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  • All hard drives will fail. The what, how, when and why...

    22 July at 20:38 from atlas

    Every week I see PCs and Macs being brought in with various problems, all caused by one component - the hard drive. Hard drives fail, frequently, and often without warning and only prudent planning and backing up will save your irreplaceable data.

    So what is a hard drive? The HDD (Hard Disk Drive) stores your files, photos, music, projects, programs and the operating system on special coated metallic discs that spin around at speeds of between 4200 and 15000 rpm. Magnetic heads actuate back and forth over these platters (discs), reading and writing data to the platter so that when your computer is powered off, the data remains stored inside the hard drive for future use. These magnetic heads are like a stylus on a record, seeking a track, but with much more speed and accuracy and with the ability to change information on the platter.

    Hard drives provide this stored information to the CPU (Central Processing Unit) for use by other programs and a temporary storage system called RAM (Random Access Memory). While power is supplied to the CPU and RAM, the instructions and temporary storage function interact with the hard drive. When you shut down your computer, the CPU instructs the RAM to write any changes to the hard drive before the power goes off and any data left in the RAM is lost forever.

    Have you ever been working on a new document and forgot to save the changes? When you are working on a new document, it is being stored in RAM and when you go to save your work, the document is then copied from the RAM and written to the hard drive, where it is stored more permanently on the hard drive. If for some reason the power goes out for a second or two and you have not saved your work to the HDD, your work will be lost forever. That's the theory of where a hard drive fits into the computer and what an important job it does storing your long term files.

    Will your computer work without a hard drive? Yes and no - Yes it will turn on, but it will not be able to use it as the HDD plays another vital role in your computer. When you press the power button, the motherboard sends power to all components in your computer like the processor, memory, hard drive, optical drive, video card and other connected peripherals. After the initial Post On Self Test (POST) completes, the hardware looks for all connected drives and selects the first drive from the configurable boot list. If the first drive in the list has a functioning boot record, the computer reads the configuration on the drive and starts loading operating system files from the drive and begins the startup process. If the first drive does not have the boot record or it is damaged, the computer may not start, or it will then check the second drive and so forth in the boot list for a valid instruction until all devices in the boot list have been exhausted.

    If your computer loses power abruptly during a hard disk write or even during read activity, or a rogue program causes a kernel panic or corruption of the RAM or CPU, there is a real possibility of a data error occurring that can corrupt a file or an important file index. If important operating system files are damaged during a power loss event, your computer can become unbootable and may require corrective action using your operating system installation DVD. This event is a soft error and is usually recoverable.

    Hard errors are more physical damage to the hard disc drive that can occur from many conditions including:

      head crashes damaging the platter during a drop or violent force.

      the special platter coating that allows the data to be stored failing causing bad sectors to occur

      power control board failures

      motor spindle failures

    Bad sectors are an early sign of a failing hard drive and if left unchecked the bad sectors can spread like a cancer on the platter and once the important startup files or indexes are plagued with bad sectors, the computer will not complete a startup, or will take a very long time to startup. If this occurs, you should back up your data immediately and make arrangements to replace the drive asap.

    Other signs of hard drive issues include unusual slow downs especially with a specific trigger, strange noises with disc activity, drives simply disappearing or not making any noise, on Apple Macs you see a grey folder with a flashing question mark on power up, or on Windows PC's you see the message Missing Operating System or Operating System Not Found on power up.

    Soft errors can be remedied, but hard errors require replacement of the now unreliable drive. One thing is certain, hard drives are mechanical with moving parts, sensitive to heat, magnetic fields, moisture and simple wear and tear. Experience has shown that the reliability of a hard drive will drop significantly after about 3 years of use. It does not seem to matter if the drive is infrequently used in an external enclosure, or in a 24/7 server application, they all will fail eventually. This is why we all recommend having a backup system in place and also why we recommend upgrading your hard drive every few years to be ahead of the failure curve.

    If you have a hard disc drive that has failed, all is not necessarily lost. We have a data recovery service that can attempt to recover your files from a failed drive. We send your failed drive to a specialist provider in Brisbane where they will quote you on the cost of a recovery at a fraction of the price the hard drive manufacturers charge for the same service. Please contact us for more information if you have lost data on a failed drive that you need salvaged.

    For those that value their data, make a concerted effort to backup your important files, emails, photos, videos, documents on a weekly if not daily basis to any combination of external drives, cloud backup services or optical media and preferably keep the backup offsite in case a fire or flood damages both your hard drive and back up drive. Apple users have the Time Machine app integrated into OS X for automated backups. Most Windows 7 users also have the windows backup program for basic file and settings recovery.

    Secondly consider the risk of failure grows with drive age and only a new replacement drive can lower the risk of data loss from hard errors. We can assist you with the selection, installation and backup contingencies tailored specifically to your use.

    Happy computing.