5 Tips for Recovering Data from a Crashed Hard Drive

The fallout from a crashed hard drive can range from a minor frustration to a complete nightmare. But don’t despair. There’s a good chance that your final paper, treasured family photo, or sensitive financial document is completely recoverable. Whether you choose to enlist the help of a professional or save the money and go at it yourself, these hard drive failure recovery tips will help increase your chances of getting back those crucial files.

1. Identify the Point of Failure

There are two major causes of a drive crash: a logical error or a mechanical failure. Knowing which type of malfunction you are facing may impact your best course of action.

If it’s a mechanical failure, then it means that the drive is physically damaged. When this happens, you’ll often be able to hear clicking coming from inside your computer case (the dreaded “hard drive click of death”). 

Unless you’ve had the proper training, you should never attempt to repair the physical damage to a hard drive. Do not disassemble the hard drive. Do not put it in the freezer. Do not drop it onto the linoleum. While there are apocryphal stories of these methods working “without fail,” the chances of you causing further damage to your hard drive are much greater. Your absolute safest bet is to hand the drive over to an expert. In most cases, it’s likely that your data will come back all intact (even though you’ll likely have to kiss your physical hard drive goodbye).

When a logical hard disk failure occurs, it means that the drive can’t locate the data stored on it due to a formatting error or a corrupt file system.  Logical errors often crop up during or just after certain disk operations, such as reformatting, repartitioning, defragmenting, mounting/dismounting, or reinstallation of an operating system. In these cases, your computer will probably tell you that there is some sort of file system corruption or logical disk error when it tries to read it. For logical errors, a do-it-yourself approach may be successful.

One last warning: it’s very possible that your disk may have both a logical and mechanical failure.  In fact, sometimes a mechanical failure will cause a logical error, which is why it’s always best to take the most conservative approach first.

2. Stop Using the Disk

It’s of utmost importance to stop using the drive as soon as possible, whether it’s a mechanical or logical failure. Because the file system has become compromised, attempting to use the disk may cause parts of files to become accidentally deleted or overwritten. Even attempting to open a file could be destroying something elsewhere. Back away from the hard drive! If you can, unmount or eject it from your computer.

3.    Create a Disk Image

If you’re going to take a shot yourself at trying to recover your data, the best option would be to create an image of the disk, especially if the failure is mechanical. Using a program like R-Drive Image will guide you along the process, allowing you to essentially create a clone of your hard drive (known technically as a disk image). Writing this to a USB drive or memory card will allow you to explore the damage and attempt to recover it without potentially overwriting the files on the original drive. Another benefit of R-Drive Image is that it uses read-only access, which helps prevent further loss of data. 

4.    Search deep for the files

If a simple file undelete program fails, don’t give up hope. File undelete programs take a relatively simple approach and work best with common file types that were recently deleted (e.g. within hours). File undeletion is also significantly more viable for File Allocation Table (FAT) systems (such as Windows) than for Mac OS X and Linux. In these cases, the file meta data—including the time stamp, physical location and the file length—remain intact after deletion. This makes restoring the deleted files a simple matter of adding it back to the FAT.

With fragmented files, less common file types, partially overwritten data, files on reformatted partitions, or files deleted from more modern Unix and Linux based file systems, file undeletion may not work. But you still have options.

By performing a cluster-by-cluster analysis of the disk, you can often locate deleted files. But it takes a particularly advanced data recovery tool to recognize what the data is and to piece it back together as a complete and usable file. R-Studio [http://www.r-studio.com], which is made by the same company as R-Image, features a “raw file search” that scans for known file types. You can also add custom file signatures in order to scan for for less common file types. Files all have their own digital signature, which means that you can search for a particular set, such as all JPEG files created by your camera or all MP3s burnt on a particular date.

Raw file searches can even turn up data from logical disks or partitions that previously existed on the physical disk. That means you can recover data even if a disk has been reformatted or repartitioned.

5.    Always Backup

Of course, the number one lesson that anyone can learn after surviving a crashed hard drive is to always back up your data and to do it as often as possible. Whether you’re copying the files to another hard drive or virtually in the cloud (via programs like Dropbox or SugarSync), regular backups will save you a ton of potential trouble down the line. Create a solution before the problem has even had a chance to begin.

Back to the main page