3 Signs Your Hard Drive Is Failing (And What to Do)

hard drive with arm moving across

On average, the failure rate of hard drives and SSDs increases dramatically after just three years. It can happen sooner when the drive is exposed to changing temperatures, humidity, or external shocks. If you notice early signs of a hard drive failure after three to five years, such as lower performance, an increasing number of bad sectors, or even strange noises, you should get busy looking into solutions. Getting nervous, yet?


How to Tell If Your Hard Drive Is Failing: 3 Signs

In the best of cases, hard drives fail gradually, leaving you enough time to grab a copy of your data and replace them before facing a fatal failure. But how exactly will you know whether your hard drive is failing? Here are some hints.

1. Slowing Computer, Frequent Freezes, Blue Screen Of Death

This trifecta of a PC breakdown can have a million different causes, and a failing hard drive is one of them. If these problems occur after a fresh installation or in Windows Safe Mode, the root of the evil is almost certainly bad hardware, possibly a failing hard drive.

To exclude an issue with your hard drive, you can run a host of diagnostic tools, but you should start by looking into your system’s S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology) data. While Windows automatically collects this information in the background, it’s notoriously unreliable in predicting hard drive failure. You may experience a critical malfunction before a S.M.A.R.T. warning kicks in.

To manually check your drive’s S.M.A.R.T. status, you’ll need a third-party tool like CrystalDiskInfo. Under Disk, select the disk to scan and note your disk’s health status.

If you can exclude hardware issues after running further diagnostic tools, you should proceed to resetting or reinstalling your operating system. Windows 10 and Windows 11 have the option to keep all your files, but just in case, you should prepare a backup anyway. Scroll down for more information on backups.

2. Corrupted Data and Accumulating Bad Sectors

Corrupted data can show up in countless different ways. If you repeatedly see one of these symptoms, chances are your hard drive is gradually failing:

  • Scrambled file or folder names
  • Random error messages when opening, moving, or saving files
  • Files that fail to open
  • Corrupted data within your files
  • Disappearing files or folders

Data corruption happens at the point of data creation or storage. It could be that a virus is interfering with your files, but it could also just be bad sectors on your hard drive.

Bad sectors are hard drive areas that don’t maintain data integrity. Windows automatically masks bad sectors, so you won’t notice them unless you run into issues with corrupted data. However, bad sectors can accumulate rapidly on a failing hard drive, meaning you’ll see these issues more often.

A Windows command tool called CHKDSK can help you recover data from bad sectors and exclude them from future use. For a quick scan:

  1. Press Windows + E to open File Explorer, navigate to This PC, right-click the failing disk or partition, and select Properties.
  2. Within Properties, switch to the Tools tab and click Check. If Windows notes that “You don’t need to scan this drive,” you can click Scan drive to run the tool anyway. Once it’s done, you can choose to fix any errors it finds.

Drive Properties Tool Check Scan Drive

A more thorough CHKDSK scan can take a long time and requires a reboot. When you can spare your computer for a night and a day:

  1. Open an Administrator Command Prompt by right-clicking Start and selecting Command Prompt (Admin)
  2. Run the following command to recover data and fix errors: chkdsk /r c: (for your C: drive).
  3. Enter Y when queried, and CHKDSK will run once you restart your computer.

3. Strange Sounds

When you hear strange noises coming from your hard drive, you’re in trouble. A repetitive sound known as the click of death is caused by the head trying to write data, failing, returning to its home position, and repeatedly retrying. Grinding or screeching noises indicate that parts of the hardware, such as the bearings or spindle motor, are failing.

At this point, you’re lucky if you can recover data from your hard drive.

How Long Do HDDs and SSDs Last?

Hard drives and solid-state drives tend to fail differently, and this is also reflected in their lifespans:

  • Hard drives have a lifespan of three to five years, though, under ideal conditions, you might get yours to last for up to 10 years.
  • SSDs tend to last five years or longer on average since they don’t have moving parts and their lifespan primarily depends on usage.

In both cases, keeping sensitive data on a drive without a backup for five years or more is asking for trouble.

I Think My Hard Drive Is Failing. What Shall I Do?

When you suspect a hard drive failure is just around the corner, here’s what you can do.

Step 1: Back Up Your Data

The best thing you can do is always keep backups of your data on a second drive and be ready to get a replacement. It’s unlikely for two drives to fail at the same time. An exception would be natural disasters like floods or fires. For these cases, we recommend keeping a copy of your most important data in a different physical location, for example, at work or with a family member or a friend.

To back up your data, you can use a host of tools, including native Windows backup tools, third-party backup software, or an online backup solution like OneDrive or Google Drive. If you’re using Microsoft Office, consider upgrading to a Microsoft 365 subscription, which gives you the latest version of Office and 1TB of OneDrive storage, which might be enough to back up your entire computer to the cloud.

If your drive is already damaged, a data recovery tool might be able to retrieve your data.

Step 2: Replace the Drive

When you’re ready to replace your SSD or HDD, refer to our guide on how to pick the right drive and install it.

Step 3: Safely Dispose of Your Old Drive

Before you throw out your old drive, remember to wipe the drive to prevent a third party from recovering your data.

Whatever you do, please don’t toss your failed drive in the trash. Electronics contain precious metals and toxic components that don’t belong in a landfill. Instead, bring your hardware to a local electronic recycling center, ask your electronic store whether they will take it back, or use a program like Western Digital’s free electronic recycling program, which will give you 15% off on your next purchase.

The five steps of Western Digital's electronic recycling program.

My Hard Drive Failed, and I Don’t Have a Backup!

It’s not too late to recover your data. If your hard drive contains precious data, and you can’t get Windows (or Linux) to recognize it anymore, your last resort is a professional data recovery service. The best companies managed to recover data from hard drives crushed in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. The worst of them, however, could scam you, so be sure to pick a reputable company before you part with your hard drive and your cash.

Here are a few suggestions:

Data recovery services can safely open your hard drive to fix mechanical failures or switch out parts. This can make the drive work for long enough to back up your data. These fixes are tough, if not impossible, to do at home, as fixing a hard drive requires a clean room environment. That’s why these companies fetch a hefty premium.

Don’t Let Your Hard Drive Fail!

Do not rely on signs or software to tell whether you have a failing hard drive. It is more likely to fail unexpectedly without any warning signs whatsoever. Rather than trying to forecast something that is even less predictable than the weather, you should rely on backups.

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