How To Get Data Off A Dead Hard Drive

Guy McDowell 10-08-2009

It happens to us all, sooner or later. We boot up our computer and *BAM* that’s it. Blue screen of death (BSOD). The hard drive has failed. But the baby shower pictures are on there! But my doctoral thesis is on there! But my fan fiction of Harry Potter Meets Captain Kirk is on there! But you’ve been making regular backups, right?


Fear not. You may be able to learn how to get data off a dead hard drive, all by yourself. Now a word of warning, if the hard drive has already physically failed and the disks in it won’t spin, then there isn’t much you can do but contact a data recovery specialist. I suppose you could order an identical hard drive via eBay and carefully take the platters out and put them into the new hard drive. However, if you are that technically inclined, this article is way beneath you!

If you get a BSOD  then something may have happened to make your hard drive not boot, or start the operating system. This could be because of a faulty hard drive driver (the software that tells the computer how to use the hard drive) or it could be because of a loose connection. If you feel adventurous, you could check to make sure the connection is good inside the computer.

With some luck, that won’t be the case. If your computer continues on to give you some start up options in white text on a black screen, try choosing Last Known Good Configuration. That will start the computer into a backed-up version of Windows when life was good. It may be missing some recently added files and settings, but at least you’ll get the majority of your work back. At this point, it would be a good idea to perform a ScanDisk or CheckDisk task.


Your computer doesn’t take you to the start-up options page? Hmmm. Well, what you can do is try booting your computer from the Windows disk that came with your computer. Hopefully you have that still.


You may need to go into your BIOS settings and change the start-up disk setting to CD-ROM Drive.

Once your computer boots into the Windows disk,you’ll have some options. One of them will be the Recovery Console. Choose that by pressing the R key.


Chances are you only have one installation of Windows on your computer, so that’s the installation you’ll choose to work with.


When asked for your Administrator’s password, enter it and continue. If you didn’t set up an Administrator’s password, just hit enter to continue.

Now, you’ll be presented with a black screen with white text. At the prompt, type chkdsk /r. What this does is run the Check Disk utility on the hard drive and repairs any problems it might find. If this does the trick, your computer will reboot and work fine. Note, however, that now would be a VERY good time to make a back up of your hard drive and look into buying a new one. If this happens again, you’ll be very lucky to recover it once more.

If that doesn’t work, boot into the Recovery console again. There are two other commands you may want to try: Fixboot,which rewrites the startup sector on your hard drive, and Fixmbr, which repairs the Master Boot Record.

Those are pretty advanced commands to use, so you may not want to run them. Run at your own risk, is all I can say.


There is also a device you can buy, which is pretty inexpensive, that allows you take your hard drive, connect it to this device, and then plug it into the USB port of another computer.This does require you to remove your hard drive from its current computer.


What happens is that the computer you plugged it into, treats it as a slave drive. That means that it doesn’t need to access the operating system, so you should be able to transfer over your files from the failing hard drive. The defunct hard drive shows up as an external USB drive in Window’s Explorer so you can simply drag and drop from it.

I have used one of these many times. What I have found is that as long as the platters spin, I’m able to recover the data.


Do you know of any other simple ways how to get data off a dead hard drive? Know of any good freeware? Has this article helped you? Help your Internet friends out and let us know about it in the comments.

Explore more about: Blue Screen of Death, Hard Drive.

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  1. potato
    February 16, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    IM GLAD I FOUND THIS SITE BEFORE GOING TO THE REPAIR CENTRE! The cost will be beyond my reach as im just a student full of debt. I hope it works because i need my laptop to function now, more than anything. (Deeply regret for not making a backup for it.) But again. THANK YOU

  2. rich
    February 7, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    All of the above suggestions are not dealing with a dead hard drive at all.

  3. amy
    October 29, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    i have a bad habit of just shuting my laptop at the end of the day. the other day i went to get on it and it had the blue power light on but nothing happened.I figured it overpowerd so like i have done a few times before i unplugged battery and power cord, plugged back in. now i don't have any lights or anything, blank screen etc.

    • amy
      October 29, 2009 at 3:14 pm

      i am ready to buy i knew laptop anyway because i bought mine in 2006 and have outgrown it, but its been about a year since i backed up info onto a usb flash drive (mainly pics and word files). my ? is do you thank if i bought a SATA/IDE to USB adapter, or an external hardrive enclosure i could get the rest of my info.

      thank you

      • Guy McDowell
        October 29, 2009 at 10:55 pm

        For the sake of about $20, it would be worth a try, wouldn't it?

