In April 23 IssueBy Jeff Smith, Columnist
I've been seeing a lot, and I do mean A LOT, of dead harddrives lately. One of the worst things I ever have to say to a customer is "I'm sorry, your harddrive has died."
I never know how hard they're going to take the news, but I know that I always dread giving it to them. If you were to ask ten people what was the most important thing on their computers, nine of them would say that the most important thing to them is their pictures. Photos of a newborn, or of family members who have since passed away are not replaceable. You lost your music collection? It is an inconvenience, sure, but unless it is something that you recorded yourself, chances are its easily to get it again.
What's more interesting, to me at least, is that there are a lot of ways that a harddrive can die. They are, after all, very complex devices. If you've never seen the inside of one, allow me to describe it to you. There are usually multiple metal disks, called platters, mounted on a spindle with gaps in between. They're reflective like a mirror, though they don't make little rainbows of color like you see on a compact disk or DVD.
To read and write data on these platters, the read arm comes across much like an old-fashioned phonograph. The read arm has multiple fingers that go in between the platters. But unlike on a phonograph, the reading tip is never actually supposed to touch the surface of the platter. Instead, it is aerodynamically shaped so that it glides just above the surface, riding on a constant wind generated by the platters as they spin at 5400 or 7200 RPMs (depending on the speed of the drive). When the harddrive is given a shut down signal, the read arms move to a designated safe zone where they can sit down without any chance of destroying data, all while the drive spins down.
One of the more common ways that a harddrive gets corrupted is if there is a sudden interruption of power, maybe someone tripped over the power cable, or the power was knocked out by a storm, or, as is often the case, someone just decided to hard-boot it (holding down the power button until it turns off). When this happens, the read arm pretty much just falls down on whatever part of the platter it was reading when the power was cut. This is what we refer to as a harddrive crash: when the read tip physically crashes into the surface of the disk.
These types of crashes usually result in corrupted files. How bad this affects the user just depends on what files were corrupted, as well as how fragmented the files were. (fragmented files are files that have been split into pieces and saved across multiple locations on the platter)
If a core system file has been corrupted, usually Windows will give a Blue Screen of Death and refuse to boot up fully. If it is not a core file that was damaged, then it could result in anything from malfunctioning peripherals to media that refuses to play, or programs that refuse to run.
In cases like this, the best practice is to retrieve all important data, if possible, and re-format the drive. Once it has been reformatted, a surface scan can be performed that will locate and mark off the bad sectors of the drive. This will allow the system to work around the bad parts. The operating system can be re-installed, and then the pertinent files can be put back on and life can go on as usual. But sometimes, in very unlucky cases, the read arm crashes into the portion of the platter reserved for the Master Boot Record (MBR). The master boot record is the first thing the computer sees when it accesses the drive. If this portion of the drive is bad, then the partition table itself is corrupted. And if that happens, then retrieving the data becomes much much more difficult. Software does exist for cases like this, but using it is hit and miss, with more success attributed to luck or black magic than any sort of scientific methodology.
And keep in mind that this is the easiest kind of harddrive problem to recover from. Other problems where the drive has physically worn out, or the platters have warped, or the electonic board built into the drive has failed, these are all much much harder to deal with. And yet there are still more reasons why harddrives die. Power strips don't protect like you think they do. They really don't do much of anything. And with professional data retrieval services starting at over $700 with no guarantee of success, most people opt to just mourn their losses and admonish themselves to keep more backups in the future.
So I'll leave you with this thought: If your harddrive were to crash today, what would you lose that would really matter to you? With this being the thunderstorm season, I strongly recommend that you get your important files backed up in multiple locations.
And from someone who has to give terrible news to people about their data on a regular basis, I urge you to backup your stuff sooner, rather than later.