How to Recover Data from External Hard Drives

The convenience of external hard drives is undeniable. They allow us to carry terabytes of data everywhere we go, they can be easily shared among many devices, and their installation could hardly be any simpler. Because of their ubiquitous nature, we have come to rely on them so much that we seldom consider just how fragile external hard drives are.

How many people know how to recover files from external hard drives and how many would simply panic, not knowing what to do? If you know how to recover data from external hard drives, you have much better chances to prevent the worst from happening and turn what could be a disastrous situation around.

The goal of this article is to explain common hard drive issues and the different ways how they can be solved with the help of external hard drive recovery software tools.

Before You Perform External Hard Drive Data Recovery

Before you go online and download the first data recovery tool you come across pause for a minute and let us explain some of the most common causes of hard drive failure to help you successfully solve the underlying issue.

By using the wrong hard drive recovery tool, you could make your problem worse and lose any chance to recover your data. But before we get to the most common causes of a hard drive failure, we first need to touch upon how hard drives work.

How Do Hard Drives Work?

Inside every external hard drive is an assortment of sensitive components that record data as a magnetic pattern formed by groups of magnetized metal grains. These grains cover circular platters that spin at 7,200 rpm, at least on consumer drives. Each platter has its own reading head, which hovers several nanometers above the platter’s surface, writing converting strings of bits onto the disk using electrical current fed through an electromagnet.

Attached to the bottom of the hard drive is a circuit board, which houses the main controller chip as well as many other electronic components that control the operation of the headers. One of these electronic components is a small memory chip that stores the firmware, which is permanent software that provides the necessary instructions for how the hard drive communicates with the other computer hardware.

Diagnosing Common Types of Hard Drive Failure

Hard drive failures can be categorized into two broad categories: software failures and hardware failures.

#1 Software Data Loss

Software data loss is most commonly caused by badly written software applications or unfortunate user errors. Every day, important files are lost because someone decided to empty the Recycle Bin without first checking whether it doesn’t contain something important.

The one thing that most cases of software data loss have in common is recoverability. There are many capable data recovery tools that you can use to recover external hard drives after a software data loss without any expert knowledge. In the next chapter, we recommend our top 11 favorite tools for recovering external hard drives.

#2 Hard Drive Isn’t Spinning

This often happens after a sudden voltage spike. Inside the hard drive are special diodes that act as fuses. A voltage spike may cause these diodes to blow, making the hard drive seem as if it were dead and all data were lost. Usually, it’s enough to replace the printed circuit board (PCB), which can be done in a normal environment without opening the hard drive enclosure.

#3 Clicking or Beeping Noises

Clicking sounds are often an indication of serious hard drive damage. They occur when a hard drive is unable to return the rear/write head to its home position. The head may be stuck on a platter, scratching it violently as the disk controller attempts to move it. A scratched platter usually means an irreversible data loss.

A hard drive may make beeping sounds when it’s trying to spin the platters, but it’s unable to do so. This can happen because of something that’s known as stiction. Because the gap between the hard drive heads and platters is so small, they can literally stick to each other. A hard drive recovery service center with a well-equipped, dust-free lab should be able to solve this problem, for a hefty price.

#4 Hard Drive Inaccessible

When your computer recognizes your hard drive, but you’re unable to access the files stored on it or boot into the operating system, it often means that the file system has been damaged. The damage can be extremely localized, perhaps affecting only the boot sector, or it can be widespread. The good news is that data recovery tools such as Disk Drill can easily recover data from inaccessible hard drives and help you spot growing file corruption before it gets out of hand.

#5 Hard Drive Not Detected

When your computer is unable to detect a hard drive which you know is otherwise in a good working order, it could mean that the hard drive is not compatible with your motherboard. This shouldn’t happen when dealing with regular desktop hard drives connected to regular desktop computers, but it can happen when dealing with exotic server equipment or older hardware.

#6 Malware Infection

During the Windows XP era, there were many computer viruses designed to inflict as much damage as possible by deleting the data stored on hard drives. Fortunately, this type of malware, short for malicious software, is much less common today, but malware still remains a huge threat. In recent years, ransomware has emerged as one of the biggest causes of data loss, encrypting important data and demanding a hefty ransom of its decryption.

#7 Data Corruption

Software programmers still make many of the same mistakes as they did several years ago. The same, of course, also applies to computer users. As such, it’s fairly common for files to suddenly become corrupted and, as a result, unreadable. In some cases, corrupted files can be repaired using readily available and easily applicable tools and techniques, but that’s not always the case.

