"hard drive failure" - but boots up on retry

I have a Dell Vostro 400 PC that I've been using 4-5 years now. Lately it's started telling me "Hard Drive Failure" on some boot-ups, but if I shut down and try again, it boots up just fine, so I'm 100% certain that the drive has not, in fact, failed.

I've cracked the case, dusted everything in sight, and undone-replugged all the connectors I could reach in case it was just connection creep, but it's still doing it. Sometimes it'll go several days without problem; sometimes I'll need to power it up a half-dozen times before it admits that I do, in fact, still have a working hard drive.

Naturally this behaviour has me feeling rather paranoid. Any suggestions on what might be causing this, and if it's something fixable? Or should I just cross my fingers and hope it gets no worse?
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  1. That sounds suspiciously like a SMART error, which means that monitoring software built into the drive has detected some kind of failure, and the drive is failing. There are times when a drive can be in a failing state for years and work fine, but basically you're living on borrowed time right now. You should back up everything you don't want to lose on that drive and replace it. If you're in the US, there's bound to be some decent deals on HDDs for Black Friday, so that would be as good a time as any to get a replacement.
  2. Looked up my hard drive and it does indeed have SMART, but the error message I'm getting is not a SMART one (no error code or mention of SMART - just "Hard Drive Failure").

    To be doubly sure I downloaded the SMART diagnostics tool from the manufacturer's web site (Western Digital) and ran the simple test. The drive passed the test without problems. But I'll also run the extended test overnight tonight to triple check.

    Composited image of test results from simple test here:

    Have "new hard drive" on my Christmas wish list anyway, since currently my only form of backup is a handful of USB keys. Of course, getting a new hard drive only really helps if the problem actually is the hard drive, and not something else entirely.
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