How to Troubleshoot a Non-Functioning Hard Drive with Hardware and Software Fixes
written by: John Garger•edited by: Tricia Goss•updated: 4/12/2011
Hard Drives are one of the most common computer parts to stop working correctly. Discussed here are some tips on how to troubleshoot and fix a broken hard drive using both hardware and software solutions.
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As computer parts go, hard drives are one of the most common parts to go bad often resulting in the need to replace the main storage component. Hard drives can be a bit funny; while some last for over a decade, others last less than one year. The unreliable nature of hard drives makes them a frustrating component to troubleshoot and repair.
The first step in recovering a broken hard disk is to determine whether the problem lies with hardware or software. Often, hard drive malfunctions are attributed to hardware problems when really the software on the drive is to blame. If you for any reason suspect that your hard drive is about to malfunction, stop everything and back up all data on the hard drive. If you lack the space on another drive to make a complete backup, then at the very least save your most important files. Of course, routine backups are a good idea since then the loss of a hard drive means only the loss of the hardware and not the data contained within it.
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Repairing a Hard Drive from Software Errors
The best way to identify whether a hard drives error is the result of software is to plug it in to another computer and see if the drive functions normally. Often when the operating system such as Microsoft Windows XP, Vista, or 7 fails to load properly, users assume a hardware error. It is possible that the error is simply due to corrupted files on the drive and not due to a faulty hard drive.
It is quite easy for software on a hard drive to be corrupted even when the hard drive–from a hardware point of view–is functioning normally. Windows failing to boot is one of the most common computer errors encountered by service and support personnel. However, Windows is not the only software that can be corrupted on a hard drive. If any programs are functioning strangely or crashing during use, it may be that just that part of hard drive containing the code to that particular program has been corrupted. Usually, a removal and reinstallation of just the malfunctioning software is enough to solve the problem. If this is the case, you can avoid costly trips to a service technician and wasted hours or days while you wait for your computer to return.
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Repairing a Hard Drive from Hardware Errors
Hardware errors represent much more difficult problems when diagnosing and recovering a hard drive. At best, you may be able to retrieve your data, but repairing a hard drive is often too expensive over the alternative of simply buying a new one.
Hard drives contain a series (usually 2 to 4) disks or platters on which computer data is stored. A small, efficient motor spins the disks anytime the computer is turned on. This motor, like anything mechanical, eventually wears out and no longer spins the platters. Replacement of the motor is possible but typically not worth the effort. In addition, opening up a hard drive voids the manufacturer’s warranty. If the drive is still under warranty, you are better off arranging for a Return Merchandise Authorization (RMA) with the manufacturer than attempting to repair the motor.
While the motor spins the disks, a small yet powerful magnet moves a series of arms across the platters to allow the drive to read and write data. Sometimes this magnet becomes stuck in a position precluding the heads on the end of the arms to make contact with the platters. The result is a drive unable to read and write even though the data is safe and secure on the platters.
One method that works to dislodge the magnet is to drop the hard drive from a height of about six inches on its broadest side to see if the magnet disconnects from whatever is attracting it. Of course, this method may damage the drive further. It is a last resort if the drive is out of warranty and the data on the drive is available somewhere else like on a backup drive.
There are companies out there that specialize in recovering data from a faulty hard drive. They do not repair the drive, but instead remove the platters and recover the data using a special machine capable of reading data directly off the platters. This service can be quite expensive so proper backups and a lengthy warranty are your best defenses against such an expense.
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The first step in repairing a broken hard drive is to determine whether the error is hardware or software related. The best ways to avoid the effects of a malfunctioning hard drive are to do regular backups and make sure you have a good warranty. Short of sending it off to company that specializes in data recovery, you must simply replace the drive. While software errors usually mean that the drive is still usable, hardware errors mean the end of the drive’s life.