Help, My Hard Drive Died!

Category: Hard-Drives

Unlike diamonds, hard drives are not forever. It's very likely that someday you'll start your computer, and instead of the familiar startup screen, you'll see one of these ominous messages: DISK BOOT FAILURE... NO FIXED DISK PRESENT... ERROR READING FIXED DISK... or HARD DRIVE FAILURE. Don't panic just yet, there may be hope for recovery of that damaged hard drive...

Hard Drive Data Recovery

If you've ever lost an important file because of a hard drive crash, you know the pain. That final project you worked on so hard, the spreadsheet that has be in your boss's inbox in the morning, or those photos of Grandma taken at her 102nd birthday -- all gone in an instant, thanks to a hard drive failure. But those scary looking messages are not always the final word. Before you take a sledge hammer to your hard drive, try these hard drive data recovery steps.

The first step is to determine if it really is hard drive failure you are experiencing. Did you install any new hardware since your last successful boot-up? If so, unplug those devices and try to re-boot.

No go? OK, if you're running Windows, try to start up in Safe Mode. Reboot your PC, and hit the F8 key when the computer is starting up. Choose the option to go into Safe Mode. If you can get to the Windows login screen, you are probably having a software problem, not hard drive failure. You can do a re-install of Windows to get to your files (see Recovery Console) or you can use Windows' System Restore feature to get your PC up and running again.
Hard Drive Crash Data Recovery

In some cases a damaged master boot record or partition table can render a disk unbootable, but all the data is still intact. See my article Fix MBR for some help with that relatively simple repair job. In one case, my hard drive got totally mucked up, and neither the FIXMBR nor FIXBOOT commands could restore the drive to working order. But I found a wonderful program called TESTDISK that was able to analyze the disk and recreate both the partition table and the boot record. I was certain that all the data was lost, but TESTDISK did the job for me.

Data Recovery: First Check Under The Hood

What if you can't get into Safe Mode? There are still a couple of options available. Unplug everything (the power plug and ALL the cables) from the computer. Now pop open your computer's system unit and try to reseat the hard drive. It might look scary at first, but there's nothing inside a computer that will bite you. Take a look at the pictures in my article Add a Second Hard Drive to familiarize yourself with the components you'll be looking for -- the hard drive, the motherboard connectors (IDE or SATA) and the cables that connect the hard drive to the motherboard.

Unplug and reseat the all the cables that plug into the hard drive, then follow the cable to the motherboard and reseat that end as well. It's possible that the cable was just loose, and your drive will work fine after this simple procedure. You can also try swapping the IDE or SATA slot that the drive plugs into. Look for connectors on the motherboard labelled IDE1 and IDE2, or SATA0 and SATA1. Move the cable from one plug to the other, restart the system and hope for the best. If all the above options fail you can assume your computer wasn't lying, the hard drive is faulty. There are methods available to try and get your data back.

Hard Drive Data Recovery

The practice of retrieving data from damaged or inoperable disk drives is known as data recovery. Data recovery experts have a thriving business. Just like a car, a computer can break down and parts wear out. Hard drives are no exception. Because of this potential for failure, backing up crucial data to an external source other than your hard drive is essential. I've written quite a few articles on how to back up your hard drive, text messages, social media accounts and other important data. If you don't have a plan for automatically backing up your computer's hard drive, check out my list of Backup Articles

For now, let's assume you have hard drive failure with no backups of your files, and focus on what you can do to recover your data.

There are programs available online that can be downloaded to aid in data recovery. One program is Inspector File Recovery, which will help to recover Windows files. The program is free, however you do need to have a secondary hard drive installed with a Windows OS on it. Installation is user-friendly, and after install the program will prompt you through several data reconstruction options. EASUS Data Recovery Wizard is a $56 commercial program that makes data file recovery as painless and foolproof as possible. You can download a trial version that will recover up to 1 GB of data free of charge. Others swear by SpinRite ($89), a tool for hard drive data recovery and drive maintenance. For Mac users, ProSoft's website offers Data Rescue, an application with a free trial download to recover Mac files.

There are also a range of web-based data recovery sites that you can access (from a working, Internet-connected PC, that is). These are remote data recovery sites. OnTrack is one site that provides this service. They offer remote web-based recovery that will scan your failing drive and try to recover lost data.

