How to Recover Files From an External Hard Drive Without Formatting

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N. Lankevitch for pandorarecovery
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recover external hard disk without formatting with disk drill

Yes, it is possible to recover files from an external hard drive without formatting it. We are going to take a look at several ways you may be able to repair the disk without the need for a format. Some of these techniques use native tools available on your Windows machine while others require the use of a third-party software application. You should refrain from formatting your disk until you have exhausted all of these other recovery methods.

How to Get Data From an External Hard Drive Without Formatting?

Step 1: Learn More About Hard Drive Corruption

There are several signs that you need to be aware of that indicate your HDD may be corrupt. Ignoring these signals puts your data at risk if the device completely fails. You might want to get your files off the drive before it becomes broken to the point where it cannot be used at all.

Things to watch out for include:

  • Frequent crashes, system freezes, and slow response time.
  • Boot error messages such as “boot device not found” or “boot device missing”.
  • Files suddenly and inexplicably disappearing.
  • Clicking, grinding or beeping noises from the drive.

If you are experiencing these issues, you should strongly consider making a byte-level backup of the drive to protect your data.

Step 2: Try Antivirus Scan

Running an antivirus scan is one of the first things to try when you suspect you are dealing with a corrupted external hard drive. Even if you have antivirus software installed on your computer and feel it is free of infection, you may not have scanned the external drive. You also may have attached the drive to another machine that was infected with a virus or malware. Many of the viruses and malicious software in the wild cause damage to your storage devices.

Follow these general steps to ensure your external drive is not infected:

  1. Attach the external drive to your computer.
    If possible, perform the scan on a secondary computer in case the disk is infected to minimize the damage if the virus somehow spreads.
  2. Perform a full scan with your antivirus tool of the external drive.
  3. Follow the tool’s instructions on removing malicious software if any is found.

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After the malware is removed, try using your drive again. Hopefully, removing the unwanted program will allow you to access your files again.

Step 3: Try CHKDSK Scan

You may be successful in repairing your external drive running the Windows CHKDSK command. The tool scans your disk’s file system and attempts to fix problems caused by corruption or bad sectors.

Here are the steps to follow to give it a try from the command prompt:

  1. Connect the external drive to your machine.
  2. Open a command prompt and run as an Administrator.
  3. Run this command: chkdsk X: /f where X is the external drive’s letter.

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You can also check for bad sectors by running chkdsk X: /r. Try accessing your files after the successful completion of the chkdsk command.

Step 4: Try SFC Scan

SFC stands for System File Checker and is implemented in the Windows sfc.exe program. It is useful to run against hard drives that are showing signs of being damaged or corrupt. After running the program you may be able to access files on a drive that were previously unavailable.

Follow these steps to run an SFC scan using a cmd prompt:

  1. Open a command prompt and run as an administrator.
  2. Run this command: sfc /scannow /offbootdir=c:\ /offwindir=c:\windows (replace c:\ with your drive letter and c:\windows with your Windows install directory).

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When the command completes, try to access the drive again.

Step 5: Try Data Recovery Software

If you have tried the methods listed above and have not been successful in your attempt to recover an external hard disk without formatting, it’s time to give data recovery software a try. This type of software scans the external drive and logically repairs the links that are necessary for the data on the disk to be accessed by the operating system.

A quality data recovery application can successfully recover your files when other methods fail. You need to be careful and not use the drive until after using the recovery tool, as you can accidentally overwrite data before it can be restored.

Wrapping Up

Assuming that you are at the point of trying data recovery software, we recommend Disk Drill for Windows as your best bet.

To recover external hard drive without formatting using Disk Drill, follow these steps:

  1. Download and install Disk Drill for Windows.
  2. Connect the external drive and launch the program.
  3. Choose the external drive from the disk list.
  4. Click the Search for lost data button to scan the drive.recover external hard disk without formatting
  5. Preview the recoverable data and select the files you want to restore.recover files from external hard drive without formatting
  6. Click the Recover button and choose a new location for the restored data.recover external hard disk without formatting by disk drill
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That’s all there is to it! In the space of a few clicks, your data should be accessible again. We recommend making a backup copy of the disk at this point to protect against further damage or corruption. Consider using Disk Drill’s built-in byte-level backup facility to protect your data.

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This comprehensive application lets you recover files from a hard drive with a few simple clicks.

What Causes Hard Drive Corruption

Hard drive corruption can be caused by multiple factors. Here are some of the more common causes of your drive becoming corrupt.

  • Firmware issues can cause file corruption on an external hard drive. Make sure that you always keep your firmware updated with the latest releases from your device’s manufacturer.
  • Hard disk crashes caused by sudden power failures or malfunctioning read/write head tracking can lead to corruption.
  • Damage from viruses or malware can result in file or drive corruption.
  • Accumulating bad sectors that develop through the normal use of the drive may lead to the drive becoming corrupt.

Pro Tip: Back Up Your Data Frequently

The best way to protect data that resides on an external hard drive is to back it up frequently. This recommendation holds true for any storage device that contains files or folders that you consider to be important. A viable backup is your best defense against data loss scenarios that cannot be addressed by other means.

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You can use the native Windows Backup that is included as part of your operating system. There are also many third-party products available that create local backup copies of your data. Another option is to employ a cloud provider to store your data backups. Disk Drill offers the ability to create byte-level backups of your disks that can be instrumental in future data recovery. Whatever method you decide on employing, start backing ups your valuable data today.

Did You Know?

The average lifespan of a hard drive is variable but is usually less than five years. Many variables need to be considered for a specific drive, including the manufacturer and the amount of use that the drive receives. The mechanical components of a hard drive can only perform so many read and write operations before wearing out. For this reason, solid-state drives (SSDs) are becoming more popular. Their lack of moving parts makes them more durable for data storage.


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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Over 15 years 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.