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SSD Failure: What It Is and How to Avoid It

Thanks to their excellent reliability and speed, SSDs have become the new standard for most consumer data storage. If you’re using any kind of modern computer, you almost certainly use an internal SSD that boots your operating system and handles your basic everyday file storage. Meanwhile, external SSDs are also popular for flexible file storage on the go. 

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That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that while SSDs are certainly reliable, they’re also not immortal! Like any part of a computer, an SSD will fail eventually if you use it long enough. Moreover, SSDs often fail with less warning than magnetic HDDs. So how can you give your SSD the longest life possible, and avoid being taken unprepared if it fails? We’ve got the key info that will help protect your data. 

What Happens When an SSD Fails?

Let’s start by understanding what causes an SSD to fail. Every SSD is made up of multiple NAND flash memory chips, plus a device called a controller that coordinates and orchestrates them all. You might’ve noticed there are no moving parts listed in there, and that’s one of the key features that makes SSDs tougher and more reliable overall than HDDs.

However, an SSD can still fail in several ways. First, the memory cells in its NAND chips can wear out. Whenever data gets rewritten on these cells, it creates a tiny bit of wear on the semiconductors inside the chip. Because of this, every chip has a finite number of times that it can be rewritten (called write cycles). While most people won’t ever hit this limit, it can definitely happen if you use your drive heavily. 

Other hazards can befall the chips in an SSD, too, including data corruption that sometimes happens when a drive loses power while it’s writing something, or a malfunction in the central controller chip. The worst part: SSDs are much more difficult (though not impossible) to recover data from compared to magnetic disk hard drives. 

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Early Warning Signs of SSD Failure

SSDs, for all of their virtues, can also be a lot sneakier when they’re about to fail since they don’t make the awful noises that HDDs do when they die. Although (thankfully) many newer SSDs will come right out and tell you when they detect imminent failure, you’d still be wise to keep a lookout for these signs:

  1. Your drive’s SMART values are in the danger zone.

SMART (Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology) is a standardized set of reporting metrics on a drive’s health, including important attributes like bad sectors and write cycles left on the disk. It can be key for alerting you when your hard drive is close to failing. 

If you just want a quick check-up, you can check your drive’s SMART status through Command Prompt (on Windows) or Disk Utility (on Mac) to find out whether the drive is working at all. For detailed information, you can use one of the free disk information utilities, which will give you a full rundown on the drive’s various metrics and which might be causes for concern.

  1. Your SSD suddenly becomes read-only.

Some drives will put themselves into read-only mode to conserve their remaining write cycles when they’re about to give up the ghost. However, the drive may or may not tell you why it’s suddenly read-only — so if you see this, check the drive’s SMART data as soon as you can and get ready to potentially copy anything off that you need to. 

  1. You experience unexplained blue screens, application crashes, or other miscellaneous errors. 

While plenty of issues can cause these symptoms, a failing SSD should definitely be on your list of potential causes if you’re experiencing them. Anyone who’s started to notice these symptoms should (once again) pull up the SMART data on their internal SSD as part of the troubleshooting process and check the drive status. 

Avoiding SSD Failure: 5 Key Tips and Tricks

  1. Choose SSDs with a higher TBW rating.

Selecting an SSD that’s built for endurance will help prevent premature SSD failure. When evaluating SSD options, look at the drive’s terabytes written (TBW) rating, which shows approximately how many terabytes of data you can write to the drive over its lifetime. The higher the TBW, the longer the drive is designed to last. Although this isn’t a guarantee, it’s a good rule of thumb for choosing a drive built for endurance.

  1. Don’t remove power from your drive while it’s writing files.

Removing power from an SSD during a write cycle can corrupt its data and potentially create bad blocks. Fortunately, it’s hard to do this just by turning your computer off in the normal way or putting it in sleep mode. Your operating system will make sure everything is done before powering down. Instead, this usually happens because you tripped over a power cord or unplugged your external drive without ejecting it first. 

  1. Try not to max out the storage space on your SSD.

An SSD works better when it has plenty of free blocks to write and overwrite data. If you’re cramming your SSD full of files until it’s almost totally full, you’re making it harder for your drive to find space whenever you write a new file. Over time, this can cause premature wear and tear on your SSD. So, if you can see that you’re approaching your drive’s upper limit, think about deleting some files or getting an extra hard drive

  1. Watch out for heat management issues.

SSDs with the ultra-compact M.2 NVMe form factor are more popular than ever. However, be aware that these drives can get quite hot, especially when put under prolonged heavy load (such as automatically recording your gaming streams). Use monitoring tools to keep an eye on your drive’s temperature and consider whether your case and fans are providing enough airflow to keep it cool. 

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  1. Create regular backups of all of your important files. 

You knew we couldn’t go the whole article without saying this, right? Everyone should be backing up their most important files, preferably following the classic 3-2-1 rule: three different copies, with two stored on different media types, and one stored off-site. If you want a set-and-forget solution, try a backup utility that automatically creates a full image of your disk in the cloud or on a separate drive.