Extracting contents of dead hard drive

I have two hard drives that stopped working and they had vital info on them. I asked the Geek Squad about extracting the data and they said it would probably be very expensive to do so. This was years ago. I’m wondering if technology has improved to the point where it would be easier and less expensive now?


Depends if it died while operating or if it just would not turn on again.

If it died while working its possible the hard drive is deleted already.

If it wouldn’t turn on, it’s possible the power supply is broken, try just buying a new one and see if it powers on.

You can get a usb HD case on Amazon for under $20. Plug into a working computer, and get your files.

How is that going to help if the hard drive is dead?

Do the drives spin? Do you have a way to see if they’re getting power? Are these USB drives?

Are you asking about recovering data from the original two drives? If so, forget it. The drives have been sitting around for years and the iron oxide does lose its orientations over the years.

Wherever you’re getting hard drives from, drop that manufacturer and supplier now.

I routinely boot from 20-year-old hard drives. And I don’t rewrite the data. Most of the bits are the same ones that were written when the OS was formatted 20 years ago.

Yes. There is the tail end of the bathtub curve, but in every HD failure case I’ve seen it was the electromechanics, not the media. The only media failures I’ve seen were caused by electromechanical failure, such as head crash.

This has been a variety of manufacturers.

Sorry, wasn’t clear. Take out the disc and put it into your new HD case. Plug into a working computer and see if it mounts. Even if it is a non-bootable disc, you can still recover files off it.

I think you’re confusing hard rives and tape backup. I have several drives that have been offline 10 -13+ years that boot fine when reattached via an IDE -USB box. Eventually it will happen but the coercivity loss is quite slow and only happens if the drive is unpowered, offline and the data is not being refreshed . A few decades out with a drive that has been idle and you might have an issue.

A couple of tricks are to put the drive in a freezer for about a day. Take it out and immediately plug it into a computer. (You might want to pre-install it into a USB docking station). If it starts working, immediately copy the files off of it before disconnecting the drive or shutting down the computer.

Another ‘technique’ is to give it a couple of hard knocks with your fist. See if it works then.

Yes, the question is - did the electronics die, the motor spinning the disk, the bearings, or the actuator moving the head? (Or did the sealed disk leak?) usually the electronics or the motor die. that means the data is still good. However, the trick is reading it.

If the head “crashed” ie. stopped floating over the disk, then the disk media is all scratched to crap and probably not worth recovering. Ditto if the seals leaked (unlikely without physical trauma) since dust as fine as smoke particles could crash the head based on tolerances for disks made in the last 15 years. Ditto if the bearing failed and produced metal dust.

nowadays, I suppose a fancy lab could replace the electronics or motor and recover the data. I never heard of someone replacing either themselves, I suspect the motor is sealed inside. years ago there were services - still around, I assume - that could attempt to read what they could from failed drives if the head and platters were intact. However, if the electronics were slowly dying, it’s possible they wrote gibberish toward the end. If you want NSA/FBI levels of analysis, that will cost.

The FBI might be able to make use of fragmentary information. Someone with a deep knowledge of file formats might get some usable data off fragments of a spreadsheet file; plain text is the easiest to get useful data from. However, unless a file is recovered intact, it is generally useless to the layman; it’s cheaper generally to recreate the data from other sources. Audio, photos, or video? Again, why bother. (I’ve seen enough corrupt av media - it’ painful to look at) In modern OS’s a heavily used disk would be seriously fragmented, and recovering a decent sized file would involve reading pieces scattered all over the disk.

the freezer trick was famous in the early days of hard disks. If the bearings or something are out of tolerance or motor stiff, it might work. Where it worked around 1990 was disk head alignment. A disk head has a read/write gap. It swings across the platter on an arm. If manufacturing stresses meant that arm slowly changed shape, the head gap would change angle and eventually not read what it had written a while ago. The trick was that cooling would relieve the stress in the arm and change the head angle long enough to retrieve the data.

If the drives power up, but do not show as formatted and mountable in Windows, you can try to use data recovery software such as EaseUS’s Data Recovery Wizard or GetData’s Recover My Files. The free versions of those products don’t let you recover much of anything, they only let you scan the drive to see if they will work before you buy them. Each one is $70. Possibly more than your data is worth, but a lot less than paying someone else to look at it.

I’ve always been able to recover data this way. I’ve been lucky in that all my hard drives have slowly succumbed to data corruption of the magnetic media, rather than a catastrophic failure of the electronics or motor.

I’ve done that by swapping the boards on a broken drive with one from an identical drive. That is what the drive recovery companies do in virtually all cases. They have control boards for thousands of different models of hard drives, and swap them. In theory, some may have clean rooms to actually dismount the drive platters, but that’s mostly for show.

The problem is that some drives had serialized information on the control board for that specific drive. In that case, the chip can be desoldered (a huge pain with surface mount components) and put onto the good board.

If the drive works at all, IOW if it powers up and spins then get one of these docking stations, get the dock working with your current desktop, then plug the defective drive into it and immediately access it on your desktop and copy as many critical files as fast as possible (will help if you know what & where the critical data’s folders are).

Defective hard drives will sometimes work for the first few minutes then slowly become unreadable, so you have to connect it via ‘hot-swapping’ with a docking station in order to do this as fast as possible. If you connect it directly to the motherboard it will be many minutes before boot-up will finish and you’ll be able to access it via a desktop OS (plus the boot-up procedure itself will try to run rudimentary diagnostics on each connected hard drive, so these may fail too). This may all sound intimidating but the docking stations are only about $25 and I actually did this exact procedure on a hard disk and I successfully recovered several hundred megabytes of data from it.

If the drive doesn’t even power up or spin, well, your options are severely limited. Opening a hard drive case is not for the faint of heart. Just screwing the case back together requires each and every screw to all be tightened to an exact torque spec or it won’t work. Sending the drive out will be expensive, guaranteed. Most places will charge a minimum of $400-$500 dollars just to assess a drive’s potential for data recovery. The data recovery itself can (and probably will) be even more expensive.

There is virtually no chance the rip-off artists at the data recovery companies will ever open the case of the drive. They’ll hook up a replacement logic board, or they’ll use a board simulator. But the actual mechanism of platters, motor, actuator and heads will remain sealed. As I said, I’ve successfully recovered all the data off of a dead hard drive, but it was only possible because the client had purchased multiple identical drives at once. I took working drive with no important data on it, removed six screws from the donor logic board, did the same for the logic board on the dead drive and swapped them. The leads for the motor, actuator and heads were all spring-loaded contacts, so I didn’t even have to disconnect any wires. Plugged it in, it was recognized by the OS, copied the data. After that, I reversed the swap, and threw away the dead drive. If I were the sort of sleaze who worked at a data recovery company, I would have charged my client $1000 for five minutes work.

Knowledge is power. Why didn’t you charge market rates? You shoulda.

Because I like being able to sleep at night.

I never had the guts to try something like that. Hmm…

I would have gladly paid you $1000 to recover critical data, no matter if it was 5 minutes work on your part or 5 hours.