No matter what kind of noise your hard drive is making, if it’s not a subtle almost inaudible “whir” then it could be a sign of significant trouble ahead. Under normal operation, hard drives typically make one of two noises–a soft and gentle “whirring” sound and occasionally a very subtle and difficult to hear crunching (sometimes called “thrashing”) sound when the disk is being accessed heavily. This subtle crunching might be akin to the sound you would expect when someone was dragging a long thin stick along an asphalt surface with the end of the stick barely touching the ground.
Why do hard drives make noise anyway? The anatomy of a hard drive.
Hard drives make noise because they actually do have moving parts within them. A typical hard disk drive consists of a hard metal housing, some electronics, and two main moving parts. The platters, which are metal disks that look much like CDs, spin at several thousand RPM inside the case. They are the cause of the normal whirring noise. The heads are very small magnetic pads that read and write the data to the platters. They quite literally float above the platters on a thin cushion of air. The heads themselves do not make any sounds but they are attached to the end of the hard drive arms which are long thin support structures designed to move the heads back and forth over the surface of the platters. It is the hard drive arm movement that creates the stick-across-the-asphalt clicking or grinding sound I mentioned before. Remember, you can usually only hear this sound when the disk is being accessed quite heavily.
How do I know when the disk is being accessed heavily?
The easiest way to tell whether your hard drive is under heavy use is to notice the (usually) green hard drive light on your computer. When it’s illuminated, the drive is being accessed. These hard drive activity lights usually only exist on PCs so Mac users are out of luck in this regard. If you don’t have a hard drive access light, you can usually tell that your drive is being accessed heavily by the operations you are performing on the computer. Editing audio or video, making large file copies, saving large files, and these sorts of things cause more hard drive use than normal. Editing or saving a Word document, checking email, and typical internet surfing are not disk-intensive activities–your hard drive should not be “thrashing” during these times.
GET TO THE BEEPING-HUMMING-RATTLING-CHIRPING-SHRIEKING-BUZZING-VIBRATING! What do I do when my hard drive is making a funny or unusual sound?
The very best thing to do would be to turn off the computer immediately and take it to a professional. A competent computer technician can fairly easily discern the sounds a hard drive is making and let you know if they are potentially damaging or just the course of normal operation and hardware aging. Additionally, a technician will be able to remove the hard drive from your computer to safely and quickly copy the data thereby ensuring you have a current backup.
If taking it to a pro is out of the question then an immediate backup should be your next thought. The best option would be to plug in an external hard drive and copy all of your data to that. If you don’t have an external hard drive a networked computer might be another solution…or you might have to go with a stack of DVDs (or *shudder* CDs if your computer is really old). Back up the most important and most irreplaceable data first. You’ll likely be disappointed if you lose the photos of your children’s birthdays, your family vacations, or some school work; whereas those tracks you ripped and encoded from the collection of music CDs in your closet can be rebuilt if necessary. Yes, rebuilding 1,000 tracks of MP3s will be painful but it can be done.
If you are really worried about the drive failing soon, don’t worry about filling up a DVD before burning it. Those shiny plastic disks are cheap. The data they contain is potentially priceless.
How often do drives fail? My experiences with quiet and noisy hard drives.
Hard drive manufacturers will tell you that they rate their drives at 100,000 hours or more Mean Time Between Failure (MBTI)–that’s about 11.416 years of constant use 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. You will also hear manufacturers quoting a drive failure rate of less than 1-percent. Not only are these misleading statistics, they really don’t mean anything to the average computer user. In my decades of being a computer tech, I have had hard drives that came from the factory defective and I’ve had drives that lasted over 10 years of constant abuse. I’ve owned drives that ran perfectly for years and then simply stopped working one day. I’ve also seen drives that suddenly start making funny noises and then continue to perform their duties flawlessly for several more years. (My main computer has a drive right now that is doing this very thing.) …and I’ve seen everything in between these cases as well.
The short answer is this… Hard drives fail when they’re good and ready to fail. Sometimes they give you a heads up and sometimes they just keel over and die instantly. There’s no rhyme or reason and often times there’s no warning. So what do you do? Backup your data. Backup your data. Backup your data.
“Great. People tell me I need to back up. I know I need to back up. No one can teach me how to back up, though. How do I do it?”
Making any kind of copy of your data in any location is better than nothing. The techniques described above surrounding external hard drives and DVDs are a good place to start. To be truly protected from the vast majority of calamities, a computer needs to have frequent backups that are both always available as well as being offsite and therefore protected from fire, theft, or other localized disasters. “Always available” and “offsite” seem to be in contradiction but they can actually be achieved in one of two ways.
First, there are a host of online backup solutions available as subscription services. For a monthly fee you can have an internet-connected computer backed up to an online server which will store the data for you and allow you to instantly access any lost files. Each service provider is different but typically the backups are continuously transmitted from your computer to the server so all changes are immediately recorded. The downside to this set up is that there is a constant monthly fee for the service and the computer really needs to be connected to high-speed internet to take advantage of the backup solution. Of course, high-speed internet is another monthly fee separate from the backup solution.
Another solution that meets the requirements of frequent, always available and offsite is an external hard drive rotation scheme paired with high quality backup software. This solution requires more up-front costs and a little more technical knowledge but does not require any additional monthly fees. It also gives you the added advantage of giving you full control over the backups, the hard drives, the data, and everything else.
In this type of scheme you’ll need a backup software package (there are dozens available online) and two separate external hard drives that are each 2x as large as your computer’s storage capacity. For example, if you have 500 GB of storage capacity on your computer, you will need TWO 1,000 GB external hard drives. Set the software to perform an incremental backup to the external hard drive once per hour or so depending on your usage. This will give you your frequent and always available backup. Then, once per week, exchange the two hard drives. The drive that is not being used can be kept offsite somewhere such as your work / office, a parent’s or close friend’s house, or a bank safe deposit box. This way, if something catastrophic happens at your home, you’ve only lost one week’s worth of data at the most. This will obviously take care of the offsite portion of the backup requirements.
My hard drive is already dead, I have important data on it, and I have no backups. Now what do I do?
While this is a very unfortunate incident, all hope is not lost. There are a multitude of data recovery organizations that can usually retrieve data from completely dead hard drives. Depending on the quantity of data, the necessary turn-around time, and other factors, the cost of this service could range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. Even then, there’s no complete guarantee that your data is 100% retrievable.
Key Points to Remember.
1.Backup your data using a method that is frequent, always available, and offsite.
2.If your hard drive starts making an unusual noise, turn it off and take it to a computer professional.
3.If your hard drive is completely dead and inaccessible, contact a data recovery services company to inquire about data retrieval services.
The author of this article is a frequent guest-contributor on several technology blogs and works closely with Data Recovery Group, a data recovery services company.