The hard drive is undeniably a very important part of your computer. As the main storage device, it contains your files, installed software, and your operating system. It plays a large part in managing processes within your computing experience. Running into problems with hard drives also happens to be the most common issue for laptop users. Understandably, these problems can be frustrating to diagnose and repair.

To get an idea of what issues we’re dealing with hard drive failures, recognising and understanding the common errors that concern them can help you be prepared, should they happen to your hard drive. In the guide below, we’ll look at the common errors that occur when a hard drive is failing, and explain why hard drives fail.

What is an HDD?

A hard disk drive (HDD), or hard drive, is the main storage device on laptops and desktop computers. It has been the mainstay for computer storage for many years. It reads and writes data using magnetic read and write heads on an actuator that floats on a spinning disk.

As a form of non-volatile storage, digital information stored on a hard drive stays there at all times. Data stays there even when the device is not in use or when it is turned off. This differs hard drives from Random Access Memory (RAM).  As volatile storage, data stored on RAM is reset once the computer is turned off.

What is the expected life-span of a hard drive?

The life-span of your hard drive can depends on different factors, such as interface type and use. In general, consumer-graded hard drives tends to last anywhere from 2-5 years on average.

It is expected that hard drives will eventually wear out with age and lose its original spark. This can come from all kinds of reasons, from general wear and tear to accidental damage. Hard drive failures are quite inevitable, and will need to be fixed or replaced.

How are hard drives manufactured?

A hard drive manufacturing plant.

A hard drive manufacturing plant.

The delicate machinery that makes up a hard drive is manufactured in several processes. Parts are made and assembled together under a controlled and clean environment, where the chances of air and dust contamination is extremely low. Different parts of the drive are often produced in separate sites, then shipped to the final assembly plant.

Even with such tightly controlled conditions during the process, nothing is perfect, and defects can happen to almost all hard drives. These are known as bad sectors.

What are bad sectors?

A bad sector is a defective part (among millions or billions) of a hard drive that is unusable for writing and reading digital information. Once damage is taken to a part of the hard drive, the information that was stored on this bad sector can become corrupted or lost.

Bad sectors can be divided into two types — “physical” or “hard” bad sectors, or “logical” or “soft” bad sectors:

Physical bad sectors

Hard bad sectors are physically damaged parts of the hard drive that are impossible to repair. This type of bad sector can be detected and mapped out by disk repair utilities. Then your computer will be able to skip over the hard bad sector and stop reading or writing on it. Still, hard drives can fray over time, and eventually fail. A hard drive replacement may be something to think about down the line.

What causes hard bad sectors?

Hard bad sectors are caused by physical damage, and this can be from a range of circumstances. As we’ve learnt before, hard drive manufacturing isn’t perfect, even with its rigorously controlled environment, and can come with small defects like bad sectors. Other things like dropping the computer and damaging the platter with the drive head, or environmental factors like dust and air can also cause significant damage to over time.

There are surely many possible causes to hard bad sectors. So keeping in mind that your hard drive will ultimately start failing, it could still be a good idea to treat your computer with care.

Logical bad sectors

A logical bad sector, or a soft bad sector is a part of the hard drive that isn’t working normally. Your system may come across these when trying to read or write information on it, and the information is inaccessible or it takes too long to complete the process.

In contrast to hard bad sectors, soft bad sectors can be detected and repaired with disk repair software. Reading and writing processes can resume as normal if a repair is successful.

Another thing that your system does with bad sectors is replacing them with sectors within the spare sector pool on the hard drive. This allows the drive to work properly again by making use of the working sectors. Even so, this isn’t a permanent fix, as space within the spare sector pool is limited.

What causes soft bad sectors?

In general, software issues cause soft bad sectors. Situations like the computer being abruptly shut down while the hard drive is writing information or virus infections can cause software issues that escalate to soft bad sectors. Maintaining safe shutdown practices is always a good idea, not only for the good of your hard drive, but for the health of your computer as well.

So now that we understand what causes most hard drive issues and failures, we can look at the few common errors that users come across that concerns a failing hard drive. You’ll also be able to use diagnostics tools to find out out the right repair solution to common HDD issues.

1.  “SMART failure predicted on hard disk”

SMART, short for “Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology”, is a built-in tool on a storage device, such as hard drives and solid-state drives. It works to detect and report any issues or signs to anticipate any drive failures. “SMART failure” is a very common hard drive error for users of Windows 10/8/7, as hard drive failure will happen along the lifespan of the drive. Typically, this is caused by factors such as the accumulation of too many bad sectors, or improper use.

When you get the error message “failure predicted on hard disk” or “a failure may be imminent”, it means that your hard drive has not yet failed, but is getting close. Your system sets out an alert for you to make precautions, such as backing up your data and getting a repair for your hard drive.

2. “No bootable device” /  “No boot device found”

“No bootable device” means that your computer can’t properly recognise the hard drive, which is where your operating system is stored. Most of the time, this is due to a failed hard drive or an OS issue.

3. “Inaccessible boot device”

The “inaccessible boot device” error shows up on what is known as a “blue screen of death” (BSOD), where the system crashes and restarts. This occurs when the system recognises the HDD, but can’t access or read data on the drive properly.

