How to Recover Your Data from a Dead Hard Drive
What you can do yourself, and when to call professionals.
Jan 17, 2019
You’re probably staring at a file icon with a question mark, or Windows is telling you it detected “a hard disk problem.” Maybe you accidentally deleted something you now need. And you didn’t back up your files to a hard drive, or a Cloud storage system, did you? We’ve been there.
For any issue like this, first, stop whatever you’re doing on the device on which you lost the file, and read this on a phone or another computer. This may increase the chances for recovery.
For Serious Hard Drive Failure
If your Mac is starting up and you see a file icon with a question mark, or Windows gives you a pop-up that says “Windows detected a hard disk problem,” you’re looking at a potential drive failure. If you’re dealing with data that you absolutely cannot afford to lose, seek professional help like at an Apple Store or professional data recovery service. If you just want to try to get back a few specific files, or get the device running again, here’s what to do.
The first step is to remove the hard drive from the device if possible, or otherwise stop using it. Any actions, even installing a recovery app, risks overwriting the files you need. The good news is that when you delete a file on a drive, all that data doesn’t immediately go away. The computer mostly erases the information that points the computer to that chunk of data, which will remain until it gets written over. This works differently depending on whether you have a magnetic spinning disk drive or a solid-state drive (SSD), which you’ll find on most modern computers. But either way, recovery is possible.
To make sure it’s the hard drive and not one of the many other things that can go wrong when starting up a computer, if possible, remove the hard drive and plug it into another computer. Lots of PCs make this easy, but for any device, the process will be easier with a tool kit and universal drive adapter. Once you’ve removed the drive, plug it into a working computer. If you can see that drive’s files on the working computer, pull out anything essential and make copies. Yes, this is a big ask, especially for anyone who hasn’t ripped apart a computer before. But this will at least determine if the drive is the part that failed.
A Universal Drive Adapter will help you recover data from most hard drives.
It’s a bit simpler on a Mac, using an intimidating-sounding tool called target disk mode. You connect a nonworking Mac to a working Mac and treat that nonworking Mac like a big USB drive. This can be useful if, for example, you need to get files off a computer with a screen or keyboard that doesn’t work. Connect the two computers with a USB-C, Thunderbolt 2, or Firewire cable. On the broken Mac, turn it on, and press and hold the T key while it starts up. Or, if the Mac is already turned on, go to Apple (on the upper left of the screen) -> System Preferences -> Startup Disk -> Target Disk Mode.
If this works, use the working Mac to make copies of the files you need most (photos, documents, etc.). Once you’ve done that, you’re free to wipe or repair the disk, hopefully getting that original laptop working again. To do this, restart the computer and hold down CMD+R until you see the Apple logo or a spinning globe. From MacOS Utilities, select Disk Utility. Pick the topmost drive on the left, and select First Aid or Repair. If it works, this will solve lots of issues, including a wonky drive.
If the computer with these files is working, but you’ve deleted something you need again, start by making sure that document or photo isn’t lurking somewhere. Seriously. We’ve done this before. Check the Recycle Bin/Trash, and do a system-wide search. For both Macs and PCs, you can open any folder and go into the Search field on the upper right. (This also applies to Cloud storage services like Google Drive and Dropbox, which make it difficult to truly delete a file.)
Still don’t see it? Remove the drive from the computer as instructed above, and attach it to a working computer. Don’t touch it until you’re ready with recovery software. (Or, if you’re impatient, and the computer still works, you can just work from that device, though we don’t recommend it.)
Most recovery apps start as a free trial, then will charge you if a scan indicates that it can likely recover your files. Sounds like extortion, but the idea is that we’d be even more mad if we paid for the service, then it told us that it couldn’t work. EaseUS and Recuva both come recommended, and we’ve tested and can vouch for Prosoft Data Rescue and Ontrack (see below). These apps scan the affected drives (or USB sticks, whatever) and let you search for whatever you’re missing by file type, name, etc. They’ll also show you recently deleted files, and tell you how recoverable they are. The process is as intuitive as any modern app, though the results are never guaranteed.
