Hard drive clicking noise

Why is my hard drive making a clicking noise?

“My hard drive is making a clicking noise” is one of the most common faults we see among our hard drive data recoveries. It’s a worrying thing to experience, however it is not always a precursor to data loss. So we are going to give you the facts and explain what causes this problem and why it is not necessarily the sound of disaster.

Why is your hard drive making a clicking noise?

The internals of a hard drive look very similar to a record player but work very differently. The actuator arm moves a tiny read head across the surface of the disk platter a fraction of a hairs width above the surface, as it does so it reads the magnetic surface for the data requested by the computer. This happens on both sides of often multiple platters.

Hard drive diagram

The information is stored randomly across the disk surfaces so the actuator arm is constantly in motion.

The clicking noise is where the magnetic head cannot read the data that it is expecting at the relevant location and tries to reset itself by repeatedly returning to the home position over and over again.

Faults that lead to your hard drive clicking

There are a number of faults that can cause the clicking noise, these that can be split into hardware and software issues.

Software issues are less common but are usually down to corrupted software in the electronic chips on the hard drive. It is difficult to say what causes this corruption but it could be down to a manufacturing issue, hardware compatibility problems between the hard drive and a connected device and even potentially a virus or malware.

There are a lot of different hardware faults, which is why it is especially important to contact a professional data recovery company on discovering this clicking noise. Attempting any sort of recovery outside of an engineering lab environment could compromise the success of the recovery and lead to permanent data loss. Often with this fault there can be a narrow window of opportunity to recover the data before the hard drive experiences an unrecoverable failure.

  • Head crash or platter damage

    Impact to a hard drive or a spindle motor that is out of balance can cause the read/write heads to physically contact the surface of the disk platter. This can cause minute damage to the surface coating which holds the information, making that data unreadable. This type of damage will cause the read/write heads to keep retrying and so you will hear a clicking sound.

    This type of damage can also cause the read/write heads to contact the platter surface again and cause what is called a ‘head crash’, this is where the head scores the disk surface leaving a visible ring of damage and making further reading and writing nearly impossible. Head crashes commonly happen as a directly result of impact.

    Any dirt or dust particles on the surface of a disk can also cause a head crash. Hard drives are manufactured in clean room environments so no particles should be present inside the hard drive assembly. This is why it is recommended never to open up a hard drive outside of a clean environment. Opening up a device to inspect it could make the situation worse.

  • Power issues

    If the power supply to the hard drive is damaged or faulty then this could cause issues with the way the device operates. If this affects the actuator arm or power to the read/write heads then you may well hear a clicking noise as the device retries reading/writing.

  • Read/write head issues (weak or damaged)

    In the case of an impact the read/write heads can often become damaged or misaligned. This means they will not operate properly in finding the data and cause the hard drive to click.

  • PCB (Printed Circuit Board) damage

    Physical damage or damage caused by a power surge to the PCB (Printed Circuit Board) can easily cause problems with the actuator arm or the read/write heads. Again this could cause issues with the drive finding data and result in that clicking.

  • Service area issues

    The service area is a section of the disk surface where manufacturer specific control code is stored. This information is vital for the correct functioning of the device and is not accessible to the user directly. If this section of the disk gets damaged or corrupted it will stop the drive functioning as intended. Quite often this can result in unexpected read/write behaviour and as with all the issues above result in a clicking noise.

  • Manufacturing issues

    Occasionally new hard drives do contain manufacturing faults, including issues with spindle motors, disk surfaces, head assemblies and even within the firmware. Hard disk drives are complex devices with very little tolerance for error so there are many things that can potentially go wrong.

All computer equipment is susceptible to faults and damage, but hard drives are particularly vulnerable. The heads float a fraction of a millimetre above the surface of the disk which is spinning at 7200rpm and constantly moving backwards and forwards. It’s easy to see why an impact can cause these problems.

What is the chance of data recovery?

Unfortunately there is no straight answer to that, it is entirely dependent on what is causing the clicking noise and the type and severity of the damage. Fortunately a good data recovery company with the right tools and experience will be able to diagnose the faults without causing further damage or risking further data loss.

There are various methods depending on the fault, occasionally data can be recovered using advanced software techniques although this is not so common with drives making clicking noises.

With physical faults electronic components can be repaired or replaced, even the read/write heads can be replaced using donor components. With a head change it is important to match a number of manufacturer specific donor requirements before attempting this procedure.

Some of these techniques can be tricky but data recovery is not a mystical art, it is engineering with the right tools, the right knowledge and experience.

Be aware that data recovery may recover the data but may well not fix the drive. Depending on the type of fault it is probably best to dispose of the device and not risk another failure in the future. Discuss this with your data recovery company and they will advise you on the best course of action.

What can you do?

Don’t do anything. The advice would be to stop using the device immediately and contact a professional data recovery company. It is always tempting to look up fixes on the internet (and perhaps that is how you found this article), but any attempt to recovery the data could easily lead to further damage or data loss. Any continued use of the drive is likely to make the problem worse and possibly even ruin any chance of recovery.

Be very wary of data recovery software as web searches will often present this as a potential solution. We’ll look at this in another article (see Data Recovery software - What you need to know), but it is highly unlikely any data recovery software downloaded from the internet will be able to fix a hard drive making clicking noises.

Data recovery labs use clean environments and specifically created software and hardware to diagnose the issue and attempt a recovery. Opening a drive and handling it in a non-clean air environment could be catastrophic.

In summary, if you hear a clicking noise coming from your hard drive stop using it immediately and seek advice from a professional data recovery company. Even with this fault successful recoveries are very common.