What To Do When A Hard Drive Fails

When a hard drive crashes, you can lose all your data. Corrupt hard drives happen out of the blue and for seemingly no good reason. If your hard drive fails, what can you do?

One option is to call a hard drive recovery company. If your data is worth a lot of money to you, you can pay a forensic computer company to get the data off your hard drive. Before you write a check though, try a little Do-It-Yourself first.

What is going on inside the hard drive is a bunch of little platters spinning at high speed. When data is accessed or written to the disk, a little head (sort of like on a record player) moves to the right spot and does it's magic. The space between the head and the platter is very very tiny. Freezing the hard drive will shrink the head and the platter ever so slightly, often allowing you to read data.

Here is how I got the data off of a failed hard drive.

  1. Remove the hard drive from the computer.
  2. Place the hard drive inside of a zip top freezer bag. (don't buy a cheap bag.)
  3. Place the wrapped hard drive inside of ANOTHER zip top freezer bag. (yes, you need to do this) (see figure 1 below)
  4. Place the double wrapped hard drive in the coldest part of your freezer.
  5. Leave the hard drive in the freezer for 12 hours at least. You want it good and cold! (see figure 2 below)
  6. Once very chilled, install the hard drive in your computer and start pulling off data. Begin with the most valuable data.
  7. At some point, the hard drive will fail again. When it does, mark the last successfully copied data, pull out the hard drive, double wrap it again and stick it in the Chill Chest for another 12 hours.
  8. You may need to do this a number of times to get all the data you want, or until the hard drive stops working completely.

Double Wrapped Hard Drive

Hard Drive in the Freezer

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3/31/10 7:44 AM # Posted By RogerTheGeek

We have used this effectively to retrieve data from a HD, but it is only good for some disks. Some of them toast a chip on the board. Some of them have some type of mechanical problem that the freezing technique won't recover. It is definitely worth a try if your backups fail. Of course, the best way to recover is from your backup media which we all should keep up, but don't. I would love to hear about types of backup routines for small/home businesses.

3/31/10 5:24 PM # Posted By Joshua Curtiss

Our PC support guys have also used this with success where I work.

3/31/10 11:39 PM # Posted By Brian Meloche

I've heard that works. Have you thought of using SpinRite - grc.com for info. Steve Gibson from Security Now makes that app and I hear good things about it. It can repair a hard drive so that most of it can be recovered, and it can even repair some drives entirely.

4/2/10 2:52 PM # Posted By Elliott Sprehn

I recently had a drive fail in my mac mini. Machine refused to boot into the OS so I tried target disk mode on the mini, but even my macbook refused to mount the drive.

The solution was to work backwards. I booted the mini off the install DVD and then attached the macbook as a target disk. I then used the Terminal to copy the data over to the macbook.

So if at first you don't succeed, do it backwards! Also target disk mode is AWESOME. It's a wonder I haven't seen that from other manufacturers.

8/30/10 1:12 PM # Posted By Lea Harvin

I had a Western Digital external hard drive die on me over a year ago, I kept it hoping one day to revive it. Since this episode I've moved back into the Mac world and chalked the old hard drive as a lost until I came across your blog.

I tried your suggestion and I could tell that the drive was close to working but not quite there yet; as fate would have it one of the computers at church in the video room was on the fritz and would only work if you laid it on it's side; so I said what the heck I laid my external drive on its side left it attached to the laptop and went to eat some lunch. When I got back to my surprise the drive was showing up on the desktop, I copied everything to new hard drive and burned it all to DVD's; three years of data saved.

Thanks Dan!

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