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.
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 an 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 backup software to quickly copy 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, that will help you pick the right candidate. We have also had a discussion on Answers, where several data recovery companies were recommended.
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.
Revive Your Drive
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?