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How to Repair a Dead Hard Disk Drive to Recover Data

They say your life flashes before your eyes before you (think you) die. When I realized my hard drive was failing, it was a little like that. All I could think of were the hundreds of photos I didn’t have a backup of. I was determined to bring them back and I succeeded; sort of.

If your hard disk drive has failed, this guide will help you with the repair and data recovery. If you’re looking for help with a failed solid state drive

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, it’s best to turn to an expert right away.

My Dead Hard Drive Story

Several years ago, I experienced a hard drive failure. My laptop acted strangely. When the problems persisted after a reboot, I knew it was more than an overstretched RAM. I immediately started to back up recent files. About half an hour later, the hard drive failed audibly and the laptop wouldn’t boot anymore.

I had backups, but not of everything. Just weeks earlier my backup drive had reached capacity. To back up important work files, I had decided to delete my personal photos. Ironically, I had already purchased a new external drive, but I had not taken the time to create a full backup. Now my photos were lost and I was devastated.

Over the next couple of weeks, I researched ways to recover the data and considered doing everything under the sun—and did most of it—to revive the old hard drive. This article is the result of that effort.

External Hard Drive? Check the Enclosure and Cables

When your external hard drive fails, it can do so for all the same reasons an internal drive can fail. Sometimes, however, it’s not the drive that stops working, but a connection within the enclosure! And in that case, the drive is easy to revive.

Before you open up any hardware, be sure to discharge your body’s static electricity, i.e. ground yourself. Remove the hard drive from its casing and use an IDE/SATA data cable and power connector to install the drive internally on your desktop computer. Alternatively, you can get an IDE/SATA to USB adapter or a new USB enclosure, so you can hook the drive up externally via USB.

SATA and IDE connector cabels.
Image Credit: ivonnewierink/DepositPhotos

The image above shows a SATA connector (front) and an IDE connector (back).

Once you re-connected the external drive to your computer, given the enclosure was the culprit, Windows should recognize it and assign a drive letter. The drive should pop up under File Explorer > This PC. You can also check under Disk drives in the Device Manager (press Windows + X to find the option).

If the drive didn’t show up anywhere, you can try to manually find your drive to further narrow down the issue; the process is described further down.

Internal Hard Drive? Check All Cable Connections

Sometimes, it’s not the drive that failed, but the physical connection of cables that connect the drive with the computer’s motherboard. You can only wish that this is your problem! So before you hire someone, make sure the data and power cables are firmly connected on both ends.

SATA Hard Drive

To prevent hazards to your health, it’s essential to turn off the computer and unplug the power cord. As mentioned above, you also need to discharge your body’s static electricity, i.e. ground yourself before you get working on your computer’s internals. Then open up the case and make sure all connections are OK.

Our guide on how to physically install an internal hard drive

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shows which connections to watch out for.

Once you have made sure the connections are OK, boot the computer again. If you have a desktop computer, you can leave the case open, but stay clear of its interior.

Does Your Hard Drive Make Sounds?

As you are trying to get the hard drive to run, listen to the sound it is making. Is it completely dead? Or is it still spinning? What exactly does it sound like? Compare your sound to the list of hard drive sounds provided by Data Cent. This will help you diagnose the type of damage.

Hard Disk Drive Repair
Image Credit: andreyuu/DepositPhotos

The damage can be either internal or external. A clicking sound, for example, suggests the head may be malfunctioning, i.e. internal damage. A completely dead drive, on the other hand, could be due to a faulty printed circuit board (PCB), which would be external damage.

Does Windows Recognize Your Hard Drive?

Sometimes, you can hear your drive spinning, but it never pops up. Or maybe it’s completely dead. To pinpoint the type of damage, try to manually check whether or not your computer recognizes the drive.

You can do this via the BIOS in case it’s the primary hard drive and your computer no longer boots. After you turn on the computer, enter the BIOS by pressing a trigger key, which could be Del, Esc, F2, or F10, depending on the manufacturer.

Within the BIOS, navigate through the available menus to find where it lists which types of drives are connected to the computer. You should find this information under the Advanced menu, but you might also find it indirectly under Boot settings.

BIOS Boot Settings

If you have hooked up the drive to another computer, you don’t need to access the BIOS at all. In Windows, click the key combination Windows + R, which will launch the Run input window.

