How To Diagnose And Fix A Dead Hard Drive To Recover Data

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Several years ago, I experienced a hard drive failure. I was at work when my laptop suddenly started to act particularly strange. First, I thought it was because I had too many windows open and the RAM was full, but when the problems persisted after a reboot, I knew it was more than that. I immediately started to back up recent files. About half an hour later, the hard drive failed audibly and the laptop wouldn’t boot anymore.

Thank God I had backups! Except that I didn’t have backups of everything. Just weeks earlier my backup drive had reached capacity. To back up important work files, I had decided to delete my personal photos. The irony was that I had already purchased a new external drive, but had not taken the time to back up my photos. Now they were lost and I was devastated.

Over the next couple of weeks I researched ways to recover the data and considered doing everything under the sun — and did most of it — to revive the old hard drive. I eventually did recover my data, but not in the way you would expect. If your hard drive has failed physically, maybe this little guide can help you or at least give you some hope. So roll up your sleeves and get to work.

External Hard Drive? Check Whether The IDE / SATA to USB Enclosure Is OK!

When your external hard drive fails, it can do so for all the same reasons an internal drive can fail. Sometimes, however, it’s not the drive that stops working, but a connection within the enclosure! And in that case, the drive is easy to revive.

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Before you open up any hardware, be sure to discharge your body’s static electricity, i.e. ground yourself. Remove the hard drive from its casing and use a IDE / SATA data cable and power connector to install the drive internally on your desktop computer. Alternatively, you can get an IDE / SATA to USB adapter or a new USB enclosure, so you can hook the drive up externally via USB.

SATA03   How To Diagnose And Fix A Dead Hard Drive To Recover Data

The image above shows a SATA connector (left) and an IDE connector (right).

Once you re-connected the external drive to your computer, given the enclosure was the culprit, Windows should recognize it and assign a drive letter. If this doesn’t happen, you can try to manually find your drive to further narrow down the issue; the process is described further down.

Internal Hard Drive? Make Sure The Hard Drive Connections Are OK!

Sometimes, it’s not the drive that failed, but the physical connection of cables that connect the drive with the computer’s motherboard. You can only wish that this is your problem! So before you hire an expensive technician, make sure the data and power cables are firmly connected on both ends.

SATA07   How To Diagnose And Fix A Dead Hard Drive To Recover Data

To prevent hazards to your health, it’s essential to turn off the computer and unplug the power cord. As mentioned above, you also need to discharge your body’s static electricity, i.e. ground yourself before you get working on your computer’s internals. Then open up the case and make sure all connections are OK. Our guide on how to physically install an internal hard drive shows which connections to watch out for.

Once you have made sure the connections are OK, boot the computer again. If you have a desktop computer, you can leave the case open, but stay clear of its interior.

What’s That Sound?

As you are trying to get the hard drive to run, listen to the sound it is making. Is it completely dead? Or is it still spinning? What exactly does it sound like? Compare your sound to the list of hard drive sounds provided by Data Cent. This will help you diagnose the type of damage.

ComputerInside03   How To Diagnose And Fix A Dead Hard Drive To Recover Data

The damage can be either internal or external. A clicking sound, for example, is suggestive of a malfunctioning head, i.e. internal damage. A completely dead drive, on the other hand, could be due to a faulty printed circuit board (PCB), which would be external damage.

Is The Hard Drive Recognized?

Sometimes, you can hear your drive spinning, but it never pops up. Or maybe it’s completely dead. To pinpoint the type of damage, try to manually check whether or not the drive is recognized by your computer.

You can do this via the BIOS in case it’s the primary hard drive and your computer no longer boots. After you turn on the computer, enter the BIOS by pressing a trigger key, which could be [DEL], [ESC], [F2], or [F10], depending on the manufacturer. Within the BIOS, navigate through the available menus to find where it lists which types of drives are connected to the computer. Usually, this information is found under the Advanced menu, but you might also find it indirectly under Boot settings.

bios boot order   How To Diagnose And Fix A Dead Hard Drive To Recover Data

If you have hooked up the drive to another computer, you don’t need to access the BIOS at all. In Windows, click the key combination [Windows] + [R], which will launch the Run input window. Type cmd into the field and hit [Enter]. This will open the Command Prompt. Here type diskpart and hit [Enter], to open the respective tool. In the diskpart window, type list volume and hit [Enter] to show all drives connected to your computer.

