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Troubleshooting Hard Drive Problems

Error talk

Uh-oh, the notorious “Windows detected a hard disk problem” error. What now? This article will show you steps you can take to make a proper decision about the problem. These steps can be taken for almost any suspected hard disk problem whether or not you’ve gotten this error.

Windows detected a hard disk problem

The first step is identifying which drive is affected. If you only have one HDD (hard drive disk), then this doesn’t apply to you. Ward off the urge to close the error as fast as possible, and click the “Show details” down arrow.

click show details

In this expanded view, you should be able to determine which drive is possibly in trouble.

error expanded

It appears the culprit is a Samsung drive that Windows has assigned the drive letter “D” to.

There are many useful tools for Windows out there (HDDScan, Seatools for Windows, etc) that can help diagnose hard drive related problems, however it’s better to do disk checks using tools outside the Windows environment. There are a couple reasons for this: first, when running Windows, the hard drives are constantly being accessed for read and write operations, whether they are updates, scheduled operations like defragmentation, simple web browsing, or even simply accessing the file system like checking documents and opening programs. A thorough hard drive diagnosis can be compromised by these operations, so it’s best to use utilities outside of Windows. The other reason is that there are often multiple versions of the same tool and the one that is run outside of Windows is almost always more robust than its Windows counterpart.

Using the Chkdsk utility to search and destroy errors

Chkdsk (presumably short for “check disk”) is a command line utility, meaning that there is no graphical interface for it. Chkdsk scans specified hard drives in search of “problems” and attempts to correct them so that the hard drive may run stably again. While many reported problems are unfixable physical damage to the device, there are some errors that can be mitigated by the chkdsk tool.

Sometimes chkdsk can recover some previously damaged and unreadable data, at which point you would want to immediately back up this data before taking any more actions. In other cases, if chkdsk locates “bad sectors,” it may be able to ‘quarantine’ these sectors so that they will not be written to or read from anymore. The bad sectors will then be replaced by what are called “spare sectors.”

Unfortunately, even if chkdsk is able to fix up a drive, it is often only temporary. Problems are commonly akin to a rip in cloth that tends to just get worse over time. If chkdsk reports problems, important files should be backed up despite its ability to repair them.

How to access and use chkdsk

The best way to access chkdsk is from what is called the “recovery console” located on the Windows installation DVD media. First, boot from the Windows disk (for information on how to do this, refer to this knoweldge base article: On a PC, how do I boot from something other than the hard drive?).

There are thousands of different models of motherboards out there, and each one is a little different, so it’s up to you to figure out exactly how to boot from something other than your primary hard drive. On the machine used for this article, this screen shows up when the computer just turns on:

Pre-Bios menu for the asrock p55m pro

As indicated by this menu, the “Boot Menu” can be accessed if the F11 key is pressed. This is what that boot menu looks like:

Boot menu for the asrock p55m pro

Once again, even if your motherboard has a similar boot menu, it likely looks different. In fact, the whole process could be very different. However, once you are able to boot from the Windows installation disk, the steps taken should be nearly identical to the ones found in this article.

To boot from the Windows installation disk, the CD/DVD drive in this list should the be item to select. After waiting through loading screens, you should come to the first screen you can interact with. Assuming you want to keep the default language selections associated with the installation disk, just go ahead and click “Next.”

The first interactive screen on the Windows 7 Boot disk

On the next screen, click “Repair your computer.”

Click &quote;Repair your computer&quote;

Choose the radio button labelled “System Recovery Options” and then click “Next.”

system recovery options or restore your computer

“Command Prompt” is the recovery option of interest because it allows you to punch in command line operations, like chkdsk.

list of recovery tools

The Command Prompt (command line) works by punching a single-line “command” of text at a time. When the enter key is pressed, the command is executed and the result shows up on-screen. The following steps are a few commands that will help us use the chkdsk tool.

