How do I know if my hard drive head is bad?

Without the proper equipment, it can be very difficult to know for sure if your hard drive has a heads issue. To be certain of the condition of the heads inside your drive you would need to open the drive up in a clean room with a microscope available to inspect the head stack, and (in the absence of a physically visible issue with the heads) would need a tool like the PC-3000 from Ace Labs to be able to troubleshoot the issue.

The symptoms of a bad hard drive head

Common symptoms of a hard drive with bad heads are clicking sounds when the drive is on, a chirping noise coming from the drive, loud knocking sound, scraping sounds like metal on metal, beeping sounds instead of the normal spin-up sound, and clicking sounds followed by the drive spinning back down.

As you see in the list, the sound the drive makes is the best indication if the drive has bad heads.

Clicking Sound

This is probably the most common symptom we hear about for people that need data recovery and are looking for a data recovery lab. Some data recovery labs say this is the most common issue they run into, but for us it is only about 20% of the drives we receive that have not been dropped. Clicking sounds on a hard drive could be something other than bad heads including firmware issues, bad sectors at just the right place, and more.

Loud Knocking Sound

This is basically the same thing as a clicking sound. On some larger desktop drives, it really sounds like knocking instead of clicking, but the symptom type is the same. Many times this symptom is caused by a head stack that has failed and is not able to read data.

Scraping Sounds

This is the scariest symptom we hear. Scraping sounds are generally caused by heads that are coming into contact with the surface of the platter. When the heads come into contact with the platter, they can scratch the platter surface, and if the scratching is bad enough, it can make the data unrecoverable.

Beeping Sounds

A beeping hard drive is becoming more and more common. The symptom is generally caused by a head stack that is stuck on the platters. Sometimes the heads are stuck in a way that has damaged the heads and a replacement head stack is required in order to get the data off. Sometimes the heads are stuck, but they can be lifted off and moved back to the correct position using the right tools and a clean room environment.

Spinning up, Clicking, Then Spinning Down

This is very similar to the clicking sound above but usually points to a head failure of some kind even more than just clicking or knocking sounds. This symptom can still be caused by something other than bad heads, but the spin-up, clicking, spin-down symptom is usually a heads issue.

Clicking does not always mean bad heads

The symptoms that would normally point to a possible heads issue can also be caused by other issues with the drive. The most common example of this is the clicking sound. Many data recovery shops say that if your drive is clicking it requires a head stack replacement or some other kind of internal work, without even diagnosing the drive.

In our experience, about 20% of drives that have not been dropped but need data recovery have bad heads. Why the clarification on whether the drive was dropped or not? Dropped drives have a much higher chance of needing a head stack replacement than drives that have not been dropped. Of the dropped drives we have received, almost 70% require heads replacement.

What are hard drive heads?

If you have gotten this far, you may be curious to know exactly what drive heads are. One of the best analogies available in this industry is the record player analogy. If you are familiar with record players, you know that there is a needle on an arm that reads the data from the record that is spinning around. The hard drive works in a very similar fashion. The platters inside a drive are very much like the record, while the heads are very much like the needle! 

You can basically just imagine a standard hard drive as having a few records spinning around with a few needles reading the data. Now, of course, there is a lot more going on inside a drive than in a record player, but the analogy is a good one.

How to keep your drive from getting bad heads

I have been asked over the years how to keep a drive from devoting a heads issue. Usually, this question comes from a client who doesn’t want to have to go through the stress of needing data recovery again! My answer is always to be sure to have all your important data backed up in at least 2 places. Backing up your data is the best way to keep from needing data recovery.

Having said that backup is the most important step, you can also be sure to not drop or bump your drive. Drops and bumps are the #1 reason we see bad heads inside a drive. As the drive ages the chance of having a head fail goes up, so not relying on older drives is also a good idea. And finally, using a piece of software that will alert you when your drive is showing signs of issues (SMART Status Monitor), is a great idea.

What to do if you think your drive has bad heads

Turn off the drive and don’t turn it back on. When heads are failing they can sometimes cause damage to the platter that holds the data. If the data is important, bring it to a data recovery company you can trust. It is very important to go to a data recovery company that has experienced technicians and doesn’t utilize any predatory tactics. I have an entire page with helpful considerations before you continue with a data recovery company.

If you would like me to help you with recovering the data on your drive, please start by filling out my free quote request form or giving me a call at (620) 615-6836. I would be happy to discuss the project with you. If you would like to see what I charge for different types of data recovery, you can view my data recovery price list.