DiskPart   How To Diagnose And Fix A Dead Hard Drive To Recover Data

If the drive is recognized and thus appears in the list above, but doesn’t show up as an accessible drive, chances are Windows only recognizes the PCB, but the drive itself is damaged (internal damage). In other words, if the drive is recognized in any shape or form, the PCB is most likely working and replacing it will not fix the hard drive!

Is The Printed Circuit Board Broken?

As mentioned previously, your drive can be damaged internally or externally. The external PCB, if damaged, is relatively easy to replace. However, data recovery specialists warn that swapping the PCB can ruin the drive and cause you to lose all data on it. So if you do care about your data, better err on the side of caution.

HDD PCB   How To Diagnose And Fix A Dead Hard Drive To Recover Data

Even if you can see that your PCB is damaged, there might still be internal damage. Moreover, as mentioned above, replacing the circuit board yourself can damage your drive further, which reduces your chances of recovering your data. Now that you have been warned extensively, here is a video that explains how to swap the PCB.

Note that many websites now sell PCBs and provide guides to find exactly the right circuit board for your drive. You can easily find them on Google. So if you really can’t or don’t want to afford professional help and are certain that (only) the PCB is damaged, those resources might save you a lot of money and your data if you’re lucky. Or not.

Witchcraft & Wizardry

When my hard drive failed, the PCB was fine; the drive was still recognized and spinning, but it didn’t show up in Windows, meaning I could not access it, and no software recovery tool could help me, either. So I put my last hope into some of those obscure tricks that you’ll find floating around the Internet, like shaking the drive, hitting it onto a hard surface, exposing it to dry heat in the oven, or sticking it in the freezer overnight. If you have any idea how a hard drive works, then any of these methods should give you the shivers!

Frozen Hard Drive   How To Diagnose And Fix A Dead Hard Drive To Recover Data

Well, I didn’t dare to melt my drive, but my suspicion was that the head was stuck. So I did shake it, but to no avail. Since I could follow the reasoning, I also wrapped my drive in an airtight Ziploc back and stuck it in the freezer overnight. The idea is that the low temperatures cause metals to shrink and contract. So if the head was stuck, the cold might get it unstuck. In practice, that didn’t work either. And I probably caused condensation to settle on the hard drive platter, which could have caused a lot more damage. I eventually gave up and stored the drive for a future in which I was hoping to be able to afford professional data recovery.

Backup Strategy Advice

One last thought about the weird methods above: If they do work, they will only work temporarily! So be prepared. Know exactly what you want to back up and how. Have the right software to quickly back up your data and have enough storage space available. If you want to copy files manually, only copy one set of files at a time! If you make the head jump back and forth between too many files by kicking off multiple copy and paste processes, you will slow down the overall backup process and increase the likelihood of a fatal head crash.

Consult A Specialist For Professional Data Recovery

If you can afford professional help or simply cannot afford to wait for a miracle, do consult a specialist. My recommendation is to go with a reputable company. They should work with professional technicians and tools, be able to open your hard drive in clean rooms or under dust free conditions, follow industry standards, and have solid credentials, as well as excellent recommendations. After all, you will trust them with your private data.

Kroll Ontrack, one of the more reputable companies in the market, has an extensive and well-designed compendium of consumer myths in regards to data recovery, that will help you pick the right candidate. We have also had a discussion on Answers, where several data recovery companies were recommended.

Data Recovery Consumer Myths   How To Diagnose And Fix A Dead Hard Drive To Recover Data

Before you pick a company, be sure you understand the conditions! Most charge just for looking at the drive and making a recommendation. They will charge extra for actually attempting to recover the data. Some will charge a full recovery fee, even if they failed to recover the data.

