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How To Recover Files From a Crashed Hard Drive

written by: Tony J Palazzo•edited by: Simon Hill•updated: 7/11/2010

To paraphrase the advice of a former professor, if you only have a single copy of a particular file, that file is 'doomed.' If the unthinkable has occurred, and you find yourself asking, "How do I recover data from a crashed hard drive?" you'll find a workable solution here.

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    Your Hard Drive's Condition

    The severity and nature of the crash will determine your chances of success in recovery. If the crash is a result of data corruption, as in your boot sector or operating system, recovering files on the drive may not require any more than booting up from an alternate device. Several methods are suggested for handling this type of hard drive failure. If the drive is inoperable, there are a few things you can try to get it spinning again. If all else fails, professional data recovery services can help.

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    Signs Of Life

    Hitachi Laptop Hard Drive If you can hear your hard drive spinning when you power up your system, your first course of action should be an attempt to boot from another source. If you have access to another computer, attaching your hard drive, either as a 'slave' through the IDE connection, or through a USB cradle or docking station should provide access to the hard drive's contents once the system boots up.

    When you can access another PC, but connecting your hard drive to it is not an option, you can create a bootable CD using Ultimate Boot CD for Windows or a LiveCD version of Linux, such as Knoppix or PuppyLinux. Additionally, your hard drive manufacturer may offer downloadable utilities that can assist with recovering your data. For example, Seagate offers SeaTools for DOS, which tests ATA or SATA hard drives from a bootable floppy or CD-ROM.

    If certain files are missing when you examine your crashed hard drive, you can try free data recovery software from Easus. This freeware can potentially recover your lost files.

    In some cases, a loose or faulty IDE cable may be the cause of your hard drive crash. Reconnecting or replacing the cable may be all that is necessary, in which case you won't need to consider the issue of how to recover the data.

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    A Sticky Situation

    Stiction: Hard Drive Platter and Heads Your hard drive producing an intermittent clicking sound may be indicative of static friction, or 'stiction' as it's often called. This can occur when the hard drive's read/write heads and platter stick to each other, partly due to their close proximity. In this instance, taking the hard drive out of the case and shaking it back and forth can free the platter from the heads, and your drive may function normally again. If you attempt to do this, you should avoid knocking the drive against a hard surface.

    As another way of freeing the drive from this locked condition, some have reported effective results from freezing the hard drive. Wrapping the drive in a cloth, sealing it in a freezer bag, and letting it sit in a freezer for an hour or longer, may release the heads from the platter once the drive returns to normal temperature. I would only suggest this if the drive has not responded to any other attempts at revival.

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    Worst Case Scenario

    If all else fails, and salvaging your data is critical, professional recovery serivces, such as Disk Doctors, can help. Depending on your situation, it may cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to retrieve your data, but you can be assured that your files are not permanently gone.

    It goes without saying that loss of data from a hard drive crash is something to be prevented. To avoid a crisis situation in the event of future crashes, having a backup strategy will preserve your data, as well as your peace of mind.

    All images used in this article are in the public domain.

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