How to Prepare for the Inevitable Hard Drive Crash


Q: I recently had to replace my hard drive. My tech support person said it had crashed, and he didn’t know why. When I asked him what I could have done to prevent it, he shrugged his shoulders. What advice do you have?


A: I assume, since you had to replace the drive, that your support person determined that the failure was mechanical, not a software, or logical, problem, which, with a little expert tinkering, could be fixed. The industry uses the word crash to mean both. I’ll focus on the physical crash, which is much more serious. However, be aware that a virus can make a hard drive look as if it suffered a physical failure. Also, some physical failures of other replaceable computer parts—such as a burned-out circuit board—can resemble a hard drive crash.


The worst-case physical crash usually occurs when the disk gets stuck or the read/write head plunks down hard on the spinning disk—either because it got badly bumped or it “tripped” over a fleck of dirt.


Unless you’ve dutifully backed up all your data on an external drive, the first order of business is to try to retrieve the data. There is a reasonably good chance that a crash-rescue expert can retrieve most, if not all, of your data, but it’s going to be an expensive operation. Be aware that an unscrupulous repair person can purposely misdiagnose a software crash as a physical-damage problem and then charge you for data rescue and hard drive replacement. Your only defense is to seek out a reliable technician.


While it’s usually hard, if not impossible, to say why a drive failed, there are things you should and should not do to forestall a physical crash. Notice I said forestall, not prevent. Hard drives are mechanical devices with moving parts, and even under the best conditions moving parts will eventually wear out at some unpredictable time in the future. Breakdowns also can be caused by sudden bumps, extreme temperatures (such as when you leave a laptop in a very hot or cold car for extended periods, or the computer’s fan isn’t operating, or its air vents are blocked with dust and it overheats). In addition to avoiding these conditions and keeping your virus-protection software current, you should take notice if your drive suddenly makes strange sounds—such as clicking or grinding—signs of an imminent breakdown.


The bottom line: Accept the fact that a disk will probably fail some day, so be sure to routinely back up all your valuable data. There are many third-party backup programs. The best programs perform automatic incremental backups immediately after a file is added or changed, keeping your backup drive in sync with your computer. Although many users are comfortable with a full backup at night, when the office is closed, that’s playing the odds your crash won’t occur just before that nighttime backup, which means you’ll lose all the work done that day.


If a drive does fail, not only are data lost, you also lose applications, scores of drivers, and various setups and defaults. But you can protect all that, too. Again, there are a host of apps that can do the job. The granddaddy for that task is a product called Ghost, which, among other things, creates a digital snapshot of your whole drive. Should your drive fail, you can use that copy to get up and running again quickly.


Tips: I’ve interviewed some hard drive gurus who passed along these two seemingly irreverent suggestions; I tried both and they worked.


Suggestion 1: If the data on the drive are critical, and for some reason you can’t take it to a technician to try to retrieve it, remove the drive and place it in a freezer for about 30 minutes and then reconnect it. You then have only one opportunity to transfer the data to another drive. That is an action of last resort.


Suggestion 2: This one, by sheer coincidence, occurred while I was writing this article. My external backup drive failed. I had all my data safely on the computer, so I unplugged the USB cable to the external drive and slammed it down on my desk. The shock was intended to free the jammed reading arm and thus reset it. After that, it worked perfectly, but I won’t trust it as my primary backup drive.


Good news: Drives less prone to failure—solid-state drives—are coming to market. Because these drives have no moving parts, they are less susceptible to a breakdown. But keep in mind, less susceptible does not mean never. They, too, should be backed up.


The downside of these drives right now is price and data capacity. Maximum capacity at this time is 100 gigabytes. But as their popularity grows and manufacturing technology improves, prices will drop and their capacity will increase.


Keeping you informed and prepared amid the coronavirus outbreak

We’re gathering the latest news stories along with relevant columns, tips, podcasts, and videos on this page, along with curated items from our archives to help with uncertainty and disruption.


Excel walk-through: Sparklines

Want to liven up your spreadsheets with some color and graphical elements? Kelly L. Williams, CPA, Ph.D., shows how to use Excel sparklines, which illustrate data trends and patterns via small charts that fit in a single Excel cell.