25 February 2010

One of the most common computer problems I see people facing is a faulty or corrupted hard disk drive. In many cases, the solution to the problem is a reboot, and the OS automagically runs a utility like Windows’s chkdsk that repairs the errors.

Sometimes, the problem is a bit more severe than that and more drastic measures are required. Most people I’ve encountered were unnecessarily afraid of running any kind of tool to scan and repair their hard drive. But it doesn’t have to be all horror and blood and gore: with a little knowledge and a few specialized bits of software, you too can be a genuine Disk Doctor!

Now, this will not be an exhaustive guide to fixing all disk problems, cloning the data from a bad disk onto a new drive, and so on. That would take quite a bit of time to explain, and a lot of it simply requires some experience. What I can tell you, though, is how to diagnose a bad drive yourself. At least you won’t get taken for a ride by some money-grubbing repair shop if you end up needing a hand to finish the job!

Alrighty, first thing’s first: most people these days have good old-fashioned magnetic media in their computers. If you have an SSD (solid state drive), then you probably don’t need to read this article, and it doesn’t really apply anyway.

For the rest of us, that means your computer has a hard drive that contains one or more spinning platters. For each platter, there is a an arm with a head that hovers over the platter. The inside of a hard drive looks much like a high-tech record player. Of course, you won’t see the platters and arms since they are sealed inside the case of the drive. In any case, the arms move back and forth over the platters as they spin, and read/write data to the drive using what amounts to magnetism. Pretty simple, right?

Well, every now and then, there is a power failure, the hard drive is getting old, or whatever, and the drive is unable to read/write data to a particular sector on the platter. The sector may become corrupted. If the the data written in the sector is bad, Windows or whatever OS you are using will generally fix it automatically. If the sector itself on the platter is physically bad, then you have bigger problems. Windows might start crashing all the time, chkdsk will run all the time when the computer boots, etc.

Bad juju.

Now, normally, hard drives have “reserved sectors”. This reserved space is exactly what it sounds like: sectors that are reserved to take over in the case of a bad sector. What happens is that the drive itself detects that a sector is bad, marks the sector as “dead” and sends it on retirement, and then assigns one of the reserved sectors as a replacement. Over time, too many bad sectors will decrease the performance of the drive even if they are successfully “retired”.

This sector replacement process is supposed to be automatic, but sometimes it doesn’t work so well. Or, maybe it does work as intended, but there are bigger problems with the hard drive. In this case, you’ll probably want to use diagnostic software specifically for your hard disk drive. You’ll need to know the manufacturer of your drive. You can find this out by opening Device Manager (just type “Device Manager” in the Start Menu search box in Vista or 7), and see what drive is listed under “Disk drives”. If only a model number is listed, search for that model number in Google to find out who the manufacturer is.

Once you have the manufacturer, go to their support site and download their drive analysis software. You can use the links below to get the latest software (as of this writing) for popular brands:

For each of the above links, choose the .ISO file, download it, and burn it to a blank CD using disc-burning software such as Nero Express. If you use something like Nero, you’ll want to choose the “Burn an image to disc” option, and choose the .ISO file as the image. There are also other free utilities available to burn .ISO images, such as ImgBurn.

Then, stick the diagnostic CD in your puter, and reboot. Each tool works differently, but you should be able to perform different types of tests on your hard disk. Most tools come with a “short test” and a “long test”. You’ll want to run the most thorough test possible. It might take several hours to complete. When the test is done, it will give you a lovely little report as to what problems it found – if any.

This is where things get a little iffy.

It’s possible that the diagnostic software detected bad sectors, reassigned some reserved sectors, and upon rebooting into Windows and waiting for the automagic disk check to complete, you’ll be off and running again.

It’s also possible that the diagnostic software will report that your drive is kaput. Some of the utilities will even recommend replacing the drive, and tell you why. This is where things can get a little fun. If the drive is totally hosed, you may not be able to recover any data from it. If the drive only has some bad sectors, but the diagnostic utility tells you the drive is basically dying, you will be able to purchase a new drive, and then possibly even use a utility like Paragon Hard Disk Manager to clone the entire drive onto your new hard drive. That is not an operation for the faint of heart. Paragon’s Hard Disk Manager is seriously powerful, but it’s also a bit tricky to use sometimes.

If your drive is dying and you have any doubts about the above cloning option, do the following:

  1. Purchase a new hard disk drive
  2. Install the new hard disk drive as your primary hard disk
  3. Connect your old dying drive as a secondary drive
  4. Reinstall Windows (or whatever) onto your new primary hard disk
  5. Manually copy all your data over from the old drive onto the new drive that is running your shiny new install of Windows

If you don’t think you can perform the above steps, seek professional help. At least now you know exactly what needs to be done, and you’ll look all knowledgeable and sassy when you waltz into the repair shop and confidently state that your hard drive is dead according to the manufacturer’s diagnostic tools, and you need somebody to perform the above steps for you.

Finally, a few notes…

If your computer is a laptop, and you want to connect the old drive to retrieve data off of it after a new drive is installed, there are connector kits available to turn your 2.5″ or 3.5″ hard disk drive into an external USB hard drive. Check out your local online puter parts superstore. They are usually very cheap.

Also, note that disk utilities in operating systems improve over time. For example, I recently had the opportunity to deal with a failing hard drive in Windows XP. The chkdsk utility in XP had a hard time repairing the data in the bad sectors. Upon installing Windows 7 on a new harddrive and connecting the old drive as a secondary hard disk, the newer chkdsk utility in 7 found a LOT more errors and did a much better job repairing the problems on the drive. Still, the old disk itself was going bad. But it just goes to show that using a more recent OS has its advantages.

Good luck!

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