If your hard drive crashes or quits working to the point that you can't get into the operating system to access your data, here's a few tips to help you recover your files.
Hard Drive Failure
Hard drives can and will fail. It’s a simple fact, and anyone who has worked with computers long enough will know that hard drives tend to die at the most inopportune times. In this article, I will discuss some recovery techniques that may help you get back some of your data in the event of a hard drive crash or other system failure.
What Caused it to Fail?
The first thing you need to do is try and determine what caused your hard drive to fail. Was it a mechanical problem or just a software issue?
If it was a mechanical problem, then your chances of file recovery are greatly reduced. Mechanical problems range from worn-out drive motors to misaligned read/write heads, physical damage, and more. The internal components of hard drives are extremely sensitive and fragile, so if something is physically wrong with those components then you may not be able to get that data back.
Your chances of data recovery are greatly increased if the problem is software-related. You may even be able to get the system running enough for you to use the tools built right into Windows to fix the problem. If it’s just a matter of file corruption that is keeping your system from running, it is usually Windows system files and not your personal data that gets corrupted.
Use a Spare PC
I have always told people that it's a good idea to keep a second PC on hand in case you have problems, because you often need one to help diagnose the other. If you don't have a spare PC, check with friends or family to see if they have one you could use. If you take your old hard drive to a store like Best Buy, you're going to get charged out the wahoo to have some kid look at it.
The best way to recover data from a hard drive is to put it in a spare PC and use it as a secondary drive. This greatly helps because it takes a lot of work off the drive so that it doesn’t have to load the operating system and other programs. By using it as a secondary drive, it may help buy you more time to get your data back before it fails completely. It could be that what was causing your hard drive to fail won’t be an issue while the drive is used as a spare in an already working system.
If you want to know more about how to add a second drive, also called a slave drive, to a computer, check out this great article from a fellow Bright Hub writer.
How to Recover Your Data from a Mechanical Failure
If your hard drive has failed due to mechanical problems, I sure hope you’ve been backing up your data. I’ve seen hard drives with mechanical problems where they only work for 3 or 4 minutes before the motors would stop responding. You can try pulling as much data off the drive as possible, or even try pulling a file at a time. It all depends on the extent of the damage. Sometimes, you’ll just have to accept that your files can’t be recovered.
There are very expensive services which cost thousands of dollars where they take your old hard drive into a sealed lab and recover data. I’ve never used such a service and don’t know much about them, other than that they cost a lot of money. You may consider this an option depending on how crucial your data recovery needs may be.
How to Recover Your Data from a Software Failure
If you’re lucky, you can hook up your hard drive in another PC and be able to read all your data files just fine. In this event, you should use run a full Defrag and CHKDSK on the hard drive and it may be able to fix whatever was preventing your machine from working. This is really the best method for testing out any kind of hard drive issues because no system files will be loaded from the spare drive.
Even if the hard drive won’t boot into the operating system, you can often use file recovery software to get back lost or damage files. These type utilities can work around bad sectors and often restore files that might otherwise give errors doing a basic copy and paste from within Windows. Furthermore, some of these type utilities will also ‘undelete’ previously removed files. For a look into three of the top-rated file recovery utilities, click here. The most popular file recovery utility I’ve found is called DiskDigger, and it’s totally free for personal use.
With your old hard drive in another PC, you won’t be able to just log in and click on My Documents and expect all your files to be there. Instead, you will have to manually locate them or run a search.
In Windows XP, remember that your data such as the My Documents folder is typically found under \Documents and Settings under the username’s folder. In Windows Vista, your user data is stored under \Users. Other program data depends on the software you are using. You may even have to go so far as to install that software on the spare PC just to see what the default folder name and location is for where it saves your data.
Once you locate your files, I highly recommend that you take the time to back everything up to a CD or DVD, or even a USB flash drive. Since you will likely be in the position of having to reconfigure your PC or even buy a new one, it would be the perfect time to make a backup of all your data. In the future, you should make a habit of regularly backing up your personal data.