  4. Peter
    August 18, 2009 at 3:43 am

    Which reminds me; when solving mechanical, electro-mechanical, electronic or software problem, start off with the least radical problem checking routines (thus also the least radical solutions), and work up to the hardest ones.

    Even so, now is the time to make yourself a Windows PE USB stick, so that you can retrieve your files when under fire. :-)

  5. Eve
    August 17, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    Thanks Peter. Your response gave me food for thought. I was inspired to try Google to see if I could troubleshoot my problem and sure enough turns out it was my battery. Once I removed it, my laptop powered up and all is well. You guys are awesome. Thanks for your time.

  6. Peter
    August 16, 2009 at 2:53 am

    If the machine is dead and you want data, I suggest you extract the drive from it, and plug it (slave it) into a desktop unit. You'll need a laptop -> deskotp converter. I'm in the UK, hence the link:

    Google has this answer:

    Once you have set it up - it might be difficult if you are not geekily minded so a friend with knowledge might be useful rather than discourse by web forum - you might want to use something like this to recover your data if the drive is not easily read through a file manager:

    Handy recovery is my favourite free undelete package. Home page here:

    The download page has a link to the free item near the bottom of the page:

    Always undelete files to drive other than the one you are rescuing, as you may overwrite something you later wish to recover.

  7. Eve
    August 15, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    Help!! I am not a geek, though I wish I was. I subscribe to "make use" because it is so much fun to find stuff that I can actually use and understand. Thanks so much. This is awesome. The topic of rerieving data from a dead hard drive is almost my problem, my lap top flickers when I turn it on, it seems like it is not getting enough power even though it is plugged into the socket. And yes, every picture that I have ever taken in the whole world for the last five years, including both my daughters graduations from college, my grandson's birth, his first birthday, you name it, and it is on there is missing in this action. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Many thanks.

  8. XD
    August 15, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    A GNU/linux distro live CD would do Or Steve Gibbson's Spinrite

  9. Guy McDowell
    August 14, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    There are some great insights into the comments. Some I would have liked to include in the article but couldn't due to length restrictions, and many that I didn't think of.

    Good work, Readers! Thank you!

  10. Peter
    August 14, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Russ W and Legomanfred; in case you had my leetle problem in mind, my boot record isn't the problem, which is "Unmountable_boot_volume"; I have used a wide variety of tools, from Linux forensic packages, to (e.g.) 'Knoppix live', 'Fedora live', through to a Windows PE disc, UBCD win, Partition magic and other DOS packages. Only SpinRite has been able to even 'see'/recognise that there is a hard drive on board, with of course the exception of the bootable volume itself, which returns the message quoted above.

    I am still recovering the drive, and I suspect this will take a few days. Whereas Windows (in a variety of incarnations) could never estimate FTP and file copy/move transaction times accurately, SpinRite seems to have problems forecasting the length of the project. Eventually, even if I lose the MS reinstallation volume (I have not touched it at all yet), I hope to use True Image to restore one of my images.

    Very interestingly it took me just under 24 minutes to examine and verify that the documents partition was alright. It is the same size as the boot volume, that is 55 Gb.

    The machine's guarantee ran out on the 11th of July. Hmm. How convenient.

  11. Legomanfred
    August 14, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Knoppix linux live cd will get you into a Windows system that won't boot for whatever reason. It only loads into memory and allows you to transfer off those "important" or otherwise lost files. It contains a host of utilities allowing for more from the advanced user. It was developed by Klaus Knopfer. This disc is not meant for install but only run as a live cd / dvd out of the tray. I've used it several times to "save" crashed Windows systems for friends. As long as the drive itself is still "functional", then it can work.

  12. Russ W
    August 14, 2009 at 9:51 am

    If the problem is not a bad drive but a corrupt boot record:
    you can recover the data by using the Windows CD. Boot from the CD and follow the steps to do a new install. Specify a new install directory - example c:/WinNew. By installing to a different directory your files under 'Documents and Settings' folders will remain intact. Follow the prompts and install - Don't make any partition changes or reformats! When windows boots you should find all of your previous directories and files intact. Note: you will need to reinstall all of your programs if you want to continue with the new windows install. I usually backup my data and do a clean install - sort of like spring cleaning. Not the most sophisticated recovery method but easy enough for most non-geeks...

