Although hard disk drives (HDD) are cheaper than solid-state drives (SSD), they come with a few caveats. For one, they use mechanical parts such as the actuator arm that moves across the platters inside of the hard drive. By moving rapidly, it reads and writes data. As such, a lot of things can go wrong – they are more prone to mechanical or electrical failure compared to SSDs. And don’t forget physical damage such as vibrations or being dropped accidentally.
But don’t worry about what caused it – we’ll cover the most common reasons. What’s important is that the solution is the same. You need to learn how to perform hard drive data recovery on your own, preferably without paying a penny.
Why is the data on my hard drive gone?
Hardware failure is certainly not the only reason you can lose data. Consider things such as malware infections and ransomware, operating system crash, corruption caused by software, and even unpredictable events such as power outage, lightning strike, or a faulty power supply. Add a human factor – accidentally formatting a partition or the entire drive, or accidentally pressing Shift + Delete on a large folder, and data is gone in a flash.
How can I recover data from my hard drive?
We’ll focus on Windows 10 in this article, since it has by far the largest user base. Also, the guide would get too long and too confusing if both were included side-to-side. With that in mind, we’ll cover the solutions to the most common problems
Recover data from accidental format
If you weren’t aware, data permanently deleted from a Recycle Bin, by Shift + Delete, and by formatting a drive isn’t truly gone. Rather, the computer deletes an internal address pointing to the files, and as you continue to use your computer, the “free” space is slowly overwritten by new files.
Using data recovery software to restore data from a hard drive
With the clarification above, you can see how data recovery software for Windows can reconnect you with your “erased” files. You can also use data recovery tools dedicated to external hard drives. Here’s how to do it.
Restoring files using UnDeleteMyFiles Pro
We’ve chosen this software not only because it’s free to download, but also because it allows you to recover an unlimited number of files from your hard drive. Plus, it is only 1.3 MB in size, which minimizes the risk of overwriting the files you’re trying to recover.
- Download UnDeleteMyFiles Pro.
- Start the software after installation.
- Click on File Rescue.
- Choose a drive or multiple drives you want to restore data from.
- When ready, choose Scan in the bottom right corner.
- Sit back and wait for the scan to finish. It will report the total number of files it recovered.
- You can click on Preview in the top left corner to make sure those are the right files.
- Check the files you want to retrieve, and click on Recover.
- Choose an output folder to save them.
Restoring files using EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard
A much more powerful software, but it comes with a limitation. You are only able to retrieve up to 2 GB of data before you need to purchase a Pro license. However, if you are desperate and UnDeleteMyFiles Pro isn’t thorough enough, this might be your only option.
- Download EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard.
- Start the software. The menu will remind you of This PC/My Computer.
- Click on the drive or drives you want to scan. Unfortunately, you cannot filter your search by name or file type, so you need to wait until it is complete to sort through files.
- Click Scan.
- After the scan is complete, you’ll see data organized into three categories – Lost Files, Raw Lost Files, and Special Lost Files. Preview a file by double-clicking on it.
- Put a checkmark in front of files you want to restore, and click Recover.
- Choose the location to save retrieved data.
Recovering files from a hard drive backup
A much easier and a guaranteed way to restore data from a failing hard drive is if you have a backup. Whether you already have one, or you got a wakeup call just now, there is an option for you. But, we believe there is no need to repeat ourselves. For that reason, feel free to follow the instructions we gave in our guide on how to recover a deleted folder in Windows 10.
Recover data from physically damaged hard drives
If your hard drive is physically damaged, the data recovery is not as simple as installing a software and recovering them. Below is the process you should follow to recover data from a physically destroyed HDD.
How to check if my hard drive is failing?
We mentioned the actuator arm that moves across the platters and reads and writes data. In most cases, either the arm itself is faulty, or the PCB (printed circuit board) that holds all of the electronics inside has one or more faulty components. Here is how you can assess the damage.