Remember how the potentially afflicted Samsung drive was assigned ‘D’ as the drive letter? Unfortunately, that may not be the case outside of Windows. To check the right drive, we have to know which letter the Samsung drive is. If you only have one hard drive, then ‘C’ is the letter, and you don’t have to worry about the next few steps until the “chkdsk” command.

Use the “diskpart” utility by typing “diskpart” and hitting enter.

Then after “DISKPART>” type “list disk” and hit enter. The commands have been underlined in red.

commands diskpart and list disk being used

A list of storage devices will be shown now. In the case of the image, there are two hard drives, one being 931 gigabytes (one terabyte as specified by the manufacturer) in size, while the other is 298 gigabytes (320 gigabytes manufacturer spec) in size. The third item of the list is actually a USB flash drive listed as having 7663 megabytes (8GB spec).

The Samsung drive is the one with one terabyte, so in order to “select” it, the command “select disk 0″ should be typed followed by hitting enter. Important: You want to make sure that the number after “select disk” belongs to the disk you want to scan using chkdsk.

Now that the Samsung drive is the selected disk, type the command “detail disk” in order to not only verify this is indeed the Samsung drive, but more importantly it will display what drive letter is being used outside of Windows.

These last two commands are shown in the following image underlined in red:

select disk and detail disk commands being used

From the above image, we see (circled) that despite Windows giving the letter ‘D’ to the Samsung drive, here in the command prompt, the letter ‘C’ is used.

That’s all the information desired from diskpart, so we will exit the utility by typing in the command “exit” and hitting enter.

We’re all set to use chkdsk now. chkdsk works by typing “chkdsk,” a space, the drive letter to check followed by a colon, followed by a series of what are called parameters to have chkdsk do exactly what you want it to. The actual command that will be typed for the purpose of this article is “chkdsk c: /f /r” followed by hitting enter. On your computer, the only thing that might be different for you is the “c:”. Important: This is what specifies which drive to check. Make sure that the drive letter discovered using “detail disk” from a couple steps ago is used.

The parameter “/f” tells chkdsk to automatically attempt to “fix” any problems it may encounter, and “/r” tells chkdsk to do a very thorough five step deep scan for bad sectors and physical damage while attempting to recover potentially unrecoverable information.

These commands are shown in the following image:

exit command to exit diskpart and using chkdsk

chkdsk will now run. Since the parameter “/r” was used, this will likely take several hours. We chose to use parameters that could attempt to do delicate “fixes” to the drive, so it is highly not recommended to stop the test prematurely. If this is being run on a laptop, then seek a stable power source.

You’ll know when the test is completed when your screen looks similar to this:

screen of chkdsk's report after completion

These results come in good news and bad news. The good news, obviously, is that no problems were detected and that means there’s a chance that the Windows error flags were just false alarms. The bad news, on the other hand, is that if there is indeed a problem, it’s likely not something that can be fixed easily and that there’s some more investigation work to do.

If you got different results, then it was probably that either you had “errors” but chkdsk successfully fixed them or chkdsk found errors and was unable to fix them. In case of the former, congratulations! There’s a good chance that you won’t run into that Windows error again. If you do see the error again down the road, or in case of the latter event, then continue reading onto the next section.

Using SeaTools for DOS

SeaTools is a famous name in the HDD diagnostics universe, as well it should be. Practically all well-known hard drive manufacturers will take errors flagged in SeaTools as enough information for them to deem your hard drive worthy of an RMA (return material authorization). Why not use SeaTools from the beginning you may ask? A boot disk has to be created in order to use the better version of SeaTools, which would have been unnecessary if the problem was fixed with the chkdsk tool. SeaTools comes in two forms: Windows and DOS (direct operating system), and remembering that HDD diagnostic tests in the Windows environment can be lacking, DOS is better.

