Let’s start by clearly defining when you should not attempt Do It Yourself Data Recovery:

  • Don’t try data recovery when you have important business data on a failing hard drive
  • Don’t try data recovery when you have irreplaceable personal data on a failing hard drive

Why not? Because any attempts you make to retrieve your own data from a failing drive are at least as likely to result in making your data irretrievable by any method at any price from any data recovery professional as they are to actually recover your data. Instead, turn the computer off, find a data recovery professional who you trust and who knows what they are doing, get help. Campus Computer Repair and Hartland Computer Repair are happy to advise you.

So this leaves a couple of cases where it’s safe to try this yourself, you don’t care that much about the data and/or your hard drive is not failing.

Is My Hard Drive Failing?

If your hard drive is clicking, scratching or making any other kind of strange noises other than a nice hum, your hard drive is failing. If your PC or Mac shows you a spinning wheel or spinning beachball often when you try to open up a program, save data or just randomly as you use it, your hard drive is probably failing. If your computer seems very slow combined with either of the two symptoms above, your hard drive is probably failing. If you can connect your drive to a working computer (or it is working well enough to run Windows) CrystalDiskInfo is a good program to determine whether your drive is failing due to bad sectors.

Slave Your Hard Drive For Data Recovery

Generally, you’ll want to get the problem hard drive out of the computer it’s in and attach it to another computer. There are lots of ways to do this, you can open up a desktop computer and connect inside if you have a spare SATA cable and a loose power cable inside the machine. An easier way is to get a hard drive cradle or docking station like this. This will allow you to power and plug the drive into your other, working computer.

External Hard Drives – Get a Hammer

No, not really. A screw driver will be more helpful. Inside your external USB hard drive is (almost always) a standard 3.5 or 2.5 internal hard drive. Using a screwdriver or two and a lot of patience, you’ll need to figure out how to pry the case open to get at your hard drive. You don’t have to be super-careful, you’re probably going to destroy the case anyway so just tear into it, it’s now officially disposable. Once you’ve got the internal drive out, hook it up to your cradle. Note that if your external USB drive is a Western Digital Passport or some other Western Digital unit, you may not be able to do this because, for some reason, Western Digital uses a special controller board on their drives with the USB interface built-in. We like Western Digital drives, but we never buy their external USB units for this exact reason.

Mount Your Hard Drive

With the problem hard drive in the cradle and attached to a Windows computer (we’ll cover Macs separately in another post), turn on the cradle and look for it to mount, showing you all it’s partitions. The largest partition will normally be your Windows/Mac/Data partition (note that if you are mounting a Mac drive on a Windows PC you’ll need special drivers to mount and see the data). If you can see that partition, go find your data and copy it to the working computer. You’ll need to break security on the users folders but Windows conveniently prompts you to do this.

If the drive does not mount, it may be too damaged to mount in Windows but all is not lost. Now you’re getting in pretty deep technically and I’m just going to touch the treetops on how to do this. You’ll need a Linux Live Boot Disc. Ubuntu Linux is a good choice, but there are others. Create your disc and boot from it on the working computer with your problem drive attached. Linux can be a little more forgiving with damaged hard drives and you might find that the drive mounts. Linux doesn’t give a toss about Windows security so if it mounts, just drill down to your user files and copy them across to the hard drive on your working PC. Important Note: Don’t install Linux on your working computer, just boot to it from the disc.

OK, that should be enough information to make you dangerous. Good luck.