- Is your hard disk drive is making unusual, irregularly spaced-apart, clicking noises?
- Do you have trouble copying files to the hard drive or installing software?
- Are more and more files getting corrupted – unable to open, crashing, or look and act unusual inside a software?
These are all often signs of a physically, mechanically, or electronically faulty drive. But, you need to do a few more observations.
- Open your computer case.
- Find your hard disk drive.
- Check the connections. There are typically two – a SATA cable that transfers data, and a power cable that goes from your power supply to your hard drive. Make sure they are not loosely connected.
- If they are, make sure they are firmly connected, turn your computer back on, and do a quick check we mentioned above.
- If they aren’t, go back to the hard drive and unplug both cables. Do you notice any signs of damage, such as scorch marks? Check the golden pins on both the connectors. Do any of them have black dots, deep scratches, or other irregularities?
- You can also remove the hard drive from its slot. Feel free to turn it around, and verify that there are no indentations, torn ribbon cables, or burnt-out components.
Apart from these, there are a bunch of additional things you could do. Here is a video from Linus Tech Tips on checking hard drive issues –
DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Repair
Can you repair a physically damaged hard drive yourself? Truthfully, yes. But there’s a reason why there are so many data recovery companies around the world. For one, you will void your warranty because screws are intentionally hidden under the label. Secondly, the inside of a hard drive needs to be assembled in a vacuum, so that no dust ever touches the platter. This is pretty hard to do at home, no matter how quick you are.
What you can do at home is replacing the PCB, since it requires no assembly process – only five to six screws on the bottom of the hard drive. Unfortunately, this is getting harder as well. Even if you order a donor board from the same model, the chips are often calibrated for that hard drive, and won’t work properly or at all with yours.
Hiring a professional
The only reliable way to restore data from your damaged hard drive is to hire a professional. They have the equipment and knowledge, and even then, nothing is guaranteed. But that expertise comes at a price often three or more times than a new hard drive. Think long and hard how important the data is to you before you commit.
Data Recovery Using Disk Imaging: Making a Digital Copy
You’ve got a busted hard drive, and you desperately need your important files back? Don’t worry, there’s a cool trick called disk imaging that can save the day. It’s like taking a digital photocopy of your hard drive and then working with that copy to retrieve all your precious data. This method is super useful when your hard drive is all beaten up or acting worn out because it reduces the risk of making things worse.
Here’s how you can do data recovery using disk imaging:
- Connect that damaged hard drive to a working computer. Grab an external hard drive enclosure or a handy SATA/IDE to USB adapter for this.
- Make sure the working computer has enough space to hold the disk image. As you have to match or exceed the size of the damaged hard drive in terms of storage capacity.
- Get yourself some reliable disk imaging software installed on that working computer. Take your pick from options like Clonezilla, DriveImage XML, or Macrium Reflect, and Mondo Rescue.
- Open up the disk imaging software and find the option to create a disk image. Select the damaged hard drive as the source, and tell the software where to save that disk image.
- Let the magic begin; the software will start churning away, making a detailed clone of your damaged hard drive, capturing every single bit of information, both used and unused.
- Once the disk imaging process is done, safely disconnect the damaged hard drive from the working computer. We don’t want any mishaps now.
- Now it’s time to get down to business. You can use the same disk imaging software or another handy data recovery tool to dig into that disk image and retrieve your files. Usually, this involves virtually mounting the disk image as a drive and sifting through its file system to find and recover all your precious data.
Just a friendly reminder: Disk imaging can take a bit of time, especially if you’re dealing with a damaged hard drive. So be patient and let the process do its thing without interruptions.
One more thing. If you’ve got super important data or you’re feeling a bit unsure about your tech skills, it’s always a smart move to consult the pros—those data recovery experts. They can give you specialized advice based on your specific data loss situation and make sure you don’t accidentally make things worse during the recovery process.