Over the past month I’ve written about the key differences between cloning and imaging a drive. I also took a look at some of the difference between using a paid imaging solution and Windows Backup. I focused both articles on selecting the best tool for the job. This week I’d like to take a look at how you can use disk cloning tools to recover from a failing drive or a drive with bad sectors.
Innovations in storage have brought us solid state storage solutions. Recent developments in PCI-e and M.2 storage options have drastically improved disk performance. Not only do they provide blistering performance, but they include a level of reliability that mechanical drives can’t match. But they still have one Achilles heel: capacity. Capacity is why data centers and companies alike still rely on mechanical drives. And eventually those drives will begin to fail or develop bad sectors. SSDs can also develop bad sectors (sometimes called “blocks”), but they are rare.
Two Types of Bad Sectors
A sector is a small cluster of storage space on a drive. It’s basically the space to which you can read or write data. If the sector goes bad, it won’t respond to a read or write request. For example, you might start your day by opening up a Microsoft Project file that’s home to your current projects and tasks. One morning the file won’t open. Or it may open, but won’t allow you to edit the data. Both are signs your drive may have a bad sector. Bad sectors come in two forms:
1. Logical Bad Sector
If your computer has ever shut down due to a power outage, you have probably experienced logical bad sectors. I was recently working in Microsoft Excel when the power went out at my home. When I tried to open the file the next morning, it would open and close quickly. Luckily, I had taken a backup and saved it to Dropbox a few minutes before the outage. You can often fix logical bad sectors by running the Windows Check Disk tool.
2. Physical Bad Sector
Unfortunately, physical bad sectors are impossible to repair because the drive has sustained damage. This often happens when the drive’s head hits the platter or dust gets inside the enclosure. Physical bad sectors are far less common than logical bad sectors.
If you write a lot of data to a drive, there’s a good chance it will develop bad sectors. In my experience, bad sectors tend to develop as a warning that your drive may fail. This would be a good time to make sure you have a backup of your important files.
So you know what a bad sector is, but how do you differentiate between that and other errors? Honestly, it might not matter. If you experience any of these, you need to back up your data as soon as possible.
BSOD – You might first experience a drastic slowdown trying to perform any task on your PC. It might freeze one minute and recover the next. But one sign your drive might be reaching the end of its life is frequent BSOD.
Disappearing Files – If you save a file only to have it disappear, that’s a sign you might have a bad sector. Or maybe you can see the file but you can’t open it as you normally would.
Click of Death – If you’ve heard it before, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Damaged disks may emit a repetitive clicking sound if they are about to die. The click is actually the sound of the drive head trying to write data to the platter.
Cryptic Error Messages – If your computer is having trouble accessing sectors on your drive, Windows may flood you with odd error messages. Some might pertain to the problem. But often the error messages will be garbled and won’t make sense.
Cloning a Drive with Bad Sectors
Cloning your drive with bad sectors is one option to get up and running quickly. I recommend you run Disk Check in Windows before you begin the cloning process. Once you’ve done that you’ll need to find cloning software that will work around bad sectors. Don’t assume all software will do this. I’ve found a number of the freeware options bail on the cloning process the second they come across a bad sector. Advanced cloning solutions such as ShadowProtect SPX ignore bad sectors and allow the process to continue.
The key here is to clone your drive as soon as you notice any issues—as long as you’ve backed up your most critical data. Cloning will allow you to get up and running on a new drive more quickly, but it’s not a substitute for a good backup procedure. I’ve known people who press their luck. They run Windows Check Disk first thing every morning and hope for the best. From my experience, bad sectors tend to attract more bad sectors. The last thing you want to do is play a game of Whack-a-Mole with them.
While you’re at it, you might consider replacing your mechanical drive with an SSD from a reputable brand such as Samsung or Crucial. My favorite SATA SSD on the market today is the Samsung 850 Pro. Its performance is near the top of the charts, and it’s proven to be an incredibly reliable drive. If you’re lucky enough to have a system with an M.2 port, the Samsung 960 Pro is expensive but offers blazing performance that’s six to seven times the peak speed of the fastest SATA SSDs.
Dealing with bad sectors or a failing drive is stressful. Having a solid backup plan is key. Then acting quickly at the first sign of trouble will help you safely transition to a new drive. Good luck!