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Why Slow Computer Speeds May Indicate Hard Drive Head Failures

Computers can slow down for hundreds of reasons, and sudden performance issues do not necessarily indicate an impending hard drive failure.


Dozens of symptoms can accompany a hard drive failure, but many computer users ignore early warning signs such as slow read/write operation.  To avoid data loss, you should understand why sudden slowdown is a potentially serious issue and what to do if your computer stops functioning normally.  

Hard drives contain a number of sensitive internal components.  The most active component is the read/write head assembly, which is also known as actuator heads.  When your computer sends a request for a file, the actuator heads fly across the surface of the drive's storage platters to locate the appropriate sectors that make up the file.  

Some sectors on the hard drive's platters become inaccessible over time for a number of reasons.  The hard drive keeps a list of bad sectors in order to avoid writing to those areas.  When the hard drive is mechanically healthy, it will write to the list of bad sectors relatively infrequently. 

However, the actuator heads are extremely precise, and a slight offset can prevent them from working correctly.  When the actuator arm begins to fail, the heads will begin to mark all sectors as "bad," since the drive cannot read the requested data.  The heads can still read some data, and your computer may continue to function, but read/write speeds will suffer as the hard drive works to keep a growing list of inaccessible sectors.

To put this another way, the hard drive's heads become less efficient at accessing information.  Your computer's performance will suffer as a result.  You may notice slowdown when using particular programs or files, or you may see general performance issues with your computer.

What Causes Hard Drive Issues?

A hard drive's heads are extremely sensitive.  Offsets can occur for a number of reasons; an inconsistent power supply unit (PSU) could damage the drive's circuit board, causing instant performance issues, or the actuator assembly and the spindle might wear out mechanically.  

Every hard drive can fail.  In the long term, keeping your hard drive backed up is the only way to avoid data loss, but noticing the early warning signs of a hard drive failure might give you some extra time to back up key files.  

What to Do When Your Computer Slows Down

Computers can slow down for hundreds of reasons, and sudden performance issues do not necessarily indicate an impending hard drive failure.  If your computer acts abnormally after you install new programs or hardware, you should back up important files and try to revert the changes that caused the problem.  

If your hard drive is operating so slowly that you cannot carry out normal actions in a reasonable amount of time--for instance, starting Windows Explorer takes more than a few minutes--do not attempt to copy data from your drive.  You could severely damage your hard drive, and the resulting corruption is usually focused in the area that you are trying to access.  

When a hard drive is physically damaged, you may notice a clicking or whirring sound as your computer attempts to read data.  Files might suddenly disappear, and you might receive a "file corrupt" or "file format not recognized" error message. 

As soon as you notice physical failure symptoms, shut your computer down and contact Secure Data Recovery Services to discuss your options.  Do not use a standard shutdown procedure.  Turn the computer off with its power switch to immediately disconnect power to your hard drive.

Secure Data Recovery Services offers diagnostics for all types of hard drives.  Our in-lab evaluations provide an excellent way to analyze your recovery options when your hard drive shows the early warning signs of a read/write head failure.

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