  13. Jerry S
    August 14, 2009 at 7:54 am

    Tip for next article: freeware recovery apps. If a drive has flunked, so it _does_ work but the OS or btree went tits-up, you will reinstall the OS and apps anyway. After zeroing the disk (always feels good: put on the kettle and let the disk kerchunk-kerchunk to ultimate zero-ness whilst tea). Then reinstall everything.
    Another tip: recovery-cd or OS-install-cd in a platic envelope taped on the computercase. Ugly? Yes. Handy? Absofunkinglutely.
    Another one: how to make a clone of a fresh fully-installed drive (without the data, that ought to be handled by the daily-or-so backup).
    Last tip: easy backup. And I mean easy as in 'Timemachine Easy'. Including test and recovery actions.

    And best tip in the thread: give it to a nerd. He'll fix it, sniggering and thumbing through your folders, but he'll get it done. He can also be a she of course.

  14. Peter
    August 13, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    One of my brothers has a backup lodged with his bank, plus another that he carries with him, plus the data on his portable system. I am not quite as organised, but am responsible for him lodging a backup in a safety deposit box.

    Machine still not fixed. :-(

  15. Menk
    August 13, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    The records of the students such as their transcript of records must have a backup copy so that when the other copy gets lost you still have the files ready to be used by you.

    • Guy McDowell
      August 13, 2009 at 1:17 pm

      Ideally that's the case. You might be amazed at how poorly most organizations perform backing up and storage of sensitive data. They tend to think of the upfront cost of a few thousand dollars as too expensive, yet a fair few businesses that have a complete server failure end up going out of business altogether. That's far more expensive.

  16. Peter
    August 12, 2009 at 10:31 am

    At last, I have uncovered a quicker way of doing things. SpinRite is a package that the user masters onto a CD which is bootable.

    What would slow up recovery in such a situation? That's right, the spooling of data. I copied the package onto a bootable USB stick , made up a batch file and hey ho, and away we go; seemingly I only have to wait 55 minutes - I have doubts - and it has actually recovered sectors previously said to be unrecovered. Fingers crossed then.

    Anyhow, the answer seems to be to put any hard drive recovery kit onto a bootable USB drive, either DOS or Windows, depending on which environment is appropriate.

    • DARREN
      September 28, 2009 at 12:20 pm

      Peter I have the same problem booting spin-rite gave me a me a 3000 hour recovery time. How did you do the batch file exactly.

      • Peter
        September 28, 2009 at 1:31 pm

        Hi Darren,

        I found that for some reason it failed when I used a batch file. IIRC I typed the switch "resume" at the CLI after invoking the executable. In the long run it continually reviewed the forecast and eventually completed. Most of the bad sectors were at the 'front' of the drive.

        In case this helps you at some future point, I still have a problem, in the form of a mismatch between the restore partition size on disc and that auto configured by the BIOS. Thus I am going to slave it off a desktop machine, recover the images from D: (which is problem free) and attempt to image the recovery partition. Thereafter I will attempt to restore the images to a new drive. If not, either Windows 7 or Linux beckon.

        A word to the wise; when I looked on the DVDs on which I placed the images, I found one of the files was corrupted (this must have happened during the copy process, as I always check new images when made). Aside from the fact that the malfunction must have dated way back to when the machine was new, I ought to have checked the image integrity, after copying, using Acronis.

        Benefit from my hindsight. :-)

  17. Eric
    August 11, 2009 at 9:23 am

    While I agree that Hiren's is a very useful tool it should be noted that it contains (possibly pirated) commercial software.

    From my experience a computer displaying a BSOD indicating UNMOUNTABLE_BOOT_VOLUME can be repaired most times with a CHKDSK /R.

    For file recovery on a non booting system.. or a system with a corrupted partition I have had excellent luck with dd_rescue and foremost (both linux utilities). Unfortunately, this option is a bit beyond the novice user. If, however, you are interested in trying I would suggest you take a look at the SystemRescueCD an excellent linux distribution designed for this sort of thing.

    • Peter
      August 11, 2009 at 11:58 am

      Yeah, normally these things would work, but the drive is not recognisable to any external tool, Linux or Windows, and the drive loses the plot if I try any of the usual F8 options.

      Interestingly, SpinRite has now found a lot of unrecoverable sectors, and has now revised its total scan time to 903 hours. Sheesh.