Conclusion

Diagnosing and fixing a broken hard drive is serious business. Do take it seriously, but also try to exclude some of the more simple to fix culprits before you fork out hundreds of dollars to a so-called specialist. The more informed you are, the better. How far you go to diagnose and fix your hard drive will depend on how important the data is for you.

You probably wonder what happened with my hard drive. Well, one fine day, when I was dissolving my apartment, I decided to give it one last chance and then let go of it. More than two years after I had tried everything I dared to get it to work, again and again for weeks, I just plugged it in and it simply worked. I recovered all my data and the drive is working until this day, almost six years after it failed initially. Call me lucky!

Have you ever experienced such a miracle? What helped you revive a hard drive in the past? And how did you recover the data?

Image credit: Hard Drive PCB via Shutterstock, Frozen Hard Drive via Shutterstock, Dead HDD via Flickr

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34 Comments - Write a Comment

Reply

Darryl Gittins

Great articles. One point though: the drive platters are sealed in a vacuum. Therefore there could be no condensation on the platters from freezing it.

Dan

I am not sure that is true. For the heads to fly there must be air or at lease some type of gas. Also I have been to several hard drive repair shops and never seen any equipment that could be used to restore the drive to a vacuum state. I could be wrong, maybe the technology has changed, but I don’t think so. dan

Rick Stanley

Sealed but no vacuum. There may be a filter to allow air in and out due to the temperature changes thus there is some humidity present as well.

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Dan

I have success several times by storing the drive in the freezer. In all cases the the drive would spin up but had trouble reading. You must keep the drive in a sealed bag, open just enough for the cable connection. You don’t want moisture on the drive.

I have also had success taping a drive with a screw driver handle. In these cases the drive would not spin up until the tap.

Lastly I have had luck with rotating the drive so the so it is on a different plane. In these cases the drive would spin up but it seemed the heads were stuck. This seems to happen when the drive has been in storage for an extended period.

Good luck… All efforts should be attempted when all other recovery methods have been tried. Also if the drive starts working, copy all important data, then all remaining data.

Tina Sieber

Technology is fascinating, isn’t it? Once you gain an understanding of what’s wrong inside the black box, some of the wizardry actually makes sense.

Thanks for sharing and great advice, Dan!

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mukuye Daniel

Firmly confident after gaining hints

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Kieran C

On the “try to manually check whether or not the drive is recognized by your computer.” point, another option is to use a linux bootable CD and see can it be mounted there. Just because a HD isn’t recognizable by windows doesn’t mean it isn’t accessible, a few weeks ago my work laptop died with a HD error and windows wouldn’t boot, but when I shoved in my linux livecd I was able to mount it and back up all my files to a usb stick.

Darryl Gittins

This is a good point. I’ve rescued data from a couple of drives this way.

epiquestions

well if your bios/cmos doesn’t recognize the drive it doesn’t matter what os you try.

i use hdd regenerator and it has worked for me of course not all the time. If the damage is severe then it would not be able to fix it

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Frank P

any ideas for the no spin error?

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tom g

There is also a filter thing that allows air in so prob not in a vacuum. Plus when I take them apart they dont make a suction noise when the cover is pulled off.

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Graeme S

Though there are tools for Data Recovery, that everyone can use like Spin Rite from GRC. Which even can recover most SSD’s. And yes the website is written in Compiler! https://www.grc.com/spinrite.htm

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Bill Fulford

You forgot one very useful software tool. Sipnrite, by Steve Gibson at https://www.grc.com/spinrite.htm. It can often recover read errors. Now it is even reporting success recovering problem SSDs. I have used it for many years. He is currently working on an update that should improve it’s speed on modern “large” drives along with other improvements. It will be a free upgrade to current owners.

Tina Sieber

The focus of my article was on how to get a hard drive to run again, less on how to recover data. But of course it all plays together. And better yet if you can make sure your drive or your data never degrade in the first place.

Spike J

Have been using Spinrite for over 25 years and it has been a stalwart tool in my kit of tricks. I am happy to hear of an update to this, as I have been a paid user for most of that time. The idea of using a LINUX Live CD is also excellent advice, also saving my bacon more than a few dozen times. Have tried at least once or twice every suggestion here, including the freezer trick (only as a last resort) with about 40% success rate. I do quite a lot of HDD recovery being located on an island in the Caribbean with no other local options available that can be trusted.

