Hard drive having occasional problems with startup
July 3, 2013 6:12 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes (often?) my external hard drive seems to stall while spinning up. But it's not broken. So what is it doing, and is there a way to fix it?

I have a 1TB Fantom Drive. Don't know specifically what brand hard drive is inside, but I'd guess Seagate, Western Digital, or Samsung.

Typically, when I turn on my hard drive, the light will blink on, and it will spin up: it will emit a whine for about 3 seconds that rises in pitch (my un-musical ear will guess about five tones higher) as the drive spins, the computer recognizes it, and everything goes well.

Other times, it will seem to get "stuck" during the spin-up stage: the whine will continue, but it will be a monotone at the lowest pitch instead of getting higher in pitch. When this happens, sometimes (infrequently) this is an extended "freeze", and it will be monotone for all 3 seconds of whine-emission. It'll pause and try to spin up again, and usually it succeeds by the third try (often I shut off the power switch before it does). More often, it'll "catch" on the lowest tone for about one extra second than it should, but then will spin up like it's supposed to. And yes, often it spins up just fine.

Relevant information:

- I bought this hard drive for backup purposes, and this drive and its predecessor were both previously turned on about once every six months; the rest of the time, it lived in a drawer, bagged and in the dark. (The predecessor, a SimpleDrive, never had this problem.) Then I learned that hard drives don't particularly like being stored for long periods without use, so now the problematic Fantom Drive is connected to my computer and turned on when my computer is.

- Before I wised up and moved the drive to regular usage, it'd been in mostly-storage, with infrequent use, for about a year. I've no idea if this is a problem that it came with out of the box, since I used it so seldomly.

- Since using it regularly, it's had this problem much, much less frequently: when I first started regularly using it, it would get "stuck" almost every time I turn it on. Nowadays, it's usually "catching" in the beginning, but I very rarely have it "freezing".

- Once spun up, it has no problems whatsoever. Even when my computer is idle and thus the drive spins down, once I play with my computer again it will spin up without a hitch. The "catching"/"freezing" issue only happens on cold start up when it first receives power.

- I don't think it's broken or dying, because this problem (in its two freezing/catching iterations) have been existing for well over a year (so, more than two years since I've gotten the drive, since most of its first year with me was in storage).

I'm baffled, and open to suggestions. I don't have a clean room and am not particularly handy, so I don't know if I'd be comfortable with prying the drive out of its enclosure, but I suppose I can try if I have to.

Thanks in advance, hivemind!
posted by Zelos to Technology (6 answers total)
The spindle bearings are getting stuck or sticky, it *is* broken or dying and you should copy your data off it ASAP.

If you want to rule out power supply problems try it with another 12V 2.0A rated external power adapter, pretty much all external hard drives will work with such. Check the input voltage just to be sure.
posted by thewalrus at 7:29 PM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Backup all your data now (not next week), and replace the disk; it is failing.

Disks are pretty smart. The onboard controller knows when the bearings are sticky and will try multiple times to spin up the platters. If you can access the SMART logs on the disk, it might tell you how many spin-up failure have occurred. If you want more info on exactly what is going wrong, that's where to look. The SMART data might not be accessible over USB, so you might need to connect the drive with a SATA cable. None of this changes the correct course of action though, which is to replace the disk ASAP.
posted by ryanrs at 7:40 PM on July 3, 2013

Nuts. And here I was hoping I'd just have to tighten a screw or something.

Out of curiosity, how does a failing drive (sticky bearings, spindle, etc.) maintain its usage for more than a year? (I'm not doubting your responses, I'm more surprised that in its malfunctioning state it's managed to keep on kicking, if pathetically, for this long.)
posted by Zelos at 7:58 PM on July 3, 2013

Get a new drive and just restore from your backup. What? No backup? Get two drives, copy off the the one that's going bad and then copy again.

((edit:)Ok, I actually read your question, my thought as I was typing is that the industry should have a drive that's optimized for infrequent usage, that is powered down backup. Hmm, research topic) But I agree, copy asap.
posted by sammyo at 8:36 PM on July 3, 2013

New drives do not have "stiction" issues. This is a bad spindle motor/slow spindle motor issue.

It is a sign of a seriously failing, and if it's new-ish defective hard drive. Don't make this your only other place of keeping important data, or really any data you give a crap about at all. It's a fine scratch disk but not much else.

Buy another cheap drive on sale and slam dunk this one in the dumpster. I'd re-use the external case if i had an extra drive i had laying around.

But yea, it's dying or defective. If it's lasted a year that's a peculiar outlier. Then again, I used a screwed up 10gb hard drive in an old laptop for almost 10 years with a weird seeking issue where it would get stuck making the "click of death". Damn thing never died, but i also didn't trust it.

This hard drive is the equivalent of that guy who drinks and smokes like bender but still manages to live to be 90. It's a peculiarity, but don't trust it to keep going.
posted by emptythought at 12:32 AM on July 4, 2013

Thanks everybody. Backing up everything posthaste.
posted by Zelos at 7:33 AM on July 4, 2013

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