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Detect Hard Drive Failure Before It Happens

Hack #57 from PC Hacks by Jim Aspinwall (O’Reilly Media).

Roughly 60% of all disk drive failures are mechanical in nature–from spindle-bearing wear to read/write heads banging into delicate disk platters–and now technology built into the drives can report anticipated and specific failures to give you a chance to rectify the situation, hopefully before it is too late to retrieve your data.

In addition to monitoring a variety of parameters related to mechanical events (disk platter RPM, time to spin up, motor current, head seek failures, and sudden shock to the drive chassis), S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology) can report read and write retry attempts necessary due to defective areas on the disk or head failure or drive temperature. Many S.M.A.R.T.-enabled drives can also report how many times they have been turned on and off and the number of hours the drive has been on.

If S.M.A.R.T. is enabled in your system BIOS, the BIOS will check and report any early or permanent signs of disk failure. You can also monitor your drive’s condition with a S.M.A.R.T.-aware disk monitoring program.

To view all available S.M.A.R.T. information about your drive, try the free DiskCheck utility from DiskCheck is a nonresident utility that will show you exact drive information and all of the supported S.M.A.R.T. statuses from your drive. There’s also Ariolic Software’s ActiveSMART ( resident monitoring tool, which provides a wealth of detail on drive status and notification of potential failures. If you get a S.M.A.R.T. warning about a drive failing, back up your data immediately and replace the drive.

Hacking the Hack
A failing disk drive is no fun. A failed disk drive is even less so. In my work in various IT shops, I’ve encountered a lot of grieving “Have I lost all of my data?” looks from end users. It is indeed a sad time, but an opportunity to become a hero. If you can spend the time with various tools to attempt, and even better succeed, at saving someone else’s work, you can feel like you actually accomplished something in the course of your day besides resetting some forgetful user’s password or plugging their mouse back in.

A plethora of disk drive repair and data recovery tools are available to help you emulate that fictional superhero “Super DataMan.” (OK, he doesn’t really exist, I made him up…)

I’ve long since given up on the pedestrian Norton Utilities like Norton Disk Doctor because it does not do enough to spend the time running it, especially for those really cranky lost partitions, erratic mechanical problems inside the drive, and when S.M.A.R.T. says the drive is bad or going to be bad soon.

When it’s time to recover partitions and data I unlock my arsenal of serious disk recovery tools, which are:

  • Steve Gibson’s SpinRite 6.0 ( for finding and fixing or moving bad data blocks on FAT, NTFS, Linux, Novell, Macintosh, and even TiVo volumes
  • Ontrack’s Easy Data Recovery ( for digging deep inside a drive and extracting recovered data to other media
  • Symantec’s GHOST ( to “peel” data off a bad drive to a disk image for replacement onto another drive, or to extract individual datafiles with Ghost Explorer
  • Kurt Garloff’s dd_rescue ( to image Linux partitions to other media for later recovery use (see for an excellent write-up and tips)

If your own data recovery efforts fail, you can always resort to a data recovery service like Ontrack ( or ActionFront (

cover This material has been adapted from PC Hacks by Jim Aspinwall, published by O’Reilly Media, Inc. Copyright O’Reilly Media, Inc., 2004. All rights reserved.

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Covering both Windows and Linux, PC Hacks combines the bestselling Hacks series style with the world’s most popular computing hardware. Hacks for enhancing performance and preventing problems with your PC include overclocking CPU and video cards, tweaking RAM timing, selecting the best performing components, and more. The guide includes advice on reusing an old PC to off-load work from newer systems as well as ways to prevent security hacks.

PC Hacks is available for purchase from,,

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