Your hard drive hasn't been acting the same lately. It's starting to make clicking or screeching noises, it can't seem to find your files, and it's moving really slowly. It might be time to say farewell—but here's what you should do before it goes to the big data center in the sky.
Every hard drive dies eventually, and when it's near death, you'll see the signs: strange noises, corrupted files, crashing during boot, and very slow transfer speeds all point to the inevitable end. This is normal, especially after your drive is more than a few years old. On older spinning drives, moving parts like the motor can degrade over time, or the drives' magnetic sectors can go bad.
Newer solid-state drives (SSDs) don't have moving parts, but their storage cells degrade a little bit every time you write to them, meaning they too will eventually fail (though SSD reliability is much better than it used to be).
Unless your drive experiences excessive heat or physical trauma, it'll probably fail gradually. That means even if your drive isn't making strange noises, you should keep an eye on its health once in a while, so you can prepare for death before it happens. Here's how to do that.
Check Your Drive's S.M.A.R.T. Status
Most modern drives have a feature called S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology) that monitors different drive attributes in an attempt to detect a failing disk. That way, you can be ready to replace your drive before it dies of old age.
In Windows, you can quickly check the S.M.A.R.T. status of your drives from the Command Prompt. Just right-click the Start menu, select Run, and type "cmd" or type "cmd" into the search bar. In the pop-up box, run:
wmic diskdrive get model,status
It will return "Pred Fail" if your drive's death is imminent, or "OK" if it thinks the drive is doing fine.
On a Mac, you can check S.M.A.R.T. status by opening Disk Utility from /Applications/Utilities/, clicking on the drive, and looking at "S.M.A.R.T. Status" in the bottom left, which will either read "Verified" or "Failing."
More Detailed S.M.A.R.T. Information
However, this basic S.M.A.R.T. information can be misleading, since it only lets you know when your drive is near death—but you can start to experience problems even if the basic S.M.A.R.T. status is okay.
For a closer look, I recommend downloading CrystalDiskInfo for Windows (free), or DriveDx for macOS ($20 with a free trial), both of which will offer up more detailed S.M.A.R.T. information than your computer provides on its own.
Instead of saying your drive is "OK" or "Bad," like the built-in tools do, CrystalDiskInfo and DriveDx also have more intermediary labels, like "Caution" or "Warning," respectively. These labels apply to hard drives and SSDs that are starting to wear down, but aren't necessarily on their deathbed (you can read more about how CrystalDiskInfo applies those labels here).
For example, my drive above has a few bad and reallocated sectors, and I haven't run into any issues—probably because those bad sectors weren't housing any actual data at the time. But if even one of those bad sectors lands on a file you need, it can be rendered corrupt. So that "Caution" label is usually a good indicator that you should back up the drive and think about replacing it soon—even if you aren't having problems yet.
If you want an even deeper, more accurate picture into your drive's health, check its manufacturer's website for a dedicated tool—for example, Seagate has SeaTools for its drives, Western Digital has Data Lifeguard Diagnostic for its drives, and Samsung has Samsung Magician for its SSDs. These tools can sometimes take into account certain technologies specific to their hard drives and SSDs. But for most people, CrystalDiskInfo will give you a decent ballpark recommendation for just about any drive.
If Your Hard Drive Is Dead (or Almost Dead)
Drives with the "Caution" or "Pred Fail" status won't necessarily fail tomorrow. They could chug along for a year or two, or be dead as a doornail in a week. But if you're getting warnings, it's time to back up your files before your drive kicks the bucket.
Now is not the time for a full backup, however: you don't want to stress the drive with too many reads, or it could fail while you're backing up. Instead, plug in an external drive and copy your most important files onto it—family photos, work documents, and anything else that can't easily be replaced. Then, once you know those are safe, you can try doing a full drive clone with something like EaseUS Todo Backup Free (Windows) or Carbon Copy Cloner (Mac).
If your hard drive has already stopped working, things get a lot tougher. You can try popping the drive in the freezer, which may allow you to get a few more minutes or hours out of the drive—enough to get your files off. If that doesn't work, though, your only option is a professional data recovery service like DriveSavers, which can cost $1,000 or more. But if you have priceless family photos on the drive, it may be worth it to you.
Prepare for Hard Drive Failure NOW
It's not a matter of "if" your hard drive will fail—it's a matter of "when." All hard drives fail eventually, and if you want to avoid losing all your important files, you absolutely have to back up your computer regularly—including when the drive is healthy. I know, I know, you've heard it before…but are you actually doing it?
Take some time tonight to set up an automatic, cloud-based backup like Backblaze. It only takes 15 minutes and it is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself from heartache later on. If you can't stomach the $5 monthly price, then at least back up to an external drive using Windows' built-in File History tool or your Mac's built-in Time Machine feature. But just know that won't protect you in case of fire or theft, and the peace of mind you get from cloud-based backup is priceless.
Yes, good backup costs money, but it costs a heck of a lot less than getting your data professionally recovered. And with a backup, you'll never sweat the small stuff. Even if your drive failed catastrophically with no warning, you can get back up and running in no time.