#8 Physical Hard Drive Destruction

Even the latest and greatest hard drives are not immune to physical damage. While modern SSDs are far more reliable than their traditional spinning counterparts because they don’t have any moving parts, it still takes just one blown transistor for a perfectly healthy hard drive to turn into a useless brick. Because DIY repairs of physically damaged hard drives rarely deliver the desired results, it’s best to contact professionals right away and hope for the best.

How to Recover Data from an External Hard Drive

Let’s take a closer look at how to recover files from a hard drive that has suffered one of the common types of hard drive failure described in the previous section of this article. As long as you select the right recovery method, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to reunite with your files.

Option 1: Try Hard Drive Data Recovery Software

Data recovery software is your best bet when it comes to recovering data from logically damaged hard drives. In this article, we list our top 11 favorite HDD recovery tools, and we encourage you to make your own choice. For the purposes of this recovery guide, we are going to focus only on the number one hard drive recovery tool we know: Disk Drill.

Disk Drill runs on Windows and macOS, and the free version lets you preview an unlimited number of lost files. Because Disk Drill has a modern, intuitive user interface, it’s suitable even for inexperienced users whose understanding of data recovery is limited to the information provided in this article.

Here’s what you need to do to recover files from an external hard drive using Disk Drill:

  1. Download and install Disk Drill on your computer. Make sure to install it on a different hard drive than the one you want to recover.
  2. Launch Disk Drill, select your external hard drive, and scan it by clicking the Search for lost data button.
  3. Wait for Disk Drill to finish scanning. Depending on the size and speed of your drive, the process may take some time, so be patient.
  4. With the help of Disk Drill’s search results filters and search feature, analyze the scan results and select all missing files.
  5. Click the Recover button and select a suitable recovery destination for your files.

As you can see, data recovery with Disk Drill is a matter of three simple steps, so you have absolutely nothing to be afraid of, especially considering that Disk Drill can preview all deleted data for free.

Option 2: Hard Drive Data Recovery Service

Unfortunately, not all data loss situations can be addressed at home with DIY data recovery software. In some cases, such as when dealing with physically damaged hard drives, it’s necessary to contact a data recovery service center like SalvageData and let professionals with state-of-the-art equipment and plenty of experience take care of the recovery for you.

Most data recovery centers have a similar workflow:

  1. You initiate a work order.
  2. Pack and ship your media.
  3. Receive an expert estimate.
  4. Approve the price quote.
  5. Wait until your data is recovered and securely delivered to you on a DVD, a flash drive, or an external hard drive.

Contrary to what many people believe, professional data recovery doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. In fact, most legitimate companies charge only for recovered data and offer, so you don’t need to worry about spending hundreds of dollars and achieving nothing at all.

Option 3: Try Manual HDD Recovery Fixes

Especially when dealing with data loss caused by file system corruption, it’s often possible to recover lost data using manual HDD recovery fixes. We’ve described many effective fixes in the past in relation to SD card and Mac hard drive recovery, so we won’t list them all here. Instead, here are just three manual HDD recovery fixes that are most likely to deliver the desired results:

Fix 1: CHKDSK Command

All Windows computers come with a utility called CHKDSK, whose purpose is to verify the file system integrity of a volume and attempt to fix logical file system errors. Even though CHKDSK doesn’t have a graphical user interface, using it is surprisingly simple:

  1. Type “cmd” in the search box on the taskbar and select Run as administrator.
  2. Enter the following command and press Enter: chkdsk X: /f (make sure to replace X with the letter assigned to the HDD you want to fix)
  3. Wait for CHKDSK to finish.

Fix 2: First Aid in Disk Utility

Mac users can’t use CHKDSK to fix corrupted hard drives, but they can use something even better: the First Aid feature in Disk Utility. As its name suggests, the purpose of the First Aid feature is to diagnose and fix storage devices that are not working correctly. Since it has a nice user interface, it’s fairly self-explanatory, but here’s what you need to do in a nutshell:

  1. Go to Finder > Application > Utilities and launch Disk Utility.
  2. Select the hard drive you want to repair from the list on the left and click the First Aid button.
  3. Confirm that you want First Aid to check the partition for errors.

Fix 3: Driver Reinstallation

Even pros sometimes make a mistake and that also applies to the software developers responsible for hard drive drivers. A faulty or corrupted driver can make your HDD unusable or inaccessible, but reinstalling it takes just a few minutes:

  1. Type “device manager” in the search on the taskbar and select the Device Manager option.
  2. Go through the available categories and look for your external HDD. You will most likely find it under Portable Devices.
  3. Right-click the SD card and select Uninstall device.
  4. Restart your computer.
  5. Wait for the right driver to be automatically reinstalled.