It could be your gaming pride and joy, or it could be your essential kit for school. It might just be a mundane tool for your job. Whatever it's used for, computers are expected to work without problems: fire them up and away you go. Hah, not so fast...
Like all electronic devices, PCs don't last forever, and the parts inside them will eventually fail. While it's easy to replace a broken device, the same can't be said for the data stored in your machine. It should be said that in modern PCs that rely on solid storage, SSDs are generally more durable than HDDs. SSDs don't have moving parts and they can withstand accidental drops and other shocks and vibrations in laptops better than HDDs ever could. However, SSDs can fail, too, as do other forms of flash memory.
Here are five signs that you should keep an eye out for (or an ear), warning you that the drive storing your documents is nearing its end.
1 - That doesn't sound right
Modern storage drives are manufactured to very high tolerances, especially hard disk drives (HDDs). Despite having platters that rotate at thousands of rpm and arms that flick back and forth in milliseconds, today's HDDs are designed to be near silent in their operation.
You might be able to hear faint whirring and clicking as the drive is working, but that's all -- so anything louder than that, is a sign that things are not well (or that it's just an old design). And if you hear any high-pitched metallic noises, loud or otherwise, then the drive will probably be damaged inside.
The guts of a modern HDD
Don't ignore such signs: the drive may seem to be functioning perfectly well, but it's only a matter of time before it will fail outright. There's nothing you can do about it, other than backup all of the important data on it, as soon as possible, and then replace the drive with a new one.
Optical storage drives, such as DVD-ROM or Blu-ray disc drives, are a lot noisier than HDDs, when they're working -- you should definitely hear something when it's spinning the disc, but this should just be the whine of the electric motors and whoosh of the air, being moved by the disc.
But since they're built with looser tolerances than hard disk drives, they will wear out quicker (this is balanced by the fact that they're not used very often). Classic signs to listen out for are loud clicks, buzzing sounds, or the storage disc just constantly spinning up and down.
Fortunately, as data is stored on a removable storage medium, a noisy drive shouldn't cause any data losses. That said, with continued use in this state, the drive could fail in such a way as to damage the disc. As with HDDs, should your optical storage drive start making loud or odd sounds, don't ignore it -- replace the unit as soon as you can.
Of course, not all storage systems contain mechanical, moving parts. Devices that use flash memory, such as SD cards, USB memory sticks, and solid state drives (SSDs), are just a collection of chips on a circuit board. Needless to say, you shouldn't hear anything from these.
Nothing here should be making a sound!
So if your old SSD is making any kind of noise, it's more likely to be another part in the computer that's doing it. Either that, or you've got a small pest problem inside your computer!
Whatever storage drives you have in your system, you should never ignore any unusual sounds coming from it -- it could well be electrical noise or a fan that's seen better days, but if it's not, then don't delay in tackling the issue. Backup the data that's on it and replace it as soon as you can.
2 - Where's my data gone?
And speaking of keeping data safe, another classic sign that your storage drive is failing is when a file or several files have just gone missing. Information isn't stored as a continuous stream of bits: instead, it's laid out in a collection of small blocks of data.
These blocks may be physically next to each other in the drive's medium or they could be scattered about. All it takes is for one of these blocks to be damaged, and those precious few bits will be lost for good. And when you go looking for the file, the computer's operating system will then try to find all of the blocks that make up the file.
Without the full set of data, the file will be incomplete, and the operating system may report it as being corrupt or state that it could not find it at all. NAND flash physically wears away every time a block of data is written to or erased from the drive, and after so many write/erase cycles, the block will cease to function.
Having just one or two NAND chips, USB memory sticks can't offer much wear protection
SSD manufacturers employ a wealth of tricks (such as overprovisioning and wear levelling) to minimize this problem, but they vary in terms of effectiveness. USB memory sticks typically have a much shorter lifespan than SSDs, so you should expect them to fail without much warning.
So if a drive does start to lose the odd file here and there, you should consider replacing it quite soon -- depending on how old the drive is, the need to do this might not be as urgent as with a screeching HDD, but don't ignore the faults. Once again, backup any vital data that's stored on them. Oh, and you should never use a USB memory stick as a critical backup device! Stick to HDDs and cloud storage for this job.
3 - Boy, this is taking its time...