    • Peter
      August 11, 2009 at 12:32 pm

      I forgot to say "the drive is not responding to any tools with the exception of SpinRite".

      I downloaded and mastered a host of things when I found the many that I would normally used had failed. I also found a lot of information on the unmountable boot volume, as you can infer from my comments, including one interesting one which said it can be a software or a hardware error. I think that I have the latter. SpinRite's activities indicate this by virtue of the 'unrecoverable' label on significant parts of the drive.

      To repeat, the lesson learned is to carry out preventive scanning if you have SpinRite, and to buy it if you don't have it. It is embarrassing to be caught out. It's the first time ever, and I am taking this very hard indeed. :-(

      • Guy McDowell
        August 11, 2009 at 10:28 pm

        I've never worked with SpinRite, I'll have to check that out.
        Wow - over 900 hours. Wow. That sucks.

        • Peter
          August 12, 2009 at 4:06 am

          Now it is over the 1000 hour mark. (Weeping sounds off screen)

          On the upside it is marking a lot of territory as defunct. I have to go through this if I want to recover the Vista reinstall partition, but am beginning to think that - expensive software or no - I may opt for a new hard drive, Fedora and of course Open Office. I prefer SmartSuite, but the IBM Open Source equivalent, Symphony, was not quite up to replacing it when I last looked. Yes I know, WINE. Hmm. :-)

  18. Peter
    August 11, 2009 at 7:46 am

    Hiren is I think no use for Vista on a notebook (this applies to any of the other bootable tools that I have, but read on), especially with the "Unmountable_boot_volume" message. Presumably mine cut out when I was shutting down during the long, complex and tortured Vista update process.

    I couldn't access mine with Acronis TI which, like others, could not even 'see' the HD, so I cannot restore an image to C:. I have a wealth of (evidently useless) free data recovery packages, some which are bootable, some which run from a Windows XP PE disc. In fact, I was about to master a Vista PE disc for just this purpose. Even Linux forensic packages were no help. :-(

    Accordingly I am using SpinRite to check and repair the drive, prior to restoring an image. SpinRite's forecast is that this job will take 500 odd hours. I had reached 100 last night, after more than 24 hours of executing the programme, and boy am I glad that the notebook is merely for travel.

    What a pity that I didn't use SpinRite defensively. It would have made the whole process much easier but, with four drives on this machine, and two on two others, I didn't. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

    You might think that trying to resuscitate the drive is pointless. Indeed, since I have mastered an image of the original untouched drive this could be said, but I want the partition with the Vista restore material. So on the self recriminations go.

    • Guy McDowell
      August 11, 2009 at 10:26 pm

      I used to use BartPE but would like to get around to making my own build one of these days.

  19. Jalley
    August 11, 2009 at 4:00 am

    Useful info, Guy. Looks like the vengeful super-nerds have it out for you, however. Keep your head up.

    • Guy McDowell
      August 11, 2009 at 10:25 pm

      Much appreciated.

  20. rimanere
    August 10, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    What's the name of the device you mention above that allows you to plug your hard drive into another computer to recover files.

    • Guy McDowell
      August 10, 2009 at 10:17 pm

      SATA/IDE to USB adapter You can get it at or other places for about $20.

      • John in Austria
        August 11, 2009 at 12:24 am

        Thanks for the info on the adapter - just ordered one from Amazon.

  21. Mitchel
    August 10, 2009 at 7:54 pm


    I agree with the previous comment. Having a real hard disk problem and using the tools mentioned above without any experience could make things even worse ...

    Depending on the type of error first step should always be to copy the disc 1:1 and then working on the copy only. This way changes made for example by chkdsk would not corrupt my original files any further before I had a chance to save them.

    At least I would connect the disc as external drive and readonly to an other computer (the possibility you mentioned last) and then try to back up the most valueable files. But having real hardware problem it would be best to make a 1:1 image copy first (and get the original disc disconnected as soon as possible, to prevent any further damage to the original disc in case I fail and I need to hand over the original drive to a data recovery specialist).

    Some other valueable tools (best used on a copy of the original disc) are tools for file recovery, for example "PC Inspector file recovery".



    • Guy McDowell
      August 10, 2009 at 10:13 pm

      Well, I could write on article on how one might do that with a hard drive that has errors in MBR or boot sectors, however, that would probably turn into a series quite quickly.

