Ask GadgetGuy: how to deal with failing backup drives

On the morning of April 6, I plugged in an external drive to move some files across for work. They were big, so I needed to use a high speed SSD, but when I plugged it in, the drive wouldn’t work. And that’s a problem.

When drives fail, there isn’t much you can actually do, and options depend on the type of drive and how much access you have.

Conventional hard drives with moving parts tend to be the easiest to at least salvage something. We say “easy” with trepidation, because while you can do deep scans of older styles of hard drives, you may find your files in blocks with missing parts.

It’s hard for a file to have a missing part, too, so you see the results best with images, whereby parts of the images are there, but other parts — rows, basically — are replaced with a block of grey or some other colour.

Documents don’t fare well in this way, replaced with text and characters more resembling gibberish because that’s exactly what it is: gibberish text as the file has attempted to be salvaged from a decaying drive, meaning it has probably been cut off unintentionally.

Music is much the same, and video with it, and often these files simply won’t play, or will and will break in the middle with no ability to scrub or fast-forward through the file.

You might even force the file’s hand a little and play it through a “play anything” media player like VLC, which could end up delivering what we describe as “cooked” media, throwing up the audio and visual equivalent of the gibberish from the documents mentioned before, making an otherwise lovely bit of audio sound like trash, or something that could get remixed into a Top 40 techno track if it weren’t for how insulting it was to people’s eardrums.

So when I awoke on an otherwise lovely sunny morning in April to find my drive wouldn’t initialise, it wasn’t just a problem for my inability to move files across from home to work, it was also a problem for the files I had stored on here.


There were movies I had purchased, and high-resolution music, and backup documents for stories and projects I was working on, too.

And in an instant as the solid-state drive refused to switch on, and refused to recognise the ExFAT file system I had bestowed to it almost a year before, all of my files were gone.

Before, we mentioned about conventional hard drives having some way of getting files back. It comes from deep scanning, a file hunt process that basically continues to run diagnostic and search parameter on the hard drive for hours at a time, usually while the drive is struggling to engage drive heads or spin up the way it used to. The more it searches, the more chance you might find a file across the various platters, and then salvage it by copying that file to a more stable drive.

It’s time intensive, sure, but it’s at least something you can do.

Solid-state drives like the one that had failed for this journalist, they’re easy, too, but for a different reason.

When a solid-state drive fails or doesn’t initialise properly, you don’t really have a solution, outside of giving up. It’s an “easy” problem to deal with, because everything is out of your hands.

Quite literally, there is nothing you can do, and while you can try deep scanning, it will more often than not result in artificial file flagging: the software can see the presence of files, and knows that something might have been there, but due to the way solid state drives basically are empty blocks of memory that either hold information or don’t, it also can’t reach it.

When a solid-state drive (SSD) fails, recovery software approaches it like walking through the desert and seeing a mirage: there’s something in the distance, and you convince yourself it’s there, like a mirage with plenty of water and palm trees, but it’s not there at all, and so you blink and it’s just sand, or empty file space.

Unfortunately, when a hard drive begins to show signs of weakness, it’s a sign that the drive is on its last legs. Failures aren’t easy to see coming on all drives, either.

Recovering files from a dying solid-state drive borders on impossible: file recovery solutions can probably see ghosts of files, but can't figure out how or where to resurrect them.
Recovering files from a dying solid-state drive borders on impossible: file recovery solutions can probably see ghosts of files, but can’t figure out how or where to resurrect them.

How do I tell when a drive is failing?

On a conventional hard drive, the moment it starts clicking or making audible noises that weren’t there a day or two ago, your drive is failing.

At this point, start taking stuff off the drive and moving it to something else, because your drive doesn’t have long. It could be tomorrow or it could be four weeks from now or even longer, but you have your sign and it’s not good.

Don’t waste the knowledge, though, because while it could survive far longer than anyone could expect, it is terminal and when it fails, you’ve at least been given some element of warning signs.

That’s more than you can say for owners of solid-state drives.

For an SSD, it’s usually an issue with speed and some slow downs, but not always as SSDs can fail just like the snapping of fingers together.

Just like that, your files are gone, as the memory essentially becomes transient and your files disappear into the ether.

Unfortunately, SSDs don’t really have warning signs. Rather, they just sort of stop working.

If you’re lucky — and we use that term loosely — you may find your files are there one moment and then not, as the circuits fail to connect and then start working again. That could be a sign that something is wrong, but it also might just be the operating system playing silly buggers, which can also happen.

Solid state drives lack the moving parts like regular conventional hard drives, and when they die, your data tends to die with it.
Solid state drives lack the moving parts like regular conventional hard drives, and when they die, your data tends to die with it.

What can I do to make sure I’m always backed up?

You’ve probably heard the term “safety in numbers” and thought of how it applies to being around people, but it’s also true of data backup.

Specifically, the more backups you have, the better protected you are long term.

It’s not unusual to carry files backed up with you, possibly on a small drive or thumb drive, but this shouldn’t be your only backup.

At home, having a network drive or a secondary backup drive is crucial, and if you have a mirrored drive, the results are even better.

Mirrored drives are sort of what they sound like, with a drive that is mirrored to another drive, meaning if you backup to one, the other drive gets the same files, ensuring two backups at the same time.


These sorts of drives are rare when it comes to portable options, but you can find them. For most people, we’d keep one at home, operating either as a network drive (NAS) or desktop-based drive (DAS).

Whichever drive you end up going for — solid state or hard drive — the multiple backup approach is highly beneficial, especially if you have large files.

Smaller files can be backed up this way also, but you may want to consider cloud storage for the smaller files, with solutions such as Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive for the storage of files that can be accessed from any location.

Files like this are not only backed up to a large server somewhere else, but also mirrored at these locations, so you’re less likely to lose them because they’re not on hard drives that will suffer from severe failures.

Does this mean SSD is bad?

The biggest question we get when people start asking about solid-state drives and their durability has to do with SSDs being bad or dangerous for long term use, and nothing could be further from the truth.

While the technology is newer and less “tried and true”, solid-state memory technologies are quite stable, appearing in phones, tablets, laptops, and camera memory, among other places. Failures can happen to flash memory drives, that’s true, but they can also happen to any type of drive.

That is part of the problem with any piece of electronics, because anything can fail given enough time or environmental circumstances.

For now, SSD is fairly stable, and results in faster speeds and better battery life than regular hard drives. The drives are good, but as with all things, they can fail.

It is worth noting that nothing is perfect though, so multiple backups should be something practiced by all, particularly when files are changing on a regular basis.

Remember: drives don’t last forever, but your files can if backed up properly across more than one drive.