While not as immediately obvious as a drive screaming its death throes from the bowels of your computer, a sudden change in overall performance can be a sign that your storage drive failing. PC hardware like CPUs, RAM or GPUs do not get slower over time. Besides the possibility of cooling fans malfunctioning and having the chips throttling because of that, hardware should perform the same. On the software side though, that's where things can take a sour turn due to an accumulation of data, more programs loading on the background, and the operating system getting bogged down after years of updates.
But if the machine was working away happily one day, and then suddenly taking a very long time to boot up or access files, there's something clearly amiss. HDDs eventually do fail and SSDs can fail, too, and show those signs in different ways. Errors involving bad blocks will show in both types of storage and that's usually when it takes an unusually long time to read or write a file and the process ends in failure, so the system eventually gives up with an error message.
When you're having just one of those kind of days. Credit: sematadesign
Of course, as we just mentioned, it could well be a software problem, such an update to the operating system that's messed up a configuration somewhere, or even malware that's causing the CPU to work excessively in the background. But if you haven't updated anything recently and the computer is well protected, then unexpected changes to performance may be down to the main storage drive failing.
Ascertaining whether this is the case or not isn't easy, and we wouldn't recommend replacing a HDD/SSD just because things have gotten sluggish. On the other hand, if the drive is removable, such as USB memory stick, a rapid drop in speed is a good indicator that it's not very healthy.
4 - Bye bye, boot drive
Many of us have experienced this at some point, as this is a common situation with owning PCs. One day, everything is all peachy, but the very next time you fire it up, a dreaded BIOS message appears on your screen: "insert boot disk and press any key,"
Instead of seeing the operating system logo pop into view, you're left staring at a bleak statement. There may be other explanations for this. For example, it can be caused when a new BIOS has just been installed. But if there's been no changes or updates performed, then it can be a sign that the boot drive has decided to head off to Valhalla. Or at the very least, it's showing signs of corruption where you may be able to recover your data but it's time you backup and get a new drive.
Before booting up fails completely, you may also see your PC crashing during boot randomly. That's a sign that your drive could be developing a problem.
If the case is that part of the data on the drive has become corrupted, one recommended step is to remove the HDD/SSD, and put it into another computer as a secondary drive. If it's able to test the drive or read the contents okay, then the drive may be fine to reuse.
There's also the possibility, albeit a small one, that the boot data on the device has been affected by malware; in which case, putting it into another machine could potentially put that one at risk, too.
It could be argued that scanning a HDD or SSD for errors, on another computer, should only be done if you're certain that it can't infect that machine. Checking it for malware on the second computer beforehand is thus recommended.
The unexplainable loss of a boot drive can be immensely frustrating to resolve and because it's not a rare problem (though it's definitely become better with SSDs), the best way to deal with it is by taking preventative actions: namely, just have the operating system on one drive, and store all important files on a separate one (or always keep a separate backup of critical files).
5 - Glitches in the matrix
The last sign we'll talk about, for a Dodo-esque storage drive, is perhaps the most indeterminable one. In other words, if you're experiencing these particular symptoms, then it could be the drive that's faulty, but there's a myriad of other causes that would need to be eliminated first.
We're referring to those situations where your computer just plain ol' bails out -- in the case of Windows, it's the infamous blue screen of death (BSOD). This screen is shown by the operating system when it's reached a point where it's simply unable to continue functioning properly.
The latest Windows version tries to offer a small measure of comfort by displaying a QR code that you can scan with a smartphone. It will then load a webpage that offers guidance as to the source of the problem, and how it can be rectified.
Most of the advice involves carrying out software changes, such as uninstalling new programs or drivers, as these are the prime culprits when it comes to getting a BSOD. But if it was a glitchy storage drive that's the real cause, then no amount of software shenanigans will help.
Just like with disappearing boot drives, unexplained system crashes are rather difficult to analyze -- it could well be down to a failing storage drive, but you can only be sure if you've checked out every other possible cause.
All good things come to an end
Modern computers really are marvels of engineering -- they're astonishingly complex and generally work without problems for long periods of time. However, there will always be an end to such smooth sailing, because all storage devices have a finite life span.
Whether it's a mechanical or solid state device, the components within them wear away and eventually fail. Use the same HDD or SSD for long enough, and it will stop working at some point. Hopefully, you'll experience one of the signs we've covered above, to warn you that action is required soon.
We'll sign off this article (yeah, that's a bad pun...) with a piece of advice: it's always better to be prepared, than be caught out. And by that, we mean you should make regular backups of your important files, and if they're really important, backup the backups!
You can easily replace a storage drive -- the same can't be said about data.