One of the newer options is the replacement of the circuit board, but that requires two trips with the vendor so that the original ‘firmware’ can be copied to the new PCB. With freight and customs duty issues here i is not as palatable as others, but when a client is really desperate, like a mutual photographer friend, it is viable. I had tried switching a known good PCB with the same production codes and date with no success until I found a vendor offering the firmware copying. Evidently the exact sector map of the existing drive is stored on the PCB and is required in most cases torevive the drive!

Thanks for a great article on the issue. Of course the best defense is MULTIPLE redundant backups, especially when you are a photographer or other professional with hundreds (or in my case nearly a million!) critical files representing a lifetime body of work which is irreplaceable. I too have seen that optical media is not reliable ling-term as it is advertised. Unlike other comments I have NEVER been able to recover data saved to ‘tape backups’ successfully and don’t have any faith in them at all. That began with WIN95 where I backed up my whole system (WIN3.1) as recommended by MS and was never able to read the tapes in the new WIN95 due to a format change in the media! That cost me weeks of restoring old drives and thousands of photos from previous HDD’s which I had thankfully saved. Installing a new O/S should always be done on a fresh HDD, or at least a cloned new drive using the original as a safety backup!! Never can be too careful with a life’s work.

Reply

John

Apart from the fans, the hard drive is the last mechanical thing left in a computer.
Frankly – if it whizzes round at 7200 rpm all the time, at some point, as sure as death and taxes, your hard drive will fail.
Do you wear eyeglasses? Bet you have a spare pair. Got a spare tyre in your car? – of course you have. Got two speakers on your stereo? You bet. Got one (singular) HDD with all your life on it? Where’s your RAID array? Where is your external USB drive.
C’mon guys – how long have you been using computers?
And Don’t assume your SSD is invincible either! Do some bloody backup FFS.

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sigman

I’ve used the freezer trick for over 30 years. When a drive would no longer allow data to be read. I only failed to recover 1 drive in over 49 drive failures. I got the drives after others failed to recover the data.

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Richard Steven Hack

No backups! How true! I just spent three days last week recovering a client’s old Windows 2000 system which had a Registry problem (and also user profile corruption) which had never run a backup, so no backup versions of the Registry were available.

I first tried the Microsoft Windows 2000 Registry Repair utility. This stupid tool requires one to create a set of six Windows XP Install Diskettes, then it writes the recovery utility on the last diskette. Unfortunately no one including me had any usable diskettes that weren’t old and unreliable.

Fortunately, I discovered that using Windows XP Regedt32 to load an external Windows 2000 hive would actually repair the hive, allowing it to be used again.

There is NO SUBSTITUTE for BACKUPS! Your data MUST exist on (at least) TWO separate locations simultaneously. Your hard drive WILL fail! It may fail a week after you buy it or ten years later (I’ve had clients with seemingly immortal drives!), but it WILL fail eventually. Scrabbling to freeze your drive to get your data back is just brain dead.

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Ashley

Fortunately, I have only had one experience of HD failure.
About ten years ago (when external HD’s were almost unheard of, and very expensive), I had bought a 40GB external HD. It was attached to my laptop by a long enough cord that it sat on the floor beside my chair and virtually never moved.
Then one day it started “ticking”. I decided I’d better back up a few files and downloaded quite a few to CD-ROM. – but not all. I couldn’t get everything off before the computer would no longer recognize it.
So it sat in a drawer for several years until recently I decided that since I’d likely already lost everything anyway, I may as well let an “amateur” friend try and see what he could do with it.
Result: turned out that there was enough gap at one end for the drive inside the case to get knocked loose at the (internal) plug (probably from all the times I took it with me on holiday); just the action of reassembling the drive in its case was enough that everything worked again.
Such a simple solution – and I fretted about some data that I’d “lost” for about 5yrs!

Tina Sieber

I really wonder how many people ‘lost’ data that were just a simple fix away from being recovered. Glad this didn’t happen to you, Ashley!

