Hard Drive Data Recovery: How to Recover Data From a Dead Hard Drive

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Hard drives, or hard disk drives (HDD), are one of the many options available for storing data. They offer benefits such as a large storage capacity, portability, high performance, and provides easy access to your data. 

Unfortunately, there are multiple different ways a hard drive may malfunction or become “dead”. In this article, we provide an overview of hard drives and their possible failures, data recovery solutions, hard drive data recovery steps, and more. 

Understanding hard drives

Let’s start by defining what a hard drive is. 

A hard drive is a fundamental component of modern computing systems that stores and retrieves digital data. It operates on electromagnetic principles and consists of several major components, each with failure conditions and possible recovery options.

The heart of the hard drive is the platter – a circular, rotating metal disk coated with a magnetic material. Data is stored on this platter in the form of magnetic patterns by an actuator arm equipped with read/write heads, hovering just above the surface of the spinning platter but never touching. When data is read or written, the arm positions the heads accurately to read or modify the magnetic patterns. The drive’s spindle motor spins the platters at high speeds, typically between 5,000 and 15,000 RPM.

The logic board acts as the brain of the hard drive, controlling data flow between the computer and storage medium, converting digital signals into magnetic patterns and vice versa. Through this intricate process, hard drives efficiently store and retrieve vast amounts of data.

Recap of general data recovery steps:

Recovering data from a dead hard drive is a process that must be approached methodically, so you avoid damaging the data or losing it completely. The standard steps for data recovery are:

  1. Determine the type of failure (physical, electrical, or logical) to choose the appropriate recovery method.
  2. Assess the severity of the failure and consider seeking professional help if unsure.
  3. Create a safe work environment with the necessary tools and storage capacity.
  4. Use specialized recovery software like TestDisk, PhotoRec, Recuva, or others based on the data loss scenario.

Types of hard drive failure

Physical failure

  • Spindle motor failure: If your drive is powering up but not spinning, your spindle motor might be burned out. Consider replacing it with a motor from a working drive of the same model.
  • Physical impact, drop damage, or other misalignment: Your disk likely makes clicks, grinding noises, or emits a screeching when plugged in. Chances are the platters and read/write heads are grinding on each other. It’s just making the damage worse. Don’t plug it in, and get in touch with a professional.

Electrical failure

  • Is the disk not powering up or being detected when plugged in? Sometimes a hard drive’s circuit board experiences component failure or is otherwise damaged electrically, so the drive fails to turn on. Try replacing the hard drive’s logic (circuit) board with an identical one from another drive of the same model.

Logical failure

Software failures fall into three categories: Operating system corruption, application errors, and user-related issues.

  • Operating system corruption: Operating system corruption can happen when something changes the OS files, such as a corrupted update file, encroaching physical hard drive failure, your system overheating, or a malware attack. Certain viruses overwrite your hard drive’s boot sector, causing a disk to fail to boot but leaving most of the data recoverable.
  • Application errors: Programming bugs or other application errors can lead to bad data being written to disk. System memory (RAM/swap) can also get overwritten that way, compromising subsequent data writes to disk. Keep backups and test them, doubly so if you are rolling out untested or potentially buggy software in production environments.
  • User-related issues: Most data loss happens at the endpoints before they are backed up, which means that user devices with people’s work are being damaged, infected, or stolen. Accidental user deletions are a large part of disk recovery work. If it’s not too new to be in the backups yet, then recovery tools are your friend (See Table 1 below). 

Data loss due to virus activity in user-installed software is not a software issue but a user issue. From a treatment perspective, however, this is a debatable distinction.

Software data loss and recovery software for hard drives

Common causes of data loss due to software issues include the following:

  • Partition damage: Malicious agents, user error, or other factors can lead to damage in your disk’s partition table or the partition headers themselves, which can make the partition appear to be lost. Malware data loss ranges from ransomware attacks that encrypt your data to extort you for the decryption key to viruses intent on wiping your hard drives clean.
  • Software corruption: This can happen when a software application crashes or malfunctions or there is a software installation or update problem.

