We all have our important files stored in computers, or more particularly, their hard drives. Some of them have lived there for as long as we can remember, and most of us don’t even bother checking them until one huge disaster comes – all stored data are lost like magic! However, you can consider yourself lucky if you have copies or backups of these files distributed among several computers or other storage devices. If you haven’t, you’ve surely learned your lesson the hard and bitter way.
If you’ve been in such a situation and thought that those important files were destined to disappear anyway, then you’re in for a big surprise! There surely were causes for your hard drive’s failure – whether you’ve seen them coming or not.
We don’t want anyone to experience this predicament, so we will educate you as to what causes data loss in hard drives, the read and write cycles they can support, and the warning signs that you have to closely look after. By the end of this article, hopefully, you can become more informed on the matter. Let’s start.
Major Causes of Hard Drive Deaths and Failure
Let’s go straight to the heart of the problems. So, your hard drive fails you, and now you’re concerned whether there’s still a way to recover those lost data or you’ll just have to accept the fact that they’re lost forever. Before we talk about the solutions later, let’s first examine the main causes of internal or external hard drive failure.
1. Manufacturing Defect
Some people are fond of putting the blame to the product’s manufacturer which sometimes end up as just accusations. However, for a device that is as intricate and sensitive as a hard drive, they may actually turn out to be right! Even for hard disk drives that have been around for more than 50 years, no one can assure a perfect product.
When the problem is caused by the manufacturer, it is often due to a hardware component failure. In a hard disk drive’s case, it may be the read/write heads that gouge into the device’s disks thereby damaging the platter’s magnetic surfaces. The condition is called a head crash and can result in permanent data loss.
Virtually any component of an HDD or SSD can have problems. Gladly, most hard disk manufacturers now offer a limited time warranty where you can return the faulty product without having to pay extra. They also have tests that would precisely determine if the problem is indeed traceable to manufacturing.
2. Firmware Corruption
Sometimes, the hard drive is visible in the computer but the user could not access or find stored data. In this case, the data is corrupted. There are many reasons for data corruption including sudden power failure, incorrect user action, or more commonly, virus attack.
Computer viruses can infect any data and damage their file structure. The longer viruses stay on the hard drive, the more damage they cause and the lower the recovery chance becomes. The worst kind of damage simply makes it impossible for you to access any file. Firmware corruption is a common culprit for hard drive failure.
Fortunately, most HDDs have their own repair tool. If you’re using Seagate HDD, here’s a short video to help you learn how to fix your drive’s corrupted firmware.
3. Excessive Heat
Heat is among the leading causes of severe damage to hard drive components. This can be due to an improper computer system cooling or a very hot environment. When the heat level of a drive reaches a peak point, its components expand and contracts again as the temperature decreases.
With excessive heat and sudden temperature changes, the hard disk may crash, develop cracks, and gain severe damages that compromise the safety of your data. The worse thing is; the damage may be too severe and irreversible, so you’ll end up losing both the device and your files in it. The image below is a good example.
4. Water Damage
Any device that has been spilled with water or other liquid would most likely be inoperable or severely damaged straightaway. This is because most products simply do not have adequate built-in protection against liquid substances. Even when your hard drive has, you would still want to take extra caution since liquid can penetrate into even the smallest holes.
When water sips into your hard drive, there will be unwanted surges in its electrical current. This reaction will ultimately result in a severely damaged device by which stored data can become inaccessible or corrupted.
5. Power Surges
It is disappointing to think that unforeseen and uncontrollable factors such as lightning strikes and sudden power line interference can erase stored hard disk data. Even when normal power is turned back right away, you can still receive both minor and major issues as the flow of electricity has already been interrupted.
For your hard drive to function properly, there should be a consistent flow of the required power supply. This means that even when the aforementioned factors are absent, your drive can still be put in danger. If it happens, it’s surely due to improper allocation of a power supply. Always remember to give it only the required amount, neither too high nor too low. Exercise more caution by switching off your computer when not in use.
6. Mechanical Failure
In order to extend their hard drive’s lifespan, some owners become so cautious in handling the device. This method is indeed effective, but only for a couple of years. Mechanical failure only occurs when the drive’s components are damaged due to physical or static reasons, even old age.
This is to say that the manufacturer is not the only possible cause of hardware problems. The device may perfectly perform in the early years and eventually degrade in the later. The nature of this problem also makes it possible for the owner to replace or fix the damaged parts. Although it is not always possible, there is a good chance that you can still enjoy the company of your drive. The corrupted or lost data, however, will have likely suffered a defeat.
7. Human Error
Human error is sadly one of the main causes of serious damages to the device’s system. Some improperly install their OS, alter file location and attribute, accidentally delete files, change the registry settings, and so many other unintentional acts (some may even be intentional).
Our failed attempt to handle our own hard drive and all its data is often the cause of their demise. More often than not, these errors are hard to repair or will require us to shell out some cash if we ever want to restore the data and fix the device. Yes, we have such a propensity but it’s also up to us to learn and make things right.
