Hard Drive and Data Recovery

A few weeks ago, I posted about how to back up your computer and the photos on your computer. I’ve had a couple issues with external hard drives crashing, so after my favorite geek, Tucker, helped me recover some data, I asked him to write a bit on the topic of what to do if your hard drive fails. So, without further ado, heeeeeeere’s Tucker!

Before We Begin: If at any point during these steps you feel overwhelmed, I highly recommend that you FIND A GEEK! While all the knowledge needed to perform these steps is available online, I don’t want anyone working outside their comfort zone. Hard drives can be finicky, and when your data is on the line it’s better safe than sorry.

If you can’t access the hard drive at all, read the section below on Hard Drive Recovery.

If you’re able to access the drive, but you’re getting errors / corruption / slow performance, move down to the Recovery & Transferring Data section.

HARD DRIVE RECOVERY

So you wake up one morning and boot your computer like you do every day. Maybe you grab some coffee and breakfast. You sit down at the computer; ready to get to work and… you can’t see your hard drive.

Uh-oh. What am I supposed to do?

FOR EXTERNAL HARD DRIVES

REBOOT!

To quote the wonderful British comedy, IT Crowd: “Have You Tried Turning It Off and On Again?” — You can save yourself a ton of heartache and frustration by always rebooting first before panicking. This goes for any IT problem you ever have!

If it works… you’re all set and you shouldn’t have to worry any further. If it continues to happen though, definitely get your data backed up elsewhere; in case you have a catastrophic failure one day.

TRY ANOTHER USB PORT

After rebooting, the next easiest thing is to try another USB port. Just to be safe, try more than one (in case a group of them have failed).

If it works… cover up the bad USB port(s) with some painter’s tape and call up your local geek to come see if they can get them working again.

TRY ANOTHER USB CABLE

Story time! There was this one time that my check engine light came on out of the blue, so I took it to the mechanic who proceeded to do some testing. After worrying that I was potentially going to have a large repair bill, they found the problem: the gas cap needed to be replaced. For external hard drives, the “gas cap” is the USB cable, and it’s much cheaper than replacing an entire hard drive.

If it works… throw out that bad cable so you don’t try to use it again!

CHECK IF YOUR COMPUTER RECOGNIZES THE DRIVE

If you’re still having trouble at this point, we want to figure out if the computer is detecting the drive at all. The easiest way is to try and boot from it. If it’s detected then, we have some level of confidence that it’s being detected.

I recommend this LifeHacker article on how to boot to a USB drive.

Just to be clear, we simply care that you get the option to boot from your external drive—you won’t actually be able to boot from it.

If it works… for some reason, your operating system is refusing to mount the drive. If you don’t need the data, a simple wipe / format of the drive may do the trick. Otherwise, hop down to the Recovering & Transferring Data section of the article. If this happens more than once, I recommend that you stop using the drive as soon as you can get a replacement.

TRY ANOTHER COMPUTER

For external drives, this is simple enough. Unplug it from your current computer and go try it on another and see if it’s detected.

If it works… it looks like there some sort of issue on your original computer. Try investigating further on your own, or call in the geek.

TEAR IT OUT, AND TRY AN EXTERNAL HD KIT

Now we’re at the point where we need to figure out if the hard drive enclosure is causing the problem. Google is your friend here—someone, somewhere has needed to free a hard drive from your same exact enclosure. I find that Googling “remove hard drive (insert model or brand name here)” should get you well on your way to finding a YouTube video or some written instructions.

Note: Sometimes you’re not going to be able to save the enclosure, but that’s ok! The enclosure is not the expensive part. If you still need an enclosure, scroll down for some recommendations.

Once you’ve freed the hard drive, you can either install it directly into a desktop computer (if you have appropriate cables and space).

Note: Pretty much any drive or computer built after 2008 should be using SATA connectors, which I will be assuming from here on out. Anything older may have IDE / PATA connectors instead– just keep that in mind when following any instructions!

Otherwise, you can use a external drive connection kit. It’s all of the technical bits of an enclosure, but it’s made to with all kinds of hard drives and converts them to USB for temporary access. Personally, I use this one whenever I’m troubleshooting a finicky drive.

Note: These are not meant as a permanent access solution– it’s for data recovery or testing only.

If it works… awesome! You can either leave it installed in your desktop, or you can order a full enclosure to hold the drive:

– For Laptop SATA Drives (2.5″), I’ve used this enclosure for clients before.

– For Desktop SATA Drives (3.5″), I don’t have one currently, but this one is a popular choice on Amazon.

REST IN PIECE HARD DRIVE, WE HARDLY KNEW YE

If we’ve reached this point, we’ve come to the unfortunate realization that there is probably some sort of mechanical failure with the drive. One common sign of mechanical failure is drive “clicking” when it’s powered up.

If you don’t need to recover data, now is probably the best time to cut your losses and purchase a replacement. Otherwise, move on to the Recovering & Transferring Data section.

FOR INTERNAL HARD DRIVES

The steps are pretty much the same as above, but the technical expertise required may be a bit higher. Google is a great resource for this, but if you’re not comfortable working inside a computer CALL A GEEK!

RECOVERING & TRANSFERRING DATA

Before We Begin: You should be backing your data up! Data recovery SUCKS and it’s stressful! See Rachel’s previous post.

ATTEMPT TO REPAIR BAD PARTITIONS

If you’re having trouble mounting the drive at all, there could be a issue with the partitions on the drive. TestDisk is a great utility that should be able to repair or rule out issues like this.

If it works… keep an eye on it to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. If it does, look into replacing the drive.

ATTEMPT TO REPAIR BAD SECTORS

For hardware / mechanical problems, the last ditch effort is going to be using a tool like SpinRite to repair unreadable sectors.

Note: If the drive itself is failing (even if you can get to the data now), you should migrate the data from it and stop using that drive. Once you start seeing errors, the chances get higher and higher that you’ll see a complete hardware failure. I only recommend SpinRite for the purpose of recovering files; not to keep using the faulty hard drive.

If it doesn’t work… you’ve exhausted pretty much all of the reasonable options for hard drive repair. Call in an expert for a second opinion, look into professional data recovery, or start working on rebuilding what was lost.

BUY ANOTHER DRIVE AND COPY THE DATA OVER

Assuming that you can read the drive reliably enough within your operating system, purchase another drive and a method for connecting it (e.g. another USB enclosure). After that, copy the data over and see what sticks.

For Windows users, I HIGHLY recommend using a tool like TeraCopy. It’s going to make the process of dealing with corrupted or inaccessible files much more pleasant.

If it works… toss out the bad drive and enjoy!

DATA RECOVERY FOR THOSE STUBBORN DRIVES

If you really want to try and get the data, take a look at ddrescue. If it doesn’t work, nothing probably will.

FINAL NOTES

I hope these steps can help you out in your next time of crisis. A dead hard drive can be one of the most stressful things you’ll ever deal with—but there’s clear things you can do to get back on your feet and keep moving forward.

If you don’t have a geek that you trust, I’m happy to fill that role! Visit my website, http://www.tuckercomputerservices.com, or e-mail me at tucker (at) tuckercomputerservices.com.

Thanks for reading!