Checking a computer's hard disk drive

Every computer contains a device it uses to store information even when the power is off.

Up until a few years ago, that device was always a hard disk drive (HDD). Increasingly, computers ship with solid state drives (SSDs) instead. Why?

  • SSDs deliver better performance than HDDs, especially during startup.
  • Because they don’t have any moving parts, SSDs consume less energy. This is a big deal if you regularly rely on the battery in a notebook computer.
  • Early indications paint SSDs as being less likely to break than HDDs, even when you take into account that modern HDDs tend to be very reliable.

That last point ought to give pause to all computer users. (I know it doesn’t, but it should.) HDDs have broken down, and when they do, the stress levels of their owners usually go up. A broken HDD often means people lose all the information they’ve been saving to that hard disk. Unless they back up their drives, that means they lose all their work, period.

My hard disk drive story

I’ve been through a hard disk breakdown, but without the stress. Years ago, I picked up a brand new MacBook Pro. Three months later, the drive failed. I took it to the Apple Store, where the drive was diagnosed and replaced under warranty in about 15 minutes.

Then I took the Mac home, hooked it up to my Time Machine (backup) external drive, clicked a few things, waited a few hours, and had my computer back. It was annoying, but all I lost was a few hours.

Manually checking disks

Before HDDs break down, they may exhibit signs of imminent failure. These can include slow computer performance, odd noises and other anomalous behaviours.

If your computer is behaving badly, consider scanning the drive.

Scanning a Mac’s disk

Apple includes Disk Utility with every Mac so that users can diagnose any issues with the Mac’s drive, whether of the hard disk or solid state variety. Once you open Disk Utility and click the First Aid button, the Mac checks the drive and either reports back with any issues or gives the all-clear

Scanning a Windows PC disk

Windows has a similar disk-checking utility. You can use it by following these basic steps.

  1. Open Windows Explorer
  2. Find the icon for the drive (The main drive is usually labeled “C:”)
  3. Right-click the drive icon and click Properties.
  4. In the Properties dialog, click the Tools tab.
  5. Under Error checking, click the Check button. Windows runs the check.
  6. Follow any prompts.

For more information on this utility, refer to Windows help. Third-party utilities are also available (buyer beware).

After scanning a drive

Should your drive-checking utility find problems, it may offer suggestions on next steps. You may need to research next steps yourself or find an expert who can help you with them.

Future of drive checks

Manual error-checking on disks isn’t needed the way it once was. Operating systems tend to take care of error checking on their own. I suspect that as more computers ship with solid-state drives instead of hard disk drives, people will upgrade their computers long before the drive fails.

Have you had issues with ailing or failed hard disk drives? How did you handle the situation? Share your story in the comments below.

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