Type cmd into the field and hit Enter. This will open the Command Prompt. Here type diskpart and hit Enter, to open the respective tool. In the diskpart window, type list volume and hit Enter to show all drives connected to your computer.

Diskpart list volume

If Windows recognized your drive, meaning it appears under diskpart, but doesn’t show up as an accessible drive, chances are Windows only recognizes the PCB, but the drive itself is damaged (internal damage). In other words, if the drive is recognized in any shape or form, the PCB is most likely working and replacing it will not fix the hard drive!

Is the Printed Circuit Board Broken?

Technically, the external PCB is relatively easy to replace. However, we strongly advise against swapping out the PCB yourself. It’s not as simple as finding a matching model.

Unless your hard drive is ancient, the PCB and disk will use a unique microcode to communicate. If you replace a PCB of a drive that requires this microcode to boot, you could permanently damage your data.


Hard Disk Drive with removed Printed Circuit Board
Image Credit: firstblood/DepositPhotos

According to Datarecovery.com, specialists can “copy, rewrite, or repair the micrcode using advanced equipment.”

Witchcraft and Wizardry

When my hard drive failed, the PCB was fine; the drive was still recognized and spinning, but it didn’t show up in Windows, meaning I could not access it, and no software recovery tool could help me, either.

So I put my last hope into some of those obscure tricks that you’ll find floating around the internet, like shaking the drive, hitting it onto a hard surface, exposing it to dry heat in the oven, or sticking it in the freezer overnight. If you have any idea how a hard drive works, then all of these methods should give you the shivers!

Frozen Hard Disk Drive
Image Credit: foxiedelmar/DepositPhotos

Well, I didn’t dare to melt my drive, but my suspicion was that the head was stuck. So I did shake it; to no avail. Since I could follow the reasoning, I also wrapped my drive in an airtight Ziploc back and stuck it in the freezer overnight. The idea is that low temperatures cause metals to shrink and contract.

So if the head was stuck, the cold might get it unstuck. Unfortunately, that didn’t work either. And I probably caused condensation to settle on the hard drive platter, which could have caused a lot more damage. I eventually gave up and stored the drive for a future in which I was hoping to be able to afford professional data recovery.

Backup Strategy Advice

Should you succeed with one of the questionable methods above, note that the fix will be temporary! So be prepared. Know exactly what you want to back up and how. Have the right backup software

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to quickly copy your data and have enough storage space available.

If you want to copy files manually, only copy one set of files at a time! If you make the head jump back and forth between too many files by kicking off multiple copy-and-paste processes, you will slow down the overall backup process and increase the likelihood of a fatal head crash.

Consult a Specialist for Professional Data Recovery

If you can afford professional help or simply cannot afford to wait for a miracle, do consult a specialist. My recommendation is to go with a reputable company.

They should work with professional technicians and tools, be able to open your hard drive in clean rooms or under dust-free conditions, follow industry standards, and have solid credentials, as well as excellent recommendations. After all, you will trust them with your private data.

Kroll Ontrack, one of the most reputable companies in the market, offers a free consultation and cost evaluation.

Before you pick a company, be sure you understand the conditions! Most charge just for looking at the drive and making a recommendation. They will charge extra for actually attempting to recover the data. Some will charge a full recovery fee, even if they failed to recover the data.

Revive Your Drive

Diagnosing and fixing a broken hard drive is serious business. Do take it seriously, but also try to exclude some of the more simple-to-fix culprits before you fork out hundreds of dollars to a specialist. The more you know, the better. How far you go to diagnose and fix your hard drive will depend on how important the data is for you.

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You probably wonder what happened with my hard drive. Well, one fine day, when I was dissolving my apartment, I decided to give it one last chance and then let go of it. More than two years after I had tried everything I dared to get it to work, again and again for weeks, I just plugged it in and it simply worked.

I recovered all my data. The drive actually continued to work for many more years. Call me lucky!

Even if you managed to repair your drive and recovered all your data, I would not trust this hard drive again. Here’s what you can do with your old hard drive

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Image credit: Dead HDD via Flickr

Explore more about: Computer Maintenance, Data Backup, Data Recovery, Hard Drive, Hardware Tips.

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