It's a heart-stopping moment when your computer has a hard disk crash. In an instant all those photos, videos, music, files, unfinished novels, and pretty much everything else can disappear in an instant. So how can you protect yourself from this worst case scenario? We've put together a guide to the signs you can watch out for, and the steps you can take: here's how check if your hard drive is dying.
Back up immediately
Before we look at ways to sniff out any trouble with your hard drive the first thing you need to do is back up your valuable data. If you already have a regular backup routine then that's excellent, but if it's been a while then we suggest you do it right now. It can be running in the background while you read the rest of this article.
What are the symptoms of hard disk failure?
It's pretty much impossible to predict exactly when a disk will fail, but there are some common signals that could suggest your storage is on its way out.
If you notice your system beginning to slow down then it could be an early warning. The ponderous behaviour will often occur when you're accessing the disk, such as launching programs, searching for files, and saving documents, but it can also be general sluggishness. Now this can also be caused by other factors, so take a look at our How to speed up Windows guide to narrow down the culprits.
When you've had a computer for a while you get to know the sounds it makes. These days there aren't very many, but new ones such as clicking or grinding or even 'beeping' should be taken very seriously. If you hear these noises when using the machine then there's a good chance that something is very wrong with your hard drive, and continuing to use it will only hasten its demise.
Another tell-tale error you might see is that of an increasing amount of corrupted files or 'blue screens of death'. So if you find you're saving documents or similar items but when you go to load them again they're corrupt, a failing disk could well be to blame.
How to use the Check Disk feature in Windows
Windows has long had a built-in disk analysing feature called Check Disk (or chkdsk). This looks for errors, corruption, and bad sectors on a drive that could be causing problems. It won't tell you that a disk needs replacing, but if you run it regularly then you'll see whether the amount of faults are rising. It's also just a useful tool to keep your drive in a healthy state.
To run Check Disk you need to open File Explorer, select This PC, then right-click on the drive you want to test. A pop-up menu will appear at the bottom of which is Properties.
Click this then choose the Tools tab at the top of the new window that appears.
In here you'll see an area entitled Error Checking. Click the Check option and Windows will examine the drive. This might take a long while, so be sure to run this when you don't need to use the computer.
How can I check the health of my hard drive?
One of the best free third-party options for monitoring your drive is DiskCheckup by Passmark software. This utilises the SMART features that are present on most disk drives and allows it to detect when issues might be arising. SMART (Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology) looks at various attributes on a disk to see if performance is degrading, and programs such as DiskCheckup let the user see reports based on that information.
It's not a catch-all, as SMART can't say whether a disk is dying or just naturally deteriorating, but it does give users a comprehensive look at the current state of a drive and suggests when it should be replaced.
DiskCheckup is compatible with Windows 7, 8 and 10, plus the personal use version is completely free.
It's also worth noting that many hard disk manufacturers have their own diagnostic software available for free on their websites. If you know what make your drive is then downloading the respective program would be a sensible move.
Paid-for diagnostic software
If you're willing to spend a bit of money on your diagnostic software then the first place to go is the Gibson Research Corporation's website. When you first arrive you might find yourself rather questionable of the aesthetics - the site looks like something out of Geocities in the 1990s - but don't let this put you off. This is the home of SpinRite, a legendary disk monitoring and data recovery app that plenty of users swear by.
The software has five levels of operation ranging from a simple scan to restoring sectors, and has been known to often get supposedly dead drives running again. It's not cheap, but then quality software rarely is. At the moment you can buy SpinRite V6 for around £70, and we think it's a purchase that's certainly worth considering.
So there you go, a few tips and tools that can hopefully help you avoid any data tragedies. If you find that your drive is in need of replacing, or you just want to give your system a turbo charge in performance, then also take a look at our guide on How to install an SSD in your PC.