What Causes Hard Drive Failure?

Cracked screens and liquid spills are expensive, but nothing comes close to the expense of losing all your data, pictures, music, movies, records, schoolwork, anything and everything is kept on your hard drive. Backing up is vital, but most people just don’t bother. Maybe they think it won’t happen to them…

Let’s look at what causes a hard drive to fail. If you know them, you can lower your chances of your hard drive having serious problems.

Hard Drive Design:

The hard drive failure is so common for one main reason, hard drives are extremely fragile. You may not realize it but your drive is a sensitive mechanical disk, spinning at speeds of either 5400rpm or 7200rpm (10,000 and higher for high end drives). To the read-head, it seems like the drive below is moving at around 150 miles per hour. At this speed, the part that reads the data is literally flying over it at .07mm or less. What’s amazing is that drives don’t fail more often.

Note: If you’d like to read the details of hard drive construction, PC Tech Guide has a great article.

Computer Type:

Your computer type plays a role in hard drive failure’s chances. Laptops have a higher rate of failure than desktops because the drives are smaller, the computers are more mobile and the movements of a laptop, over time can damage the drive. That said, a desktop or server with the drives constantly running for years at a time will also have a high failure rate. This time for a different reason – wear on the motors.

Dropping the computer:

Dropping a laptop or desktop is a pretty common cause of hard drive crashes. Especially if the computer was running at the time. Apple was one of the first, but now more manufacturers are building accelerometers into their laptop design to protect against drive failure in the sudden shock of a fall. The protective mechanism will immediately park the head and spin down the drive.

Sometimes the shock of the fall is too great for accelerometer technology to protect against it. Many times a computer’s drive will seem fine after a fall, only to begin failing a week or two later.

Excessive vibration / motion:

Excessive vibration or motion that’s not enough to trigger the accelerometer but is enough to disrupt the heads is like your drive bleeding to death by 10,000 paper cuts. Each time the drive’s head scrapes against the platter due to vibration, that area of data becomes unreadable. This may or may not occur on areas where there is currently data.

Damage this slight won’t be noticed until it builds up over time. This type of drive failure results usually in large amounts of corrupted data, where bits and pieces of your files are bad while other files are fine. If left to build, the excessive vibration can corrupt a drive until it’s totally unusable. This form of drive failure is the most common.

Incorrect handling:

It’s just all too easy to mishandle a laptop. Drives are mechanical components with moving parts designed to operate on a flat surface. Too often I see people carrying a laptop (while powered on and not sleeping) with one hand, by the display, like it’s a piece of paper or a book. I also see laptops being used “backwards” where the display is on the table and the keyboard is pointing vertically.

Hard drives were not designed to run vertically. All it takes for your drive to suffer slight corruption that will build over time is for your drive’s read-head to move less than .07 millimeters.

Faulty components:

Yes, even with the best of care drives sometimes fail early. Faulty components can either be specific to your drive (manufacturing defect) or specific to your model – widespread and worthy of a recall.

Recently, Apple had a large amount of Seagate drives fail due to faulty components. If you have a MacBook / MacBook Pro with the Seagate model numbers ST96812AS and ST98823AS and firmware Version 7.01, back up your data immediately. These drives are known to fail without warning.

Age and Usage:

As with all mechanical devices, after a certain amount of normal use, they wear out. The motor and bearings don’t last forever. The time for a hard drive to wear out could be much longer than your computer’s lifespan or you can accelerate the process by running your computer constantly without spinning down the disk. This happens often in desktops that are left to run overnight as well as in servers which run constantly by design.

Strong Magnetic Fields:

Finally, a strong magnetic field in all it takes to quickly degauss or erase your drive. Depending on the strength, it may erase the entire drive or just a portion. Never keep anything with a strong magnetic field near your computer. Common sources of strong magnetic fields come from the backs of speakers. Always use shielded speakers near your computer, or if they aren’t, place the speakers a good distance away.

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