It Died on the Operating Table

A relative of mine recently was having strange things happening with her computer. It ran very slowly, and various errors occurred. This is usually a symptom of either malware or just poor maintenance, but there can be other reasons, too.

Turned out in this case, despite the fact that 95% of all computer failures are software-related, this was a member of the 5% – an imminent hard-drive failure. After a couple more startups, the machine refused to boot.

Did she have a backup, I asked. Umm, ‘fraid not. That’s it, You’re Fired! Well, you can’t really fire your relatives (Especially when they’re paying you!), so I told her I’d get her important data off the old drive.

When a computer will not boot, all is not lost as far as accessing the hard drive’s data. The machine can be started with a Boot Disk, a CD or flash drive containing an independent operating system. If even this doesn’t work, the hard drive can be removed from the computer and hooked up to another, working computer. I did that, and copied her documents to a folder on another drive. When the copying procedure was at about 80%, the drive died completely, so she got most of her data back, but not all.

Let this be a lesson. Your computer’s hard drive is where everything, including those “Baby’s first steps” photos, and everything else important to you is stored. If you haven’t backed up (copied, not moved!) that important stuff to another location, you will be heartbroken if your hard drive fails without warning. Sometimes, data can be retrieved from a failed drive, but that requires a specialist and can run into thousands of dollars. Protect your data!

Lesson number two is that hard drives can be monitored for general health. All modern hard drives have something built into them called S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Monitoring And Reporting technology), which monitors around two dozen parameters of the drive’s health and can sometimes predict a failure before it occurs. (This does not absolve you from doing backups!)

If you like to keep your system clean and not install any more software than absolutely necessary, there is a way to use a built-in tool in Windows to check SMART attributes:

First, open a Command Prompt window.  (Press the Windows key, type Command Prompt, and press Enter.)

In the black Command Prompt window, type the following commands, pressing Enter after each line:


diskdrive get status

If all is well, you should see “OK” displayed for each drive on your computer. Admittedly, this is a little geeky. For a more informative and user-friendly way to monitor your hard drive, I can recommend two free programs.

My favorite is Crystal Disk Info, an easy to understand program that gives you status on your drive(s) and can run in the background for continuous monitoring. The only con about this program is the “installed” version comes bundled with adware, so I recommend only downloading the “non-install” version from the above link. This is a zip file that can be extracted to a folder on your hard drive and then run.

A very close second, and one that is free of any adware, is Acronis drive Monitor. This one is also very easy to use and will show drive health in percentages. It also can monitor drive health in the background. They do ask for a name and email address before downloading; they will undoubtedly send a few emails advertising their backup products (which are quite good- although they don’t have any free backup programs).

More info on backup strategies here:

For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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