To get SeaTools, follow this link here. Download the ISO file, and burn it onto a disk using a CD burner tool, like “Windows Disk Image Burner” or NERO. Windows Disk Image Burner comes with any installation of Windows 7 and should be the default program associated with ISO files. If you double-click the downloaded file, you may see a screen like this:

burning a disk using Windows Disk Image Burner

Put in a blank disk and click “burn.” Once the disk is ready, all you have to do is boot from that disk the same way you did for the Windows installation disk earlier. You may also make a USB flash drive bootable so as to not use a blank disk, but that technique is outside the scope of this tutorial.

Once you boot from disk, you should come to a screen that looks like this:

SeaTools license agreement screen

Go ahead and click “I Accept” to continue.

There will be a list of hard drives that belong to your computer in the center of the screen. Verify that the hard drive in question is the one selected. If not, click the correct one to select it. Once the correct drive is selected (marked by a little checkmark next to the drive name), click “Basic Tests” at the top left corner of the screen as shown in the following image:

select the correct drive and click "Basic Tests"

Choose the “Long Test” because even if the “Short Test” says the drive is fine, you’d want to do the long test to be sure. The long test will do everything the short test does anyways. If the short test says that the drive is bad, then the hard drive manufacturer may tell you to do the long test for the sake of certainty. Like chkdsk’s scan, this test may take hours to complete, especially if it’s a large drive, so you’re going to want to make sure that it doesn’t get interrupted. Perhaps let it run while you are out, or even overnight.

After the test completes, your screen may look like this:

seaTools completing with no errors found

Since SeaTools is considered by many to be the best hard drive diagnostic tool out there, if SeaTools finds no errors, then Windows is likely blowing the whistle incorrectly. The final section will address this situation.

If SeaTools did report errors, then it’s probably just a matter of time for that drive, and so replacing it may be the best bet. Hard drive manufacturers are often surprisingly lenient with warranties. Give the drive manufacturer a call, and see what you can do.

Using Windows Disk Management as a last ditch effort

You’ve come a long way, and now you just want Windows to stop with the ‘phantom’ errors. One way that usually does the trick is to re-format the drive. If Windows is installed on the drive, then you’d reformat your drive using the Windows boot disk and reinstall Windows. Don’t forget to back up your personal data!

If the hard drive is just being used as a data drive, then back up your data, and use Disk Management to reformat the drive. If you are using Windows Vista or Windows 7, click the Start button and type “Disk Management” where it reads “Search programs and files” in greyed-out italics. Click “Create and format hard disk partitions” that populates to the top of the Start Menu (this is the search result using Windows 7. In Windows Vista, click “Computer Management”). A window should pop up that looks like this:

the Windows Disk Management tool

Right-click the drive you intend to format and click “Format…” You’ll come to a screen that looks like this:

Format Drive dialog box using the Disk Management tool in Windows

You can rename the volume label if you wish, it’s what the hard drive will be referred to as in your file systems. Continue through the steps and choose Master Boot Record (MBR) instead of GUID Partition Table (GPT) as the boot record to be safe.

You’re all set! That should do the trick. If you still get error pop-ups from Windows, then it probably only happens when files are being written to the disk, and if it gets annoying enough, then you might have to go ahead and replace the drive whether or not there’s anything truly wrong with it. If that’s not an option, then a couple ideas might be to re-install Windows, or possibly try the drive in another computer, as it might be a motherboard SATA/IDE controller failure. If it’s fine in another computer, then look if there are new firmware updates for your motherboard on the manufacturer’s website.

Tackling hard drive-related problems can really disconcerting, but if you try at it enough, you can do it!


2 Responses to "Troubleshooting Hard Drive Problems" to “Troubleshooting Hard Drive Problems”

  1. max Says:

    Is using Chkdsk like this better than just running it when windows is running?

  2. Ken Crist Says:

    This link was essential reference material when my old HDD was starting to fail. I used it to determine:
    1) My old disk needs to be replaced.
    2) To scan my replacement disk to verify it is not damaged ( beyond the manufactured issued bad sectors)

    I know this post is a little old, but hopefully Chabane Maidi will get my thanks for posting this.

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