How to Recover Data From a Broken External Hard Drive

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Being faced with a broken external hard drive can be an extremely stressful experience. You try to connect the device to your computer and cannot access its data. This can be devastating based on the kind of data stored on the drive. In the case of very valuable or unique information like videos or photos, you need to find a way to get your data back.

This article will discuss the problem of a broken external hard drive and suggest various ways you can attempt to recover its data. Your options may be limited depending on the type and extent of the damage the device has incurred.

Signs of a Damaged or Broken External Hard Drive

There are multiple indications that an external hard drive is experiencing problems or has already become damaged or broken. Here are some of the most common signs your external hard drive is damaged, broken, or experiencing problems that may soon lead to its failure.

  • If the drive is not recognized by your operating system, it is an obvious sign that there is a problem. The next section of the article details steps you can take to try and resolve this specific issue.
  • System or application crashes when accessing the external device is another sign the device is experiencing trouble. This may indicate damaged sectors on the drive that impairs its ability to read and write data.
  • Slow response time when accessing the data on the drive is another indicator that the drive is not working correctly. File corruption can also occur if the drive is physically damaged. Files may inexplicably become unusable due to being stored on a damaged portion of the disk.
  • Strange clicking or grinding noises coming from the drive may be a symptom of physical damage to the disk platters or read/write heads. Don’t ignore these signs of imminent drive failure and make sure to back up the drive as soon as possible.

Getting Your Operating System to Recognize the Drive

One of the signs of a damaged drive that we discussed above was the issue of your operating system not recognizing the drive. Here are some things you can try to resolve this problem and enable your OS to access the external drive.

  • Check the connections – Make sure that the cable is firmly attached to both the external drive and the computer.
  • Connect to a different USB port – If you have multiple USB ports on your machine, try connecting to a different port.
  • Replace the cable – Swap out the cable for a new one if it is available. A faulty cable may be the cause of the problem.
  • Verify the power supply – If the drive is self-powered, make sure it is plugged in and getting power.
  • Update device drivers – Most operating systems automatically keep device drives updated, but if your system does not recognize external devices, it might be worth manually updating them.
  • Try a different computer – If all else fails, you can try connecting the external device to another computer.
Can the Drive’s Data be Saved?

The answer to this question depends on the extent of the damage and if the drive can be accessed by your operating system. If you can see the drive from your operating system, data recovery software may be able to restore the lost files. If not, your options are pretty much limited to using a professional data recovery center to recover the drive.

How to Recover Data from an External Hard Drive with Data Recovery Software

If the external hard drive is recognized and accessible by your operating system, you can attempt to restore its data with data recovery software. There are many recovery applications available and we have tested quite a few of them. We settled on Disk Drill because of its ease of use, reliability, and excellent recovery performance. Use the following steps to use Disk Drill to recover data from your external device.

Download and Install the Software

Download and install the free trial version of Disk Drill on your computer. Use the appropriate version of the application for your operating system. Provide administrator’s credentials during installation when prompted.
install disk drill for mac

Connect and Select Your Hard Drive

Connect the external hard drive to your computer and launch Disk Drill. Select the drive from the disk list displayed in the app’s main window.
select drive for scan

Scan for Deleted Data

Start scanning for deleted files. Next – click on the Search for lost data button. You can select the type of scan you wish to perform, but the best results will be obtained by allowing the application to automatically run all of its algorithms in the optimal order.
start scan

Preview and Select Files for Recovery

Preview the files that can be recovered with Disk Drill. You can filter the recovered data to quickly find the files you want to restore. Scan results can be mounted as a virtual disk to make it easier to recover your lost data. You need to select a safe storage location where the recovered data will be saved. Do not use the affected external hard drive to avoid potentially overwriting the data before it can be restored.
preview files after scan

Perform the Recovery

Click the Recover button after making your selection on both Windows and Mac machines. Allow the process to complete as the application recovers and reconstructs the data from your external hard drive. When recovery is finished, you can access your files again from the operating system and the applications that created them.
recover files

Using a Professional Data Recovery Service

When a damaged external hard drive cannot be accessed by your operating system, using a professional data recovery service is your best option to try to recover its data. Here is what to expect from a data recovery service and an overview of the process required to take advantage of their technical expertise.

