So you think something's up with your computer: Strange things are happening, but you're not sure what's causing the problem. One of the first parts to fail in a computer is often the hard drive, especially if you use a laptop. While manufacturers claim drives will last between 1 and 1.5 million hours, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have shown that failure rates are three to five times higher than manufacturers say they are. Fortunately, fixing a hard drive isn't that hard, even for non-techies. Here are some tips on how to do it.

Hard Drive Failure 101

There are a few signs that can mean a hard drive failure is coming. A clicking noise coming from a computer is one of the most common and clear signs that a drive is on its last legs. If you hear your hard drive clicking, chances are it's time to get a new one - before it quits. Another common error is programs freezing. While blue screens can often indicate RAM problems, freezing programs often indicate that the hard drive has an error on it. These problems are usually cheaper - but not always easy - to fix.

So if you think your hard drive has a problem, what do you do?

Fixing a Hard Drive Problem

Back It Up
Regardless of hardware or software failure, it's always good to back up your data. The simplest solution is to use a cloud-hosted solution, although what option you use will depend on how much data you need to save. You don't need to copy everything off your hard drive, but include any irreplaceable files. If you have fewer than 5 gigabytes of data, consider using Google Drive. If, on the other hand, you have a lot of photos and videos, consider a paid data backup option like Crashplan, or a physical backup drive like the Seagate GoFlex, which you can use for automatic backups. (Get more tips in Cloud Vs. Local Backup: Which One Do You Need?)

Check Your Disk for Errors
The easiest way to see what's wrong with your disk is simply to ask it. If you're running Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7, or Windows 8, open "My Computer," right-click on the drive you want to test (probably c:), then click "Properties," the "Tools" tab, and the "Check Now" button. If you have a pretty good feeling it's going to find a few problems, check both of the boxes. They'll fix any errors that can be repaired. If you're lucky, this will solve your error problems.

Replace the Drive
There's a chance your hard drive will be almost kaput and the diagnostic tool will tell you so. If the diagnostic tool crashes, replace the hard drive as soon as possible. If you do this, make sure to deactivate any software like Office 365 or Adobe programs. You can then install Windows on a new hard drive and restore your files from backup.

Clone the Drive
If you're feeling a bit more ambitious and don't want to start from scratch, you can make an "image" of your drive and put it on your new hard drive. Daemon Tools can help you do this, and you'll find instructions on how to restore the image here. Be warned that this is a technical process, and if your hard drive errors were due to viruses, you run the risk of transmitting the viruses to the new computer. If you want to do this but feel completely out of your league, make sure to contact a computer repair professional.

Hard drives cause problems more often than you'd think, and they can render your computer virtually inoperable. Fortunately, the fix is often fairly simple. No matter what you do, remember to back up your hard drive regularly. That way if it does fail, you'll still be able to retrieve your most important data.