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
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
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
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
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.