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Josh

External Hard drive tends to face these kinds of issues very often and above all, One must keep this in Mind “Prevention” which states make sure to use your hard drive and get rid of unwanted read-write errors by performing “chkdsk”.. I came across an situation with my ext hard drive – “Inpage error” which most of us might face and i’ve wrote a blog post regarding this which has been useful to many…

http://www.technotipsblog.com/2011/10/error-performing-inpage-operation-on.html

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David Smith

Backing up to CD-R or DVD-R is also very unreliable. I used to back up my files to CD-R or DVD-R on a regular basis, only to find out recently that backups I did 10 years ago no longer are readable on any platform I have tried so far (tried Windows 95 thru 8, Mac OS X 10.0 thru 10.7, & various Linux Live CDs, with no luck). Apparently the chemicals in blank CD-R or DVD-Rs will break down over time making them useless. Some spin up and give various disc read errors, or they show up asking to format. I even tried using an older DVD drive to read them from several years ago thinking it may have been related to the speed at which they were recorded. But my old tape backups from almost 20 years ago still worked fine (used an older computer & Windows 2000 to recover those “ancient” files dating back to 1994). So newer tech is not always better tech IMHO.

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Ajarn D

Thanks a lot Tina. This really is very valuable news. I really do appreciate it very much.

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Hisham S

Thanks very much for this important article

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Stephanie S

Tina, thank you for common sense info. I am printing this one “just in case”. :)

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Brian

Turned on my XP recently and it kept resetting during bootup. Ran a low level HD test from CD and the drive passed, but Windows Repair couldn’t even mount it. An NTFS to USB drive converter couldn’t read it either. Surfed the web and followed advice to create a boot CD with the Linus Puppy OS. Booted-up with it and, “low and behold” there was my “bad” HD and all of it’s files intact. Bravo Linux!

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Paul P

This article is the best one I’ve seen written on the subject although I have not tested the methods, it seems to be the most authoritative:

http://wiki.lunarsoft.net/wiki/Data_Recovery

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Ruhul

I just lost all my data from my laptop.
The hard disk is not showing in BIOS. I tried to connect through USB port on different laptop, still not recognizing. The disk is completely dead. I bought a new hard disk and sitting with empty laptop and virtually useless (other than net browsing) at the moment. I lost last 2 years of family photo collection along with other personal docs.
I will try few methods as you mentioned and let’s whether my luck favours or not.

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Anin

thank for the advice this information may be work for me

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radharenu

Hi Tina
An excellent article on the subject. Very useful information about getting back a damaged hard drive. Hard drive tends to face these issues very often. One must keep this in mind that the best defense against failed hard drive data loss is backup of your data in real-time. I have written a blog post on this which may be useful also.

http://www.the-tech-addict.com/how-to-recover-data-from-a-dead-hard-drive/

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charlie

hello.just to make it clear.the video above shows pcb was taken out from the damaged hdd,then transferred it to a ‘good running hdd’.and that ‘good runnning hdd’ was revived.im asking then is that all the data is on the pcb? please correct me if im wrong

Tina S

Charlie, you mixed things up. The video shows how to replace a faulty PCB. The assumption was that the HDD was perfectly fine. If a drive is not recognized at all by the computer, chances are the PCB is damaged.

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Guilifort

Ruhul,
How did your experiences go? I recently experienced the same issues as you. I took the drive to a place that specializes in “data recovery” and was told that I need to send it to a different place that specializes in “REALLY data recovery” at the tune of $1000. I have no doubt that my drive is dead as nothing recognizes it and it will not spin except for the first few seconds upon power up, occasionally.

I am now going to try and purchase the exact drive and replace the PCB to see if that works. I do hope that the REV of both hard drives match as I am not clear on how one would make them match if they are different.

I do understand the importance of backing up your drives but we just downloaded two years of pictures from our phones and didn’t back up the drive right away. Lesson learned!!!

Anyway, thanks all for your great tips and thank you Tina for having this page in the first place. I will definitely let people know how my “experiments” work out.

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