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Data Recovery: How to approach three common HDD failure scenarios

How we prepare for and react to HDD failures will define how quickly we can recovery from disaster.

Last week, we discussed software causes of hard drive failure and the possible self-recovery options available to users. The other side of the hard drive failure coin is hardware failure. While there are still self-recovery options available for the experienced end user, many of these hard drive failure scenarios will require professional assistance in order to recovery lost data. Today we will over three of the most common hardware hard drive failure scenarios that the unlucky of us will have to overcome from time to time.

Drive is powered, but not detected

The first common hard drive failure scenario is also the one with the least options for self-recovery. In this scenario, the drive in question can be confirmed to have power, but is not detected or is detected improperly. In most situations, the cause of this failure scenario can be traced back to a firmware issue. The firmware may be corrupted or there is an issue with reading the firmware incorrectly, which could be a head issue as well. In some few situations, upgrading your firmware will be enough to resolve the issue. This solution will most often not be possible as the drive will be undetected in BIOS as well. Your options from this point are to replace the drive and recovery from a backup or to send the drive to a professional recovery service.

Drive is detected, but hangs when accessed

The next most common hard drive failure scenario is the hard drive that works but hangs when used. Once again, the drive is confirmed to have power, the platter is spinning, and no unnecessary noise is noticed and yet the drive hangs or stalls during operation. In most instances of this hard drive failure scenario, the root cause is a degradation of the magnetic storage medium on the drive's platter. In other words, there are a large number of bad sectors on the drive that restrict its ability to read data properly, resulting in the drive stalling or hanging. This failure scenario is self-recoverable with the right software, but can further damage recoverable data. The best option will be to use a recovery program, like a software imager, that has the ability to skip bad sectors. This self-recovery option is limited, but has the best chance for success outside of professional recovery options.

Drive beeps when powered up

Another common hard drive failure scenario occurs when the hard drive is powered up and makes a beeping sound. The beeping sound signifies two possible mechanical failures: stiction or a motor spindle failure. The most common cause of the beeping hard drive failure is known as stiction. Stiction is when the heads of your hard drive do not return to their safe parking area (the center or the ramp) and instead stay over the platter when powered down, allowing the head to become stuck to the magnetized platter. To protect the drive from damaging the platter or the heads, the entire mechanism will not function and instead beeps to alert the user of the failure. The repair for this failure is rather involved and may even require the replacement of the hard drives heads, so defiantly need to be sent to a professional recovery service. The second possible cause of the beeping hard drive failure is the possible failure of the motor spindle. This failure is not a common one and usually occurs after the hard drive experiences a drop or hard hit, which causes the motor spindle to become seized. The only way to recovery from this failure is to either replace the seized motor spindle or to remove the platter and to place it in a surrogate drive. This is obviously a failure that requires professional assistance.
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