Identifying hard drive noises

Modern hard drives make very little noise and normally any noise is masked by the sound of the fan. Often computer fans are very loud especially when they get dirty or out of balance. Hard drives sometimes become louder as they grow older and noises can vary depending on the function the drive is performing. Generally, a noisy hard drive is indicative of a problem, but the user must first identify the source of the noise.

Normal sounds include a low frequency whining as the hard drive gets up to speed. Also during the read and write functions you may hear irregular clicking as the heads move backwards and forwards across the platters or when the heads are parking for standby. These noises are completely normal and users should not worry.

Abnormal noises are normally accompanied by strange behaviour. Your system might freeze or crash. It may not even boot and the hard drive may not be recognised by the BIOS. Repeated regular tapping or clicking should be reason for concern. The sound is often associated with a head crash. Grinding or scratching is even more alarming. This is indicative of two likely problems. Firstly, the motor bearings may have failed and are grinding. Heads scraping the surface of the platters can cause scratching sounds. Quite literally your data is being scraped off the surface of the platters and being thrown around inside the hard drive. If you can hear scratching, power the unit down immediately. Any further usage, even attempts to reboot, can cause media damage to the platters which is unrecoverable.

In summary, if you think the sound is unusual then backup critical files immediately. Don’t attempt a full disk backup as this may simply put too much strain on the drive. Concentrate on the files that are most important to you. It is best not to run CHKDSK or any other utility until you have safeguarded your data.