How to Recover Data From a Broken External Hard Drive

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recover data from broken external hard drive

How difficult is it to recover data from a broken external hard drive?
What should it cost and what are the odds?

With the right tools, it is not particularly difficult to recover data from a broken external hard drive. Using data recovery software provides the best chance of getting your lost files and folders back, and can be accomplished for under $100. This is substantially less than you would expect to spend if you opted to use a professional data recovery service. It also eliminates the need to send the disk out and expose its contents to unknown personnel.

How to Retrieve Data From a Broken External Hard Drive

Step 1: Learn the Theoretical Background

When we refer to a broken hard drive we are not talking about a device that has been physically damaged. If someone has taken a hammer to your HDD or dropped it from a fourth-story window it will be difficult if not impossible to recover the data. We mean a logically broken drive.

recover data from broken external hard drive

If the file system or partition table experiences damage you may run into a situation where the disk is not recognized by the operating system. You might be faced with an external hard drive that has lost its file system and is now displaying its contents as RAW. This can be caused by several reasons including:

  • Structural damage to the file system;
  • Malware or virus attacks;
  • Partition table corruption;
  • Faulty permissions.

While your first reaction upon seeing a RAW file system may be despair, data recovery software can be used to retrieve data from a broken external hard drive. Here’s how to get your data back using the versatile recovery program Disk Drill.

Step 2: Install Disk Drill

You first need to download and install the version of Disk Drill that supports your operating system. Versions are available for Mac and Windows users. The process is essentially the same for both platforms. After downloading the app, install it as you would any other program on your computer. You may be prompted to provide your administrator’s credentials so the application can make changes when required. Don’t worry. The only changes the program will make is when recovering lost or deleted data, so it’s safe to enter your password.

retrieve data from broken external hard drive

Step 3: Connect Your External Hard Drive to a Computer

Once the program is installed, you need to connect the external hard drive that has crashed, leaving its filesystem in a RAW state. Make sure you insert the connectors properly or your drive will not be detected by the OS. Sometimes, issues can arise with the drive not being recognized due to a faulty connector, USB port, or cable. You may need to try different ports or swap out the cable in order to access the drive from the operating system and Disk Drill.

Step 4: Select the Mode and Scan Your External Hard Drive

After successfully connecting the external drive to the machine, start the program. The drive will appear in Disk Drill’s list of available disks. Select the drive with the RAW filesystem and then follow the appropriate step for your operating system. We suggest that a deep scan will produce the best results for a drive in this condition.

Windows users should click the Search for lost data button to start scanning their drive. This initiates Disk Drill’s impressive scanning algorithms which will essentially repair your drive by recovering its lost data.recover files from broken external hard drive

If you are using the Mac version of the tool, the same process is performed by clicking the Recover button. In both cases, you can select the type of scan you want to run or let the program run them all in the optimal order.recover data from broken external hard drive via disk drill

Step 5: Recover Your Data

Disk Drill recovers files from a broken external hard drive as it performs its scan. It provides users the ability to preview the files before enacting the recovery. Again there are some differences in the way the tool works on the opposing operating systems.

Windows users can preview the recoverable files by selecting folders designated for specific file types such as pictures or documents. Once the files are selected, click the Recover button to perform the recovery. You will be prompted for a safe location to store the data. Don’t use the same portable device that experienced data loss to prevent further file corruption. You can mount the recovered data as a virtual disk for a more streamlined recovery experience.retrieve data from broken external hard drive with disk drill

Mac users can also preview the data that Disk Drill can recover and select the files to be recovered. They should also choose a safe location at which to store the data before starting the recovery. Clicking the Recover button starts recovering the selected files to their new location.recover files from broken external hard drive by disk drill

Wrapping Up

Using the steps previously discussed, you should be able to recover data from a damaged external hard drive without formatting it. Here’s a quick overview of the process.

To recover data from a broken external hard drive:

  1. Download and install Disk Drill.
  2. Connect the failed external drive and launch the app.
  3. Start scanning your drive for lost data.
  4. Preview the files that the tool can recover.
  5. Select those you want to recover and a safe location to store them.
  6. Complete the recovery process.

Reasons Why the External Hard Drive Gets Damaged

External drives can become damaged for several reasons. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Human error is the number one cause of data loss on all types of storage media. Inadvertently deleting or formatting data can happen with a single misplaced click. Ignoring signs that a device is starting to experience problems such as degraded performance or corrupted files can lead to a complete failure resulting in a RAW filesystem.
  • Infection with viruses and malware can cause all kinds of problems with your storage devices and computer in general. Most malware either want to steal information or render it useless to the user by destroying it.
  • Exposure to extremes of heat or moisture can also damage your hard drive. Over time, wear and tear can also contribute to data loss by harming the physical components of the drive.

Helpful Tips to Keep Your External Hard Drive Safe

Once you are aware of the reasons your drive can become damaged, it is easier to protect it. Here are some quick tips to keep the data on an external hard drive safe.

  • Take a second look before performing any file deletions or disk formatting procedures. The slight delay will pay big benefits if you realize you were about to accidentally blow away some important data.
  • Avoid connecting your external drive to any computers that you have not verified as being safe. Picking up a stray virus or malware infection is very easily done when attaching your drive to strange computers.
  • Keep your drive dry and out of extreme heat or direct sunlight. Another factor to consider is that portable drives are easily stolen, so take the required steps to keep it safe.

Did You Know?

Both traditional hard drives (HDDs) and solid-state drives (SSDs) will eventually experience problems when used for an extensive amount of time. In the case of HDDs, the damage is often caused by the physical components such as read/write heads wearing out or becoming misaligned. The flash memory cells in an SSD can only be written to and erased a limited number of times before potential data corruption occurs. You need to maintain viable backup copies of your important data and pay attention to performance degradation that may indicate more serious issues.

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Jeff Cochin is a data management and recovery professional, who has been with Pandorarecovery for nine years and has always been an essential part of the team. Jeff also works as a technical writer at Macgasm, being a first hand in testing, trying and writing about big and small tech software.
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This article has been approved by Brett Johnson, Data Recovery Engineer at ACE Data Recovery. Brett has a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Systems and Network, 12 years of experience.