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Signs of Life in Comatose External Hard Drives

written by: R.L. Flowers•edited by: Simon Hill•updated: 5/20/2011

Is your external hard drive giving you fits? We'll explore some options for getting your data back safe and sound.

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    External Hard Drives: Not a Panacea

    External hard drives are wonderful devices. They can store extra files you cannot fit onto your computer (movies, music, pictures, etc.) and they can act as a backup for your computer in case your primary hard disk fails. For the sake of this discussion, let's say that you have an external hard drive that contains important data that is not backed up. Unfortunately, these external drives are no more reliable (possibly even less reliable, due to their portability) than their internally mounted brethren. Hard drives always fail, it's just a matter of time. They are mechanical devices that invariably wear out just like the engine in your car. The aim of this article is to help you with external hard drive repair and diagnostics.

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    Is it really dead?

    The old saying "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" goes a long way in keeping your data safe. Remember, it's not a backup unless you have two identical copies each stored in different locations. Sometimes however that is not always the way it goes. When you have an external drive failure and you need the data from it, there are options. Don't lose hope! Failure of your external drive doesn't mean it's completely dead. Let us explore the different ways that you may be able to get your data back.

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    Breathing life into the lifeless

    We'll now explore some external hard drive repair and diagnostic steps. You'll need the external drive, the power supply, and the USB cable that connects it to your computer. Unplug the USB from both the computer and the external drive. Also unplug the power adapter from the wall or surge protector. If your drive has no power adapter, then it is USB powered. That's OK, all the following steps apply. If you have a tech savvy friend, it may be worth your while to have them with you if you feel unsure how to go about this.

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    External hard drive repair and diagnostic steps

    1) For the first test, you'll need to be in a relatively quiet area. If your environment is noisy, a bathroom with an outlet in it might suffice. Making sure that the power switch is on, plug the power supply into the wall and then into the external drive. Listen to the drive with it near your ear. Do you hear the whining of the drive spinning up? If you aren't sure, have somebody else listen.

    A - Does the drive spin up? Great! Proceed to step 3.

    B - Does it not spin up? Double check that the power switch (if there is one) is in the proper position (toggle it if you're not sure) and that the power outlet works. Still not spinning up? Proceed to step 2.

    2) The most likely reason that your drive does not spin up is that the enclosure for the hard drive has failed, or the power supply for it has failed. This is good news! A new enclosure should fix it. That will be covered in step 4.

    3) Listen more carefully for the next two steps

    A - Does the hard drive make a few short clicks after it starts up, and then quiet down? That is good. That means the hard drive is starting up properly. Turn off (or unplug power from) the drive. Now, plug in the USB cable (which is not plugged into the computer, remember) and power it back up. Does it still spin up like before? If not, try a new USB cable. If it does, then try plugging it into a different computer. Perhaps there is a problem with your computer causing it to not communicate with the drive. If it still doesn't work, proceed to step 4.

    B - Does the hard drive make loud, harsh double clicks every few seconds? If so, I have bad news. The drive has failed, and most likely taken all the data with it. If it has the 'click of death', consult with a local data recovery company. It might be salvagable if you have the funds. It can get quite expensive. If it does not have the 'click of death' as described, then it's probably an enclosure failure, which takes us to step 4.

    4) Replace the enclosure of the drive. Proceed with extreme caution. Errors made in replacing the enclosure may cause data loss! You can buy external drive enclosures at your local computer store. Take your old drive with you so that they can determine which enclosure will suit you best. Online retailers also sell them, usually at a lower cost. You'll need to remove the hard drive from the old enclosure and install it in the new one. There are various tutorials online. A Google search for "external drive replace enclosure" (without the quotes) should suffice to get you going in the right direction.

    If you aren't comfortable with the troubleshooting, or with the enclosure replacement, then by all means take it to a pro. They should be able to determine the cause and the solution rather quickly.

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    In Conclusion

    Hopefully you're now enlightened on external hard drive repair and diagnostics in the event that your hard drive cannot be accessed via your computer. If not, don't worry! This isn't everybody's cup of tea.

    Remember, even though external backup drives are often sold as 'backup' drives, simply moving your data to the external drive is not enough. There must be a copy both on the computer and the external drive.

    I hope you've found this article helpful. Happy computing!

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