4. “Operating system not found”

Another error similar to the ones listed above, “operating system not found” means that the system is unable to properly read and boot from the operating system on the hard drive.

5. Folder icon with question mark on Apple computer start up

This error occurs during startup in an Apple laptop or desktop computer, showing a folder icon with a question mark. This means the computer is having trouble finding its system folder within the hard drive, and is unable to boot from the Mac OS.

6. Windows stuck at logo screen at startup

The chances of getting stuck on the logo screen at startup are higher with the build up of bad sectors on the hard drive. This causes longer read processes and the system will experience difficulty when booting up.

7. Laptop stuck in Windows startup repair, or showing “Diagnosing your PC” but cannot boot Windows

If Windows is not booting up properly, users will often be prompted to use the advanced boot options menu. This brings us to startup repair. This error occurs when the user is stuck in the startup repair task and is still unable to boot up. System files are unable to load from the OS, causing the boot up process to be stuck.

8. Slow computer, often getting spinning colour wheel

This one is pretty self-explanatory, right? Finding that your laptop or desktop computer is running a lot slower than usual can be pretty frustrating when you’re used to a certain standard of things. A ridiculously slow computer can mean issues with reading and writing processes on the hard drive. Or it may even be mechanical issues with the drive. It might be time for a replacement or an upgrade.

How do I diagnose HDD issues?

Here are three methods you could use to diagnose issues on your hard drive:

Built-in disk repair utilities

Both Windows and Apple computers have built-in disk repair utilities, namely “chkdsk” and “Disk Utility”. You can use these basic tools to detect and attempt repairs on any issues you may find on your hard drive.

Pre-boot diagnostics

With pre-boot diagnostics, you’ll be able to run tests on your computer’s hardware to find out whether everything is working properly. This way you can spot hard drive failures and other hardware issues before they become a huge problem.

To run boot diagnostics, press the corresponding key while your computer is booting up. Each brand of computer has their own specific key to run the diagnostic tests, such as “F12” for Dell laptops, “ESC” key for HP, “Enter” key for Lenovo laptops, and “D” key for Apple Mac. Be sure to look up the right key for your brand of device.

Dedicated hard disk analysis software

Using dedicated software to diagnose your hard drive issues can also be a helpful option to understand hard drive failures. Free hard drive analysis software like SeaTools (Seagate, Windows), Drive Utilities for Mac (Western Digital, Apple), or Data Lifeguard (Western Digital, Windows) can be used for such tests.

With this option, you’ll need to test your hard drive with software on a different desktop computer. This involves taking out the hard drive in question and using an enclosure box to connect it to the desktop computer that you are performing tests on.

SeaTools testing process.

SeaTools testing process.

If your hard drive needs replacing

As we’ve learnt, hard drives do fail and an easy and effective fix might as well be a replacement. You can choose to do it yourself by following the many guides out there, from sites such as ifixit. With a few tools and careful moves, your computing experience can be enjoyed as normal.

Things to consider when buying a new hard drive

To find out the right drive for your desired computing experience, here are some things to look out for when shopping for a new drive:

Storage capacity

Different types of hard drives offer different storage capacities. For most users of personal laptops, storage capacities from 250-500GB may be enough. 250GB can roughly mean 30,000 photos or songs. Storing and using larger files such as movies or media projects would usually call for a capacity of up to 1TB or more.

The physical size of hard drives also differ for laptops and desktop computers. If you own a laptop, you will need a 2.5-inch HDD, or 3.5-inch for desktop computers. 2.5-inch HDDs offer up to 5TB of storage, while the largest capacity of 3.5 HDDs is 14TB.

Speeds

When considering hard drive performance, you may want to look into the speeds of different types of hard drives. This is mainly reflected from the RPM, the revolutions per minute. RPM measures the rotational speed of the platters that are used to store information of the hard drive. The higher the RPM, the faster the read and write speeds of the drive. So, a high RPM would be able to get you a faster drive.

These days, a consumer-grade hard drives mainly operate at 5400 RPM or 7200 RPM. By comparing the two types, 7200 RPM drives approximately runs five times faster than 5400 RPM drives. Having a think about the right performance for your computing experience may be able to help you decide.

Consider a solid-state drive

Samsung 840 EVO 1TB SSD

Samsung 840 EVO 1TB SSD.

Solid-state drives are becoming more and more popular as a better computer storage solution. Its use of non-volatile memory that does not require any machinery to read and write information provides a faster and safer option for computer storage.

While you can just replace your hard drive, but upgrading to an SSD may get you a smoother experience in the long run. Need more information about SSDs? Learn more here. We cover the basics of solid-state drives, and how you can benefit from an SSD upgrade.

Getting an in-store repair

As another option, you may decide to just take your computer to an authorized service centre or a repair shop. Professional services may be an option for you if you’d like to get your computer checked out thoroughly and get a good fix.

If you live in Inner West Sydney, why not consider seeking professional advice from our technicians at Safemode Computer Service? Rated among the top three computer repair services for three years in a row by ThreeBestRate, we can definitely offer the right solution for you 🙂