What About Phones?
Most modern phones have automatic Cloud backups, so data recovery isn’t always necessary.
Smartphones manage data differently from computers. Phones tend to keep files like photos or PDFs mostly contained within one app. And most of those apps are, by default, linked to a Cloud backup. For example, your iPhone’s photos are on the device, yes. But they’re also linked to the Photos app, which is linked to your Apple ID and regularly copied to Apple servers. If your iPhone gets run over by a car, assuming you’ve had it charging and connected to decent Wi-Fi somewhat recently, those images are safe. This generally means that if you bust your phone, your only issue is replacing it. However, if you have data on the device that exists only on that device and you need to recover it, you’re looking at hiring a pro, which brings us to…
The Nuclear Option
If you’ve lost extremely sensitive files and can’t risk doing any of this yourself, power down the computer, walk away from it, and get ready to shell out for a professional service. (For example, if you can hear the drive clicking, this indicates mechanical failure, which will mean serious skilled work.) These services can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, and they can’t guarantee results if the device is too far gone.
Still, if you’re desperate, this can be worth it. Two easy recommendations are Drive Savers and Ontrack. You send your device or drive to their clean rooms for assessment, then they’ll call you with a quote before getting to work. Both are verified by major companies like Apple and Microsoft, so this isn’t like getting your phone repaired at the mall kiosk. These people are serious.
Tested: Data Recovery App
So what’s it like to actually go through this? A Popular Mechanics colleague had a MacBook with a 120 GB MacBook drive that had spontaneously given up the ghost. We removed the drive from her laptop, then used a USB drive adapter to hook it up to a desktop computer for diagnosis. It didn’t have any sounds that indicated a truly dead drive, so we downloaded the free demo from Prosoft Engineering to check what might be salvageable.
Prosoft’s recovery software can be used by anyone, but the items recovered will require renaming.
Once the assessment indicated we’d get good results, we used Prosoft’s Data Rescue 5 software ($99). Once we made sure our recovery drive on the working computer had enough space for the contents of the failed drive, we waited. And waited. A full scan and recovery of our 120 GB drive took four days.
It worked, but any disk recovery is like getting back a stolen car. You’ll be happy to have your files back, but they won’t be the same as you left them. These programs are designed to essentially do a data dump from your problem drive to a new drive. They organize files by type (JPEG images will be in one folder, Word documents in another other folder), and your songs and photos will be mixed with random sound and image files from your computer’s system folder. Additionally, deleted files lack basic organizational information, so file names will show up as alphanumeric sequences, such as IMG1039.jpg or MOV2010.mov. Once you do recover, be prepared to settle in for a long weekend of sifting through and renaming your files. Still, we got them back.
Tested: A Pro Service
How much damage can your data take before it’s gone forever? We wanted to find out what could be salvaged from a computer that had been through a natural disaster, so we simulated an earthquake/flood doomsday scenario. First, we took two laptop drives, loaded them with video and music files, then beat the heck out of them until we heard the signature clicking of mechanical hard drive failure. Then, we submerged one of the drives in custom-made storm-surge floodwaters (salt water, construction debris, oil). We let it soak for four days.
If you have a disk drive that’s clicking or has other mechanical failure, you’ll need a professional’s help.
We sent both hard drives to Ontrack Data Recovery, which serves both corporations and civilians like us. Ontrack’s Jeff Pederson analyzed the drives in the company’s clean room and found that the read/write heads in our dry drive were bent from our abuse, and that we had scratched the platters. Our flooded drive was wet, but the platters were undamaged. Pederson replaced the heads and performed a recovery.
The results? Pederson was able to save 99 percent of the data from the dry drive, and 100 percent from the flooded drive. Seriously. The cost for each drive: $1,200, so $2,400 total.
That might not be worth it to everyone, but the options are there. If all this sounds like a huge headache, grab an external hard drive and turn on Time Machine (Mac) or File History (PC) to create backups. Duplicate your important stuff on Cloud storage like Google Photos or Apple Files. That way, if something goes wrong, your only pain is replacing the device itself.