Data Recovery Services

Bear in mind, whether you use the downloadable recovery programs, or the web-based ones, there are no guarantees that your data can be reclaimed. The above programs and services will be able to recover your data, provided your hard drive problem is not a purely mechanical one. Often, drive failure error messages stem from a bad sector or failing partition on the drive. If data recovery programs aren't working for you, and in addition, you are hearing any strange noises coming from the drive, or if BIOS cannot recognize the drive, then you are looking at mechanical disk drive failure.

If it's imperative that you retrieve data from a drive that is physically damaged, there is still hope. OnTrack and other data recovery companies give you the option of sending the damaged drive to their engineers who will evaluate your hard disk, extract a file listing from it, and will retrieve any data possible. This type of service ain't cheap, though. The standard evaluation cost is US$100. Afterwards, the actual data recovery fee can run anywhere from $500 to $2500 depending on the amount of data and labor involved.

Just remember, a "hard drive failure" error message does not necessarily mean all is lost. You have a range of tips, tools and techniques that may bring the drive back to life, or at least help you recover some of your important data.

Let me know if you've tried any of these ideas, or if you have other data recovery tips to share. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Help, My Hard Drive Died!"

Posted by:

07 Aug 2012

So how do you preserve your important data & such? I have 25,000+ songs on a external h.d. I have 1500+ movies on an external h.d., I have 1000's of e-books on another external h.d., and I have ALL of my tax information on a USB drive. Do I duplicate the data? Do I put it out on the internet, where it could possibly be stolen? What?

Posted by:

07 Aug 2012

If you don't have a second computer to work, you will need to start your computer... You may use a Linux Live Disk to do this. I personally like KNOPPIX (check, because it's simple: you don't need to install anything (you just need to boot your computer from the CD / DVD drive) and you can try to recover your data from your sick drive and copy it to a new external drive.
Check this page for further information:

Bob, yet again, GREAT SITE!!!

Posted by:

07 Aug 2012

I downloaded a bootable version of Linux to a CD, changed the order of booting to CD first, then copied all the documents that I needed. That of course is a short explanation. It was my very first experience with Linux, and I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was. The friend for whom I was doing this was quite happy and now backs up her data:-)

Posted by:

Dean Rohs
07 Aug 2012

Hi Bob,

Thanx for this article. I think anyone who has ever lost data due to hard drive failure is painfully aware how important regular backups are. It has happened to me on more than one occasion. And don't scold me for this, but I rarely do backups to this day.

I did however purchase an external hard drive I use for my Wii game system. I added an extra partition for my desktops data which I did backup, but haven't updated on a regular basis. My ultimate goal is to set up a Raid configuration to mirror my main drive for on-the-fly, real-time backups. Like the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie ~ "Set It & Forget It!"

But I wanted to offer your readers another option for recovering data to an unbootable system. A couple years ago I experienced a boot up problem that could not be fixed in safe mode, F12, F10 or any other F for that matter ~ no matter how many F's I uttered.

My problem was software, not hardware related. Somehow I borked the operating system ~ XP ~ and it left me in an endless looping boot sequence that wouldn't allow me to even enter a diagnostics phase.

A little research turned up a solution. A small but powerful operating system that would fit on a 2GB USB bootable flash drive. A version of Linux called Puppy Linux. This allowed me to boot to the flash drive and copy all the data from my main drive with the faulty OS, to a fresh external drive.

I suppose I could have created another partition on the main drive and copied my data there. But at this point, I was certain my hard drive was fried.

Puppy Linux is not graphic intensive, and the transfer process is painfully slow. But it successfully saved my important data and most importantly, my mental health.

I keep a copy of Puppy on a flash drive in the event this ever happens again. Not a bad idea for any PC user whose operating system someday goes south.

Posted by:

08 Aug 2012

All of the Linux on CD options are good if the computer won't boot into Windows. Works like a charm to recover data that otherwise would be lost. For data recovery the best and only tool you need is "SpinRite". Have been using it for years and works 100% of the time if a major mechanical failure is not the issue. Even had it work when the drive was making all kind of noise, enough to get the data off. Sometimes it will take a good while, so be patient, but definitely worth the $89.

Thanks, Bob, great article!

Posted by:

08 Aug 2012

Last resort: Remove hd, place in a water/airtight
baggie and put in a freezer for an hour or more.
Boot it up: if this works you will have about 15 minutes of working time. I have successfully done this a dozen time or more.

