
their computer on while they move it from place to place. Now, I’ll admit, I do
this as well in limited circumstances, but I’m very careful about how and when
I do it.

Carefully carrying your laptop to your next meeting in the office next door?
That’s probably ok. Late to a meeting and jogging down the hall with your
laptop running? Probably a bad idea.

Here’s why: when your laptop is off the “heads”, the actual read/write
mechanism that moves around and either floats over or gently touches the
magnetic media is typically parked in a safe area where bouncing around will do
little or no damage. On the other hand if the disk head is active because the
computer is on, and the computer and the drive within it get jostled around
enough, there is a chance that the head might come into damaging contact with
the magnetic media and create a tiny, perhaps microscopic, scrape. The result?
CRC error.

So if you’re regularly bouncing your computer around while it’s running,
that could result in the problems that you’re seeing.

And to tie it all together into a worst case scenario: if your ventilation
is blocked and your machine can’t cool down, and if your hard drive is
continuously active and generating even more heat, and then you bump, jostle or
drop the computer – well, I’d be impressed if there wasn’t some kind of error
that resulted.

So the advice is simple:

  • Keep your computer clean and well ventilated.

  • If you do run your hard disk continuously for extended periods, consider an
    additional fan or cooling platform

  • Try to minimize bumps and shakes if you do move your computer while it’s
    running.

One last suggestion: you may be able to lengthen the life of your hard
drives by occasionally running Spinrite. The best way to simply describe Spinrite is that it’s
like formatting your hard drive without losing any data. Spinrite “refreshes”
the data on your hard drive and can often recover damaged sectors as well as
delay the impact of some types of pending failures.

There are two down sides to Spinrite: it does run the hard disk continuously
for several hours. I had to purchase a additional cooling pad to keep the laptop from overheating.

And Spinrite is not free.

But in my opinion it’s worth every penny.

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8 comments on “Why does my laptop hard drive keep failing?”

  1. Spinrite is a great app as long as the drive to be checked is internal to the machine (sata, pata). USB drives cannot be easily checked. Spinrite is a DOS application. The software creates a self-booting disk using FreeDOS, but there are no standard USB drivers for DOS. There is one non-standard, non-supported driver, but the disk check time goes way up for the USB drive. For example, doing a level 4 check on one 400 GB disk internal to the machine took about 18 hours. Spinrite estimated 158 hours check time for the same drive in a USB enclosure.

    Reply
  2. What I’d add to this is that some people seem to be under the impression that all they have to do to shut down their laptop is to close the lid – this doesn’t completely shut down the machine, it just puts it into hibernation. This problem is made worse by Vista, where the control that looks like an on/off switch (rectangular red ‘button’) has the same effect – you need to go into the next menu layer for a full ‘Shut Down’.
    The other thing to check is your vehicle suspension – putting a computer in the boot/trunk may gives it a harsh ride – it’ll last longer on the passenger seat. (although in some places that may make it more vulnerable to theft, and you might want to fix it with a seatbelt to stop it falling off under heavy braking!)

    Reply
  3. Hibernation Does actually spin down the drive, making it very safe to move about with. Usually Standby does also spin down the drive, making moving it about safe! ..and easy

    Reply
  4. Hello: actually it does not help. I wanted to knowwhy the hard drive does not reconize the disk when it is in it. i dont know if the hard drive is working or not sense it is not easly checked. please let me know. thanks.

    Reply
  5. There is a lot of nonsense being said about hibernate/standby. Hibernate essentially, as you have said, shuts down the computer after dumping the contents of the RAM to the drive. You can shake the computer about as much as you like (within reason) when its in hibernate. Similarly, Standby merely suspends the session to RAM and turns off everything else. RAM doesn’t mind being shaken. But neither of these are instant, if you shake it when its entering these modes it is more likely to break the drive as it is writing lots.

    Reply
  6. i have a toshiba satellite A200, its 2 years old, its always had CPU heat issues, but vaccuming the thing out good every few months seems to work fine.
    now i have a new problem, when it was new i could play any game of the “2000” era. but now i have to have the HDD cover off and it has no problem rising to 49 degrees centigrade (death at 52) even when im doing nothing, the HDD hardly works at all. is this linked to the age of the HDD that it just works heaps hotter or does my lappy just hate me

    By “lappy” I assume you mean your laptop. I would check for running processes. Often if you have something using 100% of the CPU (even if you are doing nothing) the processor can generate incredible amounts of heat.

    Leo
    12-Jan-2010

    Reply
  7. I have a laptop and to help cool it I place 2 wine corks under the back to allow more air to circulate. Some times it falls off the corks (could it be the alcohol?) So currently I’m looking for 2 2inch square blocks to put under there.Any suggestions?

    Reply

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