Quickly Test Your PC Hard Drive

The hard drive on your PC or laptop is a bit of a weak link; both your operating system and your data (photos, music, etc) live on the hard drive. If the hard drive fails, it's either an inconvenience or a disaster - depending on whether you have backed up your data recently or not. We are primarily discussing "traditional" hard disk drives and not SSDs  (solid state drives). They are different enough to have their own issues.

Hard drives have several ways to determine their health; one is something called "S.M.A.R.T.", which is built into all recent computers and hard drives. The other is a simple check of the disk surface and/or the file system.

S.M.A.R.T. is supposed to alert you before the hard drive gets to the point where it actually breaks. I say "supposed to", as it does not always work quite as advertised. It monitors several drive parameters and keeps a tally of what's going on. If you have ever started up a computer and were presented with a message that you should backup your data immediately - that's S.M.A.R.T. at work.

The other way to spot a wonky hard drive is to check the disk integrity (does it have "bad spots"?) and to check the file system.  The difference between the disk itself and the file system is like the pages of a book (the disk itself) and the words on the pages (the file system). If either have problems, it's not good - although potentially repairable.

On Windows computers, the first two - S.M.A.R.T. and the disk integrity - can be quickly checked by a free tool, HDTune. There is a shareware version (HDTune Pro) and an older free version (HDTune); the free one will work fine up through Windows 8, so we'll look at it. Download it here and install (the defaults are fine). Launch the program, and click the "Health" tab - you will see the S.M.A.R.T. status there.  Each item should show "OK" and the overall status should be "OK". If not, start backing stuff up.

Assuming S.M.A.R.T. was okay, click the Error Scan tab and click "Start" to run the check. Using the "Quick Scan" option is fine just to give general idea if everything is okay. If that's okay, great - see the scan in progress below.

The last method will check the file system and disk itself and optionally attempt to repair the file system and any disk errors. You can do this using Windows own disk checking tool - CHKDSK. Note that checking and fixing the disk integrity can take quite a while - longer with a  bigger disk drive; it could take several hours on a 500GB or larger disk. It will also reboot the computer to do this, and you won't have access to Windows during this - just so you know. Windows 8 has a new "Spot check" feature though, that can give very quick results.

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