Posted by:

08 Aug 2012

Tom - what I do is have multiple external hard disks with everything on them, twice. I use the free version of Allway Sync (there are many others), which can be set up to keep folders and/or partitions duplicated elsewhere, wherever you want. I just yesterday bought a new Seagate 3 TB USB 3.0 external HD for $140, and a 2 TB USB 3.0 for $110 a while back, so it's inexpensive enough to do (I waited for good sales). I also have 2, 1 TB and 1, 500 GB, all of which I'm phasing out with the two larger drives. Some services, like Dropbox keep things automatically synched on the internet. As for keeping stuff on the internet and it being stolen/copied by someone, as long as it isn't "personal data", what do you care if it is "stolen/copied", as long as you still have access to it - meaning it hasn't been deleted. I don't have any reason to do cloud stuff myself, except for my email staying on Gmail servers. Important/critical personal data should be encrypted and kept on at least 3 media, such as your system hard disk, external hard disk(s), the cloud (multiple locations?), CD/DVDs and OMG! paper, and at least one copy "off site" (Two cloud copies might be good) where your system is not, in case of a burglary, fire etc. I email encrypted files of personal data to myself (two accounts)for my "cloud" backup. TrueCrypt is perfect for absolute encryption security, and free. Give a list of the locations and encryption passwords to critically important personal files to a truly trusted person or two - don't have your name on the paper - and/or a safe deposit box, in case you have an accident or stroke etc. I'm no computer expert, but that's what Ive stumbled across over time reading things like Bob's articles that works for me.

Posted by:

A Ventura
09 Aug 2012

OK,so I have my Files,System,etc. backed up,to an external hard drive.Now my system's C:/drive breaks down,how do I get my info off the backed up drive and use it? do I just restore the files to a new drive or can I use the external drive as my main drive? Sorry if this is a foolish question but I don't know what to do if the main drive breaks down!

Posted by:

09 Aug 2012

I had one with the click of death. I laid the drive upside down and it worked long enough to transfer the data to another drive.

Posted by:

09 Aug 2012

I found Spinrite to be a life saver. I have a solid backup routine nowadays, but Spinrite helped me out when everything else failed.

Regarding use of external drives, I just keep my data there. If c: fails, I buy a new drive, reinstall windows and other software and copy back the data. You could use some HD ghosting / imagine software to keep an exact copy of C: there, but I have never experimented with that.

Posted by:

sid manny
09 Aug 2012

When I accidentally formatted the Seagate hard drive, I was able to recover Seagate SATA drive data by using a tool called Hard Drive Recovery. We can also download the demo tool to test the data recovery process before purchasing the full version software.

Posted by:

07 Sep 2012

I agree to your perspective. Data recovery software is made to assist in case of data loss. In many instances whenever the user tries to rescue data, it may cause long lasting data loss. Always use a data recovery program in such situations.

Posted by:

26 Sep 2012

Thank you somuch for you artical. I used the F8 key and followed instructions now I have a working computer once again! It was clicking and coming up with black screen and message to enter disc to boot. That has stopped now thanks to you!

Posted by:

paul callahan
17 Apr 2013

My son has another solution for retrieving data from a hard drive failure (won't spin up). He takes the hard drive out of the computer, puts it in a plastic bag, seals it and puts it in the freezer for about 10 minutes. He then takes it back out and installs it back into the computer.
I have seen this work in the past, I have also seen this work for video cards and other parts from a computer. If this works you will need a 2nd hard drive installed to capture the information, as this will usually only work the 1st time, so you need to be prepared. I keep an external hard drive on my computer for such emergencies.

Posted by:

16 Feb 2014

Hi I've got my son visiting a game site and them the pC crashed and couldn't open it not even in safe mode.
I used Falcon Four CD and tried to acces the HDD to recover/repair or check the HDD bt couldn't open it because it was not visible by the system.
The worse is yet to come I changed it with another HDD and after instaling XP professional when instaling Nod 32 it happened again the PC restarted and could not enter it so with Falcon's CD I checked the Hdd and it was OK then suddenly it restarted again and the HDD was not there any more. It happened with the third also. Is it a virus on the main board or what because I don't get it? Can you offer a reasonable explanation. It is a little odd to loose 3 HDD's in a week.

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