Recover files from a dead external drive

31 Oct

Xolelwa Mzili’s PC no longer sees her external hard drive. Can she recover the files?

Because they’re used heavily for backup and sneakernet, we tend to assume that every file on an external hard drive also exists elsewhere. But if a file is only on the external drive, it is not backed up and can be lost.

So if you keep any files exclusively on an external hard drive, you need a backup of that drive.

But enough of the lecture. Let’s see if you can get your files back. It all depends on how badly the drive is damaged, and how much money you’re willing to spend to restore it.

[Email your tech questions to]

First of all, is the drive making a clicking or scraping noise that it never made before? If so, you’ll have to send it to a recovery service. More on that below.

If there are no suspicious noises, the problem could be with your PC. Try another USB port. If none of your USB ports work, try another computer.

Still can’t get at those files? It’s time to take a hard look at that drive. Open up an external hard drive, and you’ll find an internal hard drive inside. If you can figure out how to open the enclosure, you might find a lose connection that’s easily fixed. Or you can remove the internal drive and connect that to your computer, either by installing it as a second drive inside a desktop PC, or by using a SATA-USB adapter or enclosure. These are available for about $20.

If these solutions don’t work, the problem is with the drive. Your only option, again, is to send it to a data recovery service, such as DriveSavers and Ontrack. Those are the best known, but I can’t say that they’re any better than lesser-known, possibly less-expensive services. I’ve never had to use one myself, and there’s no practical method for thoroughly testing data retrieval companies.

Even with the best of these services, there’s no guarantee you’ll get your files back. Your drive may be too damaged. If they successfully retrieve your files, expect to pay hundreds of dollars, and maybe more than a thousand.

Now don’t you wish you had backed up that drive?

Lincoln Spector Contributing Editor, PCWorld

When he isn’t bicycling, prowling used bookstores, or watching movies, PC World Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes about technology and cinema.
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