A clicking hard drive is never a good sign. This sound usually means there is a mechanical failure inside the hard drive preventing it from working properly. In most cases, a clicking hard drive means the hard drive is failing and data recovery should be attempted soon before total failure occurs.
What causes a hard drive to click?
There are a few main causes of a clicking hard drive:
- Mechanical failure of the read/write heads
- Misalignment of the read/write heads
- Damage to the plates or platters inside the hard drive
- Failure of the spindle motor
- Failure of the controller board
The most common cause is a mechanical failure of the read/write heads. The heads float just above the drive’s platters on an air bearing. When powered on, the platters spin and the heads float just microscopic distances above them, reading and writing data. If a head fails mechanically, it can touch down onto a platter. This creates a clicking sound as the head drags across the platter and can cause damage to the platters and other heads.
Why does this cause the drive to fail?
When a read/write head fails and touches down onto a platter, several things happen:
- The head can damage the platter surface, rendering that area of the platter unreadable
- The friction from the head dragging across the platter can generate particles that contaminate the drive
- The head can damage other heads as they vibrate and move
- The original mechanical failure of the head worsens with further use
All of these issues mean that critical data on the drive becomes inaccessible. The drive relies on all heads working properly and all sections of the platters being readable. With enough mechanical failure and platter damage, the drive cannot access the data it needs.
The drive may detect some of these issues and park or lock the heads to prevent further damage. But once one head fails, damage often cascades as contaminants spread and heads vibrate against each other.
How does a clicking drive fail exactly?
When powered on, a drive with a failed head goes through the following general sequence:
- The platters spin up to operating RPM speed
- The heads attempt to unload off their park posts and begin to float
- The failed head cannot properly unload and begins touching down onto the platter
- The friction from the failed head causes it to bounce and skip across the platter surface
- This skipping creates the audible clicking sound as the head drags and disengages from the platter
- The drive detects errors and may try to park the heads again
- The heads unload, but the failed one again bounces across the platter when unloaded
- This cycle repeats as the drive tries to access data, generating louder and faster clicking
- Eventually the drive gives up due to too many errors and shuts down
This repetitive rapid clicking indicates the heads are stuck in an unload-park cycle as the drive tries to read data but cannot due to the failed head touching down. As the drive determines it cannot operate, it gives up and the clicking fades as the platters spin down.
Can a clicking hard drive be fixed?
In most cases, clicking hard drives cannot be repaired easily by end users. The heads and platters are precisely engineered and assembled in a cleanroom environment. Any repair attempt risks further contamination or damage unless done by specialized data recovery experts.
Some companies offer advanced hard drive repair services, where the drive is opened in a cleanroom and the read-write heads replaced or realigned. This requires specialized tools and expertise, but can fix a clicking drive if the platters are still intact.
However, repairing the drive does not guarantee the data can be recovered. Once a drive starts clicking, some data loss is almost certain to occur. So the recommendation is to pursue professional data recovery first before attempting repair.
Recovering data from a clicked drive
When a hard drive starts clicking, it means failure is imminent. The most important step is to stop using the drive right away to prevent further damage. Then start the data recovery process as soon as possible.
There are a few options for data recovery from a clicked hard drive:
- Send to a professional data recovery lab
- Use data recovery software to attempt to read what data can be accessed
- Use a secondary drive to clone the failing drive before it fully dies
The best option is usually to work with a professional data recovery service. They have cleanroom facilities, specialized tools and parts to potentially repair drives, and experts who do these recoveries every day. They can disassemble the drive in a cleanroom and replace components to regain access to the drive.
DIY software recovery tools may be able to recover some accessible data, but often cannot access critical areas with platter damage. And cloning requires the drive to stay intact long enough to fully copy—once clicking occurs, total failure can happen fast.
A professional recovery lab combines drive repair options with advanced recovery tools and skills for the best chance of saving your data off a clicking drive. Search for reputable recovery experts like DriveSavers who have been rescuing data for decades from any failed drive brand or problem.
Can you prevent a hard drive from clicking?
While there is no way to guarantee a drive will never fail, there are steps to maximize the life and health of a hard drive:
- Handle drives gently and protect from impacts/drops
- Keep drives properly cooled—do not let them overheat
- Avoid exposing drives to magnets, liquids, dust
- Do not move drives excessively when operating
- Perform regular backups so data is safe if a drive fails
- Replace drives once they are 3-5 years old
Modern hard drives are more reliable than older models but still have a mechanical operation vulnerable to wear and tear over time. Following best practices helps avoid failure, but unexpected clicking can still occur. When it does, act fast to recover the data before the drive completely dies.
