How to Fix Your Hard Drive

posted: 2009-01-02

interior of hard disk drive

ahhhh, the inner sanctum

I love fixing things. Why? It gives me a deep sense of satisfaction and thrills the minor rebel in me when I can beat the “man”—yeah, they said I needed a new hard drive, but I showed them. Byte me!

A few months ago, my hard drive became infuriatingly slow. It got to the point where it was taking five to ten minutes to launch a word processor. And load new software? A well-nigh impossible proposition. After a majorly time-consuming, and wholly useless, software futzing binge, I downloaded (on another computer that actually worked) Seagate’s Sea Tools, and ran the diagnostics from a boot floppy. A mere three minutes into the diagnostics, Sea Tools reported a disk read error which, as it turned out, could not be fixed. The drive was toast, or was it? Not ready to accept defeat, I extracted the offending drive and plunked it on my workbench. Within seconds an almost maniacal grin transposed my usual (nearly angelic) disposition.

disassembled hard drive

Not so mystical looking now, is it?

I gave the hard drive a quick once-over. Those teensy weensy screws with the oddly patterned heads may have baffled the uninitiated—nope, not Phillips heads, not hex heads either, and definitely not Robertson—so why was I smiling? A few years back I was delighted to find that the head office and plant of the Picquic Tool Company is located in my home town—Vancouver, BC. Most would gloss over this fact with intense indifference. Why my interest? Torx screw driver bits, man. They had them. I wanted them. I bought a Picquic Sixpac screw driver and a bajillion different sized Torx screw driver bits. What do you think was defending the hard drive’s inner sanctum from prying eyes? Torx screws, of course. And you thought I was just a pretty face.

work bench with disassembled hard drive and miscellanea (crap)

the well-equipped workbench

It took but a few short minutes to completely disassemble the hard drive—obviously designed by an engineer’s engineer, which is something like a gentlemen’s gentlemen, but more concerned with calculating mean time between failures (MTBF) than preening 142 pairs of Oxfords, and laying out impeccably coordinated attire for Sir Geoffrey.

“A hard disk drive (HDD), commonly referred to as a hard drive, hard disk, or fixed disk drive, is a non-volatile storage device which stores digitally encoded data on rapidly rotating platters with magnetic surfaces” thanks Wikipedia!). Generally, when a hard drive goes south (or north if you happen to be south) the data is not destroyed, but, quite simply, misaligned. The data is there, but has become unavailable to you. Fixing a hard drive is straightforward: reposition the bits, bytes, clusters, and sectors that have gone astray. Bits are the smallest, um, bit of data, so take the greatest finesse to realign. For this job I cut a two millimeter strip from a fridge magnet, using it to gently herd the wayward bits back into their correct position on the particular platter. Take a close look at the photo of my, er, desktop. I’m using a couple of blue LEDs. These help to show up the errant data which will reflect the blue light, whereas normally aligned data will not. Make sure to get the polarity of the bits correct. If a north-south bit is accidentally position south-north, you may quite inadvertently turn your computer into a SPAM server, and we wouldn’t want that.

For more serious data misalignment, larger tools are required. If you find bytes have strayed off the beaten path, a slightly warm soldering iron does the trick. While a hot soldering iron is just the ticket for realigning ten, or more, bytes at once, the heat can temporarily demagnetize them causing even more data misalignment, so start warm, then turn up the heat as you skill and comfort level increases.

For clusters, I gently tap them back into place with the peening end of a small ball-peen hammer. Clusters are generally the easiest to fix since the bytes tend to cluster together in a unit (that’s why they are called clusters) and can be tapped back into alignment with minimal fuss. Misaligned sectors are almost as easy to fix as clusters. Use the hammer end of the ball-peen hammer and tap with a bit more force. Modulate your tapping force so as not to pound clusters right out of their sector. If this happens, it’s known as an orphaned cluster, but don’t panic, gently tap the cluster back into the sector with the peening end of the hammer.

With a bit of practice, you can generally get all your data shipshape in a couple of tries. Reassemble the hard drive making sure to replace the platters in their original order, or the computer will not boot. If you think you may have trouble remembering the order, mark the platters with a felt pen before disassembly. Make sure to replace all the platters. If you leave one out you will greatly reduce the hard drive’s capacity, never mind the attendant data loss!

I hope this helps. Next time your hard drive acts up, try the above procedure, then immediately go out and treat yourself to a new and, what the heck, larger capacity hard drive. Don’t forget to responsibly recycle the one you’ve just “fixed”, or use it for a coaster if it has sentimental value.

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