Overview of hard drive data recovery software

Table 1: Recovery software feature comparison

Solution Operating System File Systems Recovery Capabilities Recovery Scenarios
TestDisk Windows, macOS, Linux FAT, exFAT, NTFS, EXT2/3/4, XFS Deleted files, lost partitions, formatted disks File system repair, partition recovery
PhotoRec Windows, macOS, Linux Various Deleted files, lost partitions, formatted disks Data carving, file system agnostic
Recuva Windows FAT, NTFS, exFAT Deleted files, lost partitions, formatted disks User-friendly interface, good for beginners
DiskDrill Windows, macOS Various Deleted files, lost partitions, formatted disks Powerful scanning engine, good for recovering lost data
Pandora Recovery Windows FAT, NTFS, exFAT Deleted files, lost partitions, formatted disks Excellent recovery rates, good for recovering damaged or deleted data
Stellar Data Recovery Windows, macOS Various Deleted files, lost partitions, formatted disks Wide range of supported file systems, good for recovering data from all types of devices
EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Windows, macOS Various Deleted files, lost partitions, formatted disks Wide range of supported file systems, good for recovering data from all types of devices
Undelete Plus Windows FAT, NTFS Deleted files Simple to use, good for recovering deleted files
FreeRecover Windows NTFS Deleted files Free and open source, good for recovering deleted files
ddrescue Linux Various Damaged disks, bad sectors Damaged disks recovery
Scalpel Linux Various Deleted files, raw filesystems File carving tool, good for recovering deleted files from damaged disks
ext4magic Linux EXT3/EXT4 Deleted files, lost partitions File system repair tool, good for recovering data from damaged EXT3/EXT4 file systems
Btrfs / ZFS Linux Btrfs / ZFS Deleted files, lost partitions Data recovery capabilities built into the file system
EXT4 / ReiserFS Linux EXT4 / reiserfs Deleted files, lost partitions Data recovery capabilities built into the file system
MondoRescue Linux, Windows Various Deleted files, lost partitions, formatted disks Disaster recovery tool, can back up and restore entire systems

On open-source vs commercial data recovery software

The choice between open-source and commercial options ultimately depends on the specific requirements and preferences of the user. There are a few reasons why some may prefer open-source data recovery software in comparison to commercial data recovery software:

  • Cost: The most apparent advantage is that open-source software is typically free to use, whereas commercial data recovery solutions often come with a price tag. Free software makes open-source options more accessible for budget-constrained users.
  • Transparency: Open-source software’s source code is openly available, allowing users to inspect and verify its functionality. This transparency builds trust and ensures the software includes no hidden malicious components.
  • Community support: Open-source projects often have active and dedicated communities of developers and users who collaborate, provide feedback, and contribute to improving the software. This community support can lead to faster bug fixes, updates, and improvements.
  • Flexibility and customization: Open-source software allows users to modify and customize the code to suit their specific needs or to add features that might be lacking in the original software.
  • Longevity: Commercial software products may be discontinued or have limited support over time, while open-source projects tend to have a higher chance of continued development and maintenance due to active community involvement.
  • Cross-platform support: Many open-source data recovery tools are designed to work across various operating systems, providing more versatility for users with different setups.

Additional recovery fixes

Addressing data corruption issues

Data corruption can manifest as errors, crashes, or files becoming inaccessible. Unusual behavior, frequent system freezes, or unexpected errors during file access may indicate data corruption.

If data loss is caused by driver-related software issues, reinstalling or updating drivers can often resolve the problem and recover the data. Firmware updates can also sometimes resolve driver issues.

Open-source data recovery software like TestDisk or PhotoRec can help repair corrupted files by identifying and reconstructing damaged file structures. They attempt to salvage data by analyzing and recovering intact portions of corrupted files. Mac users can also use the built-in Disk Utility’s First Aid feature to check and repair disk permissions and file system errors. It can help resolve common issues and recover data from minor file system problems.

Ransomware and malware attacks can encrypt or lock data, demanding ransom for its release. Open-source ransomware recovery tools like the No More Ransom project provide decryption keys for specific ransomware strains, allowing affected users to recover their data without paying the ransom.

Hard drive data recovery services

Professional data recovery services specialize in retrieving lost, corrupted, or inaccessible data from malfunctioning hard drives, solid-state drives, or other storage media. These services employ advanced techniques, specialized tools, and cleanroom environments to recover data safely and efficiently.

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You should seek professional data recovery assistance when standard DIY or open source recovery methods are ineffective or risk worsening the situation. Examples include severe physical damage, unusual noises emanating from the drive, failure to detect the drive, or if valuable data is at stake. Attempting DIY recovery without expertise could also potentially lead to permanent data loss.

When selecting a data recovery service, consider factors such as the provider’s reputation, experience, success rate, security measures, confidentiality guarantees, pricing structures, and the extent of their customer support. A reliable service provider will typically offer free evaluations, transparent communication throughout the process, and ‘No Data, No Charge’ policies to ensure you only pay if data is successfully recovered.

Find the best data recovery option for your hard drive

Data protection and backup strategies are essential to prevent data loss. If, however, find you have a dead hard drive and need access to the data on the drive, consider using an open-source data recovery solution. This kind of data recovery software offers cost-effectiveness, transparency, and community support, making it a preferred choice for many users. 

If you find that you’re unable to recover data from a damaged or dead hard drive, or you don’t want to risk the possibility of losing the data permanently, seek help from an expert. It is crucial to prioritize preventive measures, regularly test backups, and not hesitate to seek professional assistance when necessary to safeguard valuable data.

Next Steps

Protecting and securing important data is a crucial component in every organization. With NinjaOne Backup, you can protect your critical business data with flexible solutions designed for your modern workforce.

Learn more about NinjaOne Backup, check out a live tour, download our Backup Buyer’s Guide, or start your free trial of the NinjaOne platform.

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