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[ The PC Guide | Troubleshooting and Repair Guide | The Troubleshooting Expert | Troubleshooting Specific Components | Troubleshooting Hard Disk Drives | Booting or Operation Problems ]

My hard disk has been diagnosed as legitimately being dead (it cannot be accessed at all). Is there anything I can do to recover the data on it?

Explanation: A hard disk that has important data on it has been diagnosed as being dead. The disk cannot be accessed through normal means to recover the data that is on it, but that data must be retrieved.

Diagnosis: Due to the enormous amount of important data that is not backed up regularly and is therefore lost to failed hard disks every year, special companies have sprung up that specialize in performing special heroics on dead drives to access and retrieve data on disks that under normal circumstances would never be readable again. This process is called data recovery. These companies are expensive, and there are sometimes steps you can perform yourself instead of hiring them, although you need to carefully weigh your options before touching your drive and make sure of what you are attempting. These companies are professionals and their success rate is actually pretty high.

Warning: Make absolutely sure that the disk is really dead before you try anything at all in this section. I am assuming that you have diagnosed it properly and also contacted your manufacturer's technical support department. If you aren't sure, don't touch the drive.

Warning: Tinkering with a dead drive can (and often will) void your warranty. If the drive is under warranty, contact the manufacturer's technical support department about data recovery options before you try anything that involves altering the drive. If you alter the drive then the manufacturer may have no choice but to not honor the warranty, since they will have no way of knowing if the problem was indeed caused by your working on the disk.

Recommendation: Assuming that your disk is dead and you want to try "extreme measures" to try to get it running again, try some of the above. Note that if you do manage to get the disk going again, make sure that you will have some other drive set up to pump the data to. You may only get the disk running again once; don't miss the opportunity to save the data:

  • Some drive failures are actually failures of the integrated controller board, and if you swap this board with an identical one from another drive, you may be able to get the drive working. You can only do this with a spare board from an identical board. Contact your manufacturer about the availability of replacement logic boards. If you feel daring and have a second of the exact same hard disk you may be able to "borrow" its board for the test. Needless to say, this is tricky business so proceed with caution.
  • Older drives, from around 1990 or before, often fail by refusing to spin up at all. If this is the case, sometimes it is caused by the spindle motor getting "stuck", and manually spinning the motor up will allow the drive to spin free long enough to get the data off of it. I have even opened up older (1985 era) hard disks and spun them manually to get them running. These older disks will tolerate running for a short time with the cover off (the clean room environment inside the drive is important, but can be violated if the air is relatively clean and if the drive is only going to be pumped and then discarded). The idea is simple: open up the disk and manually move the platters--don't touch the platters, rotate the hub in the middle--and then turn the disk on and it may spin up. Empty the disk to another device and then throw the disk out. It can work--but it is a very risky thing to do and will void the warranty on any disk you try it on (it's only generally needed on old disks though). Also, it only generally helps on very old disks that are physically jammed and thus won't spin up at all when the power is applied. If the disk is spinning then this fix does not apply, and I've never tried it on a newer drive.
  • On rare occasions, simply retrying booting up the hard disk many times may cause a hard disk with a serious but intermittent problem to "revive" once to allow it to be pumped. This does not happen often, but may be worth a try. Turning the system on and off a lot is hard on other components of the system, so go easy, and disconnect whatever you can before you start. Always wait at least 15 seconds after turning off a PC before turning it back on again.
  • Contact a data recovery company and ask them for an assessment. Shop around, because some of these companies are much more competitive than others. See this section for details on PC repair and dealing with repair shops.

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