Something to keep in mind as you search for a data recovery center is that a reputable center will not be able to give you a recovery estimate until they examine the device. Don’t fall prey to organizations that promise a per gigabyte recovery price as this is an unrealistic method of determining recovery costs. You also want to go with a service that does not charge you if they cannot recover your data. A dependable recovery center only charges for a successful recovery.

You can find data recovery centers with a quick Google search. We recommend that you check out CleverFiles Data Recovery Center. They have a high success rate of 98% and provide a free evaluation and follow a “no data/no charge” policy.

Here are the basic steps to follow when using a data recovery center.

  1. Contact the center to explain your situation and obtain information on how to ship your device to them. Follow their instructions to safely get the device to the service center.
  2. Ship the device to the center where it will receive an initial evaluation by its recovery technicians. This evaluation will determine the recovery costs based on the technical resources and the required amount of time necessary to restore the data.
  3. Accept the estimate and agree to the center’s terms. They will recover as much data as they can from your damaged drive and contact you when the recovery is complete.
  4. Settle your bill with the recovery center and they will ship your data back on an appropriate storage device. Most centers will securely destroy the original drive for you.

The advanced hardware and software tools used by a recovery center can clone the damaged disk and recover its data. Using a recovery center may be the only way to restore the data from a badly damaged external hard drive.

Preventing Data Loss on External Hard Drives

Preventing the loss of your valuable data from a failing or damaged external hard drive requires you to take protective measures with the information stored on the device. Here are the most beneficial actions you can take to preserve your data resources.

  • Create backups of the important data on your external hard drive. Many people use an external drive to store their music, video, or photo libraries which can be impossible to replace if lost. You should never have only one copy of this type of data. Use another external drive or a cloud service to make extra backups of your most important data. One day you may be very happy that you did.
  • In cases where the drive is experiencing problems that indicate it may soon fail, you should take a byte-level backup of the device that can be used for data recovery purposes. Disk Drill provides the capability to create this type of backup which will include deleted data that can be restored with recovery software.
  • Running antivirus software on your computer will minimize the potential that the external drive gets infected with some form of malware or a virus. The ease with which external drives can be shared with other users poses a problem of inadvertent virus infection from another computer. Take care when sharing the device and insist on only connecting to verified virus-free computers.
  • Protect your external hard drive from physical damage. Keep it out of conditions of extreme heat or moisture and take care not to shock or drop the device. The disk platters can become misaligned or warped by environmental factors that render the drive inaccessible.
  • Think twice before performing any activity that may delete data. This includes formatting the drive or a portion on the device. Make sure it’s really what you want to do before entering that command. You might save a lot of time later by taking an extra few seconds before proceeding with your work.


Even if you take the necessary precautions to protect the data on your external drive, it can still become damaged. A broken or damaged drive can be recovered under certain circumstances. The determining factor regarding how it can be restored is whether you can access the drive from your computer. If you can, data recovery software may be able to get your data back. If your system cannot access the device or if the recovery software cannot perform the task, you can try engaging the services of a professional data recovery center.

We hope this information can help you restore the data from your external hard drive. Good luck!

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Jeff Cochin
Jeff Cochin on March 22, 2023
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robert agar
Robert Agar

Robert is a freelance writer and technology enthusiast who graduated from Pace University in New York with a degree in Computer Science in 1992. He is a former computer specialist at IBM. During his long career in IT, he has worked for a number of major service providers in various roles related to data storage, management, and protection.

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Nikolay Lankevich
Nikolay Lankevich

Nikolay Lankevich has over 15 years of strong experience in various fields and platform includes Disaster Recovery, Windows XP/7. System analysis, design, application (Inter/Intranet) development, and testing. Provided technical supports on desktop and laptops on Win-XP and Macintosh for about 2000 employees.