      Booting into the Recovery Console and running CHKDSK /R is pretty harmless and can buy the user time to get back into Windows and make a backup. As I said, if it boots make your backup now and look at getting a new hard drive.

      I hadn't heard of PC Inspector File Recovery, but it sure looks interesting. Thanks for the tip!

      The format of the site is to offer free solutions first, then ones that might cost like the SCSI or IDE to USB adapter. I think mine cost $20.

      • Guy McDowell
        August 10, 2009 at 10:15 pm

        Sorry, SATA/IDE to USB adapter.

      • Mitchel
        August 11, 2009 at 1:22 am

        The point is, that any write operation on the disc always involves overwriting (erasing) something. And repairing always is about reading data, correcting it and writing it again somewhere. This also applies to chkdsk. The corrected data may be written to the original location (erasing some data assumed (!) to be faulty) or to a location assumed (!) to be free, which could be fatal, too, if the directory information "free" itself is wrong ... So a repair on a faulty directory structure may always kill "the hint" that could be of much use later, when you want to fix the problem using an other method / tool.

        If on the other hand a hardware problem exists (drive overheats, makes strange noices, etc.) and you see one part of the drive becoming inaccessible after the other, then also read attempts could make things worse.

        So - if data is not so important you don't want to risk anything at all and immediatly hand over the drive to experts - first step when facing "real" problems should always be to make a copy and get the original device out of the way (to a safe place). Then you can (safely) try to fix the problem yourself on the copy using the tools mentioned in the original article and start over again using some other tool if your first try was not successful.

        Also remember: 1) If the problem was caused by an hardware problem, then replace the drive! Don't repair it, work on it again and wait for the next data loss and 2) If you rescue any data, then it is best to rescue ALL data you need at once or at least keep a list of what you have done so far. You probably don't want to search through all old broken hard disks for the most recent version of a file if you need it in some years from now.

        • Guy McDowell
          August 11, 2009 at 10:25 pm

          I agree that the ideal situation is to hand it over to the experts. However, that begs the question - who are the experts? Really, if a person is just surfing the web and e-mailing and 4channing, they probably won't cough up the coin a real expert commands. Heck, even the not-so-real experts are too expensive in a lot of cases.

  22. Fabio
    August 10, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    If you're talking HD failure, there's really nothing helpful in this article. Deadline filler?

    • Guy McDowell
      August 10, 2009 at 10:07 pm

      You're always welcome to submit your own article.

  23. Will
    August 10, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    a) If your hard drive has failed, you will not get a BSOD; your computer won't even make it that far.
    b) If you're pandering to the kind of audience who isn't comfortable cracking their case and ensuring connections are solid, it would be inadvisable (to say the least) to instruct them in the use of the recovery console. An uninformed user can cause TONS of damage with said console.
    c) As for other ways of recovering data, for the non-geeks, hand it to a geek. We suffered your scorn through school, so please give us the satisfaction of your reliance on us. ;) For the geeks, I highly recommend Hiren's Boot CD, which contains an assortment of tools for every task from troubleshooting to diagnosis to actual repair.

    • Guy McDowell
      August 10, 2009 at 5:35 pm

      Wow. Kind of negative aren't you?

      • Will
        August 10, 2009 at 7:10 pm

        Eh, not really. I'm simply pointing out that each user has a comfort level, and if you immerse the user in an environment out of their comfort level, mistakes will be made. Oh, and the wink was supposed to be after the words "reliance on us." 'Twas a joke. :-)

        • Guy McDowell
          August 10, 2009 at 10:26 pm

          Okay, Hiren's Boot CD looks excellent! Good tip.

        • Adam
          August 14, 2009 at 10:49 am

          That's a bit picky. If you define a HDD failure as the inability to boot into the OS then there are a lot of things that could happen (BSOD, black screen, continual reboots after splash screen, etc).

          A particular sector of the HDD could fail and you could still login to the OS if you were lucky.

    • DopePhizh
      August 11, 2009 at 8:12 am

      2 things
      1:I can also highly recommend Hiren's Boot CD
      2:Im sorry but this article isn't very thoruogh. Most of this is pretty basic. An in debt guide could help out a lot of people but this limited information will most likely cause people more problems than it solves.

      • Guy McDowell
        August 11, 2009 at 10:22 pm

        I suppose that's possible, but every user is a danger to their computer. Good idea on doing one of our more extensive PDF guides on on this. I'll mention that to our editors.