Hard Drives Have a Life Cycle
Just like living beings, hard drives have a life cycle too. While living beings perish due to birthing abnormalities, illnesses and old age, hard drives die because of manufacturing defects, gradual mechanical failure, and their relative age. Therefore, it is not a matter of whether hard drives will die because we now know that they do; instead, it’s a matter of when and under what conditions. The lifespan of a hard drive varies depending on many factors, but it also mainly depends on whether you’re using an HDD (hard disk drive) or SSD (solid state drive).
HDDs are traditional hard drives which are usually found in desktop computers and cheaper laptops. Their average lifespan depends on various aspects including the brand, size, type, and interface. Under normal usage, Backblaze’s study found an average lifespan of about 4 years for the 25,000 HDDs they’ve examined. 80% of these hard drives lasted for 4 years while the remaining 20% died much sooner. The brand was also seen to make a huge difference. For instance, Seagate HDDs were seen to fail more frequently than Hitachi and Western Digital.
While most brands provide a 6-month to a 3-year warranty on their HDDs, it is still best to back up all of your data. Keep an eye on the warranty offers, but also be ready for failure before, on, or after the warranty expires.
SSDs are relatively new compared to HDDs. This is also the reason why there hasn’t been any comprehensive report on the actual lifespan of SSDs. They are, however, preferred because of their speed, although they’re also comparably more expensive. One issue that has been faced by SSDs in its earlier years is the limited number of its read/write cycles, or so others thought. Yet, we now know, according to TechReport’s SSD endurance test, that this is just over-blown fear. The test showed that SSDs managed to reach reading and writing cycles of over 700TB of data.
The aforementioned data is further supported by the tested brands’ 3 to 5-year warranty period. This shows how confident they are with their SSDs survival rate under normal usage. Assuming that users write 40GB of data per day, it would take 50 years to get to the 700TB estimate – given of course that they won’t fail due to issues other than old age. Therefore, SSDs can last for a long time, but this doesn’t mean you can mistreat your drive.
Can I Store My Hard Drive for the Long Haul in a Shoebox?
What if someone decides to write a whole lot of data on the hard drive and decided to store it away for his kids to open when they get old? Will the data or the hard drive survive? Well, the straight answer is yes. Now, this thing is called Cold Storage, and its viability again depends on whether you have an HDD or SSD, along with many other environmental factors.
Given that all conditions are normal, you won’t have to worry about data deterioration when storing an HDD. It has a certain lifespan, but it would take decades for it to perish in a safe storage unit. Experts concur that the only thing you’ll have to look after is the drying out of oil around the drive’s ball bearings. This is simple to address, however; just spin them up again after a few years. Doing so will also give you the chance to set additional backups or switch to a new method of storage.
HDDs have a fragile make, so accidentally dropping them or placing them under heavy obstacles should definitely be avoided. Additionally, you’ll have to make sure that the environment of the storage room is climate controlled – neither too hot nor too cold. Therefore, if you do decide to put it in a shoebox (if it ever fits), make sure that it is kept at a room temperature without frequent changes in condition.
SSDs are easier to store as they don’t have easily breakable components, unlike those of HDDs. However, there still hasn’t been any long-term storage survivability study for them as the technology is relatively new. However, assuming that the only factor involved is environment control, the hard drive can most definitely survive for decades. The only consideration left is the slow degradation of stored data in the hard drive’s NAND cells, and we are pretty confident that this too will take a long time.
Put simply, HDD and SDD with all their stored data can be kept in safe storage for decades without worrying too much about data degradation. This is given that they are kept in a safe and climate-controlled environment. You’ll have to fire them up a couple of years later to keep them working like new and to also check your stored data.
Sign and Symptoms of Hard Drive Failure
By now, you should be able to accept the fact that hard drives eventually perish over time no matter how careful you are with handling them. Yet, if you are not at all careful, they may die on you long before their normal lifespan expires. In most cases, they’ll show certain symptoms that indicate they are already failing. These might include the following:
- Your computer suddenly crashes.
- Your computer shows error messages upon moving or copying files.
- Computer files and folders are corrupted or damaged and are inaccessible.
- It takes a long time for you to access certain computer files.
- Your hard drive makes clicking or grinding noises.
- The hard disk cannot be detected or recognized by the system.
- The system freezes in the middle of the booting process.
- A black screen appears before successfully starting the system.
- The fans are either not moving or are moving too slow.
- Your computer or laptop accumulates heat fast even immediately after starting.
- If there is a sudden power failure, files may be damaged or corrupt.
The above mentioned are only some of the common signs and symptoms that precede a hard drive failure. They may not immediately damage your data or your drive, but if the problem recurs, it is a definite sign of system failure. The best things to do are to immediately back up all your data, avoid using your computer, and consult an expert for solutions. Of course, creating regular backups long before such issues may occur greatly helps.
A hard drive device is preferred over other storage mediums because of its apparent appeal. You can easily transfer files, switch between computers, and store data for a long time. However, a hard drive also comes with its own caveats. It can suffer from any internal or physical issues that may affect its functionality and the security of your stored data. Knowing all the risks associated with its use, you should be cautious in handling it and learn ways to become more responsible for the upkeep of the device. Most importantly, back up your data! Always.
Check out which portable drive will suit best for your shoebox: Best portable external hard drive