Signs a failing drive is about to start clicking
Catching an impending hard drive failure early maximizes the chances to save your data. Here are some signs a drive may be degrading and about to start clicking:
- Increasing soft errors when accessing files
- Growing delays in data transfers and operations
- Audio stuttering when playing music or video files
- Strange noises from the drive—humming, grinding, whirring
- Filesystem corruption—inaccessible files, folders, drives
- Frequent scan disk checks and S.M.A.R.T. errors
Any recurring unusual behavior like this indicates component degradation. As internal parts wear out, performance drops until operations start failing. Clicking begins once a head finally fails mechanically.
Monitoring a drive’s health stats with tools like CrystalDiskInfo gives visibility into whether reallocated sectors or other indicators suggest imminent failure. Keep backups current and prepare contingency plans if your drive seems to be degrading.
Common causes of a clicking hard drive
While there are a few root causes of a clicking drive, the most prevalent include:
Failed read/write heads
As mentioned earlier, failed heads that touch down on platters are the most common cause of clicking. The precision engineering involved means heads eventually wear out or fail.
Motor or bearing seizure
If the platter motor fails, the drive cannot spin up to operating speed. Or the motor may make grinding noises from bad bearings, also causing a soft failure.
Drive firmware bugs
Sometimes firmware bugs lead to clicking—the drive incorrectly unloads heads when it shouldn’t, or cannot properly recover from vibration or errors.
Loose parts or components
If vibrations or impacts cause any internal components to come loose, the heads may shift out of alignment and start clicking. Loose platter screws are another common example.
Corrupted servo tracks
The servo tracks help guide the heads. If these get corrupted or overwritten, the heads struggle to follow their correct paths.
Damaged or warped platters
Warped, damaged, or non-spinning platters throw off the head floats and alignment, leading to potential touching down.
When to be concerned about drive clicking
Any repetitive clicking sound from a hard drive should be investigated right away. The clicking itself may be occasional at first during certain operations. But it signals degradation and risks imminent failure if the drive continues operating.
Brief single clicks on initial spin-up or head loading are often normal. But consistent sharp clicking when trying to use the drive means a component will likely fail completely soon.
The noise may be faint initially and come and go. But it tends to worsen and become more frequent until the drive fails to spin up entirely. The sooner the clicking drive is shut down and recovered, the better the chances of saving data.
In summary, clicking hard drives are caused by mechanical failures like degraded heads making contact with platters. This prevents the drive from properly reading and writing data. The noise itself comes from the bouncing and dragging of bad heads across platter surfaces.
Clicking indicates a drive is on its way to total failure. But there are professional data recovery options available to potentially repair the drive and rescue data if acted upon quickly. Otherwise, the drive and valuable files may be lost for good once it fully dies.
Catching the early signs of failure before clicking starts provides the best chance for recovery. Be aware of any unusual drive noises, performance changes, or S.M.A.R.T. errors pointing to degraded operation. Schedule regular backups, and contact a data recovery specialist at the first sign of trouble before the drive fails completely.
|Failed heads||Heads make contact with platters, preventing reads and writes|
|Motor failure||Motor cannot spin platters up to speed|
|Firmware bugs||Firmware incorrectly unloads heads|
|Loose parts||Vibration causes heads to shift out of alignment|
|Servo track damage||Heads cannot properly follow servo guides|
|Platter damage||Damaged platters disrupt head floats|
|DIY software recovery||Limited success accessing damaged drive sectors|
|Clone failing drive||Requires drive to stay operable long enough to clone|
|Professional recovery||Best option, with possible drive repair in cleanroom and advanced tools|
Preventing Hard Drive Clicking
- Handle drives gently
- Keep drives properly cooled
- Avoid exposing to magnets, liquids, dust
- Do not move excessively when powered on
- Replace older drives regularly
- Keep backups current in case of failure
Signs of Impending Failure
- Increasing errors accessing files
- Performance slowdowns
- Audio stuttering
- Unusual noises from drive
- Filesystem corruption
- Frequent S.M.A.R.T. errors