Ask LH: Is The Freezer The Only Way To Save My Hard Drive?

Ask LH: Is The Freezer The Only Way To Save My Hard Drive?

Dear Lifehacker, I dropped my external hard-drive which has all my photos from the past seven years and music collection on it. I took it to a professional but he said it would cost $2,500 to repair it. I’m a uni student so I don’t have that kind of money.

Every time I try to plug the hard-drive, I hear it working and I see the light blinking but the external device icon just never seems to pop up on the desktop or anywhere else for that matter. After Googling, it seems like the only other viable solution is to put it in the freezer – which I have some qualms about, because if that screws it up then it’s all gone (right?) Anything else I can try besides the freezer method? Thanks, Frozen Out

Dear Frozen Out,

We’ve offered a detailed guide to using the freezer method in the past. The key point to note is that this method works best on a drive with warped platters. That might be what’s causing your drive not to be recognised, but it’s impossible to say for sure. (By the way, I’m assuming that you have checked the drive on multiple machines. It’s not unheard of for a drive to be unrecognised by one PC but to mount OK on another one.)

As you rightly identify, the risk with testing the freezer method is that if that isn’t your problem, freezing the drive might make things worse. If you conclude that you’re never going to be able to afford to get the drive professionally fixed, it might be worth the risk, since then you’re contrasting “I will definitely never get this data back” with “I might not get this data back”.

On the other hand, you might prefer to put the drive aside for a couple of years (in a cool, dry place) and try having it fixed in a few years when you’re less cash-strapped. Magnetic media does degrade over time, so this also involves some risk, but not necessarily a huge amount. (I got data recovered from ancient floppy disks after leaving them in my garage for the best part of a decade.)

Professional data recovery isn’t cheap, but $2,500 does sound pretty high — I’d also be shopping around before making the decision. I’ve had good experiences with OnTrack in the past. If readers can recommend other services that don’t cost a mint, I’m sure that would be very welcome as well. Good luck!



  • It’s true, linux is way better at reading damaged hard drives than windows.

    When the fan died in my laptop the HDD overheated and was completely corrupted, couldn’t even recognize it in windows. Linux let me mount the drive, and with some data recovery that come with Ubuntu, managed to recover my uni work and photos, which was all I really cared about. Definitely give it a go.

  • if its an external drive then there might be nothing wrong with the HDD itself, might just be the drive enclosure. pull it apart or have one of your geek friends do it and whack it into a computer as an internal drive.

    if it was only the enclosure then it will work fine and you can grab another enclosure on the cheap. if not then your no worse of than before

    • I’d second this as a first shot. If it’s a full 3.5″ drive with a data and power cable, then it could just be the drive caddy. If it’s a 2.5″ with a single cable and it’s actually powering on, this is less likely. a few other points in no random order:

      -check out diskmgmt.msc if you’re on windows and see if a drive is recognising at all but not mounting, or break out some linux and try to mount it. you want to see if it’s being recognised at all.

      -if it isn’t, it could just be the control board for the drive being damaged. to fix this you have a decent chance of success, but you have to have another drive from the same batch (not just the same model)

      -I’ll count not mentioning any unusual clicking/grinding/clunking as a good thing. it means the read heads aren’t slamming into the disk and the drive must be spinning up fine.

      -You’ve had a professional evaluate it, he probably knows what he’s talking about. To fix it, he might have to take it apart in a clean-room and transfer the platters to a new (identical) drive almost without touching anything. If that’s what it needs, there’s no easy way around it – some serious enthusiasts try to do that sort of thing at home, but even they have limited success.

  • Alright I would like to make this nice and clear, because this is not the first time this question has been asked on this site, and like the last time it wasn’t advised against and actually suggested that you try it. I’m an Engineer and work in data recovery and see this more times than you think. From your “research” on the net did you also read that there is a good chance that once you do put it into the freezer that it will more likely damage it more than to begin with and that it will cost you even more when you take it back to a data recovery company. The fact that people still advise to do this amazes Me. A long time ago with older drives it did have some success with warped platters, but the newer drives that are made a lot cheaper do not react the same. When you put them in the freezer, even if you wrap it in plastic it gets condensation on the platters when it thaws. And if the problem isn’t warped platters, but say the motor or the head then you just cause more damage then it originally had. This is bad advice. But take it if you wish. Good luck.

    • I’ve used the drive in the freezer trick successfully before. The drive in question was having problems spinning for some reason, and as a result would conk out after a few seconds of functioning. Wrapped in plastic, froze overnight, and lasted long enough to get the data off (ran while frozen, not thawed, once it thawed it gave it up completely)

      The point raised above is right though, that’s *not* a fix. It’s a single trick pony that you get to run once, maybe twice if you’re really lucky. Before you even try it you’ve got to have a mental idea of what you want to get and where it is, prioritised, so you can go to it first.

      However, as for the OP, if you’ve got a dropped external hard drive, chances are really, really good you just broke the external case (board, power connector, whatever). Find someone with a desktop system you can connect it to or snag one of those 3.5-to-USB docks.

      Do *not* freeze it until you try it in something else.

  • Here’s a thought. It might be the case. Try whippng it into another case – or directly into your computer.

    And just for the record had a 2.5 inch drive that had micro welded itself. The freezer trick let me grab the data and it continued to work for months afterwards – though I never trusted it with anything important.

  • You said you dropped the drive? Not good!! Its entirely possible, that by dropping the drive, you have made the heads crash on the drive platter. If the h.d.d light keeps blinking like you said, its highly likely that’s what has happened.
    Others have mentioned unusual clicking/grinding/clunking as a sign of the heads starting to crash on to the platter. That’s true, however when you drop a drive, it has a violent impact on the ground, and that impact may have already pushed the heads hard on to the platter. Then you may not hear unusual clicking/grinding/clunking if the head is resting firmly on the platter and is preventing (or really slowing) the spinning of the platter.

    Having said that, it is entirely possible that it is the drive controller in the case that others have also mentioned.

    Take the drive out of the case, mount it into a pc and see if it works. If it doesn’t don’t panic just yet. Try out some good recovery software. There is a good chance that it’ll work. I Use at different times and in different situations – Recover My Files, Multi Data Rescue, R-Studio Network Edition, Recover4all pro and Runtime Getdataback Ntfs & Fat. Unfortunately you need to buy an expensive licence for all of them.

    Alternatively you could try UBCD4win (Ultimate Boot CD for Windows).
    UBCD4Win is a bootable recovery CD that contains software used for repairing, restoring, or diagnosing almost any computer problem. It contains a whole host of freeware and open source programs for repairing, restoring, or diagnosing almost any computer problem, including several good free recovery software programs. The down side to this is you have to make a boot CD and you need a copy windows to help compile it. (don’t worry, an installed copy of windows is fine) and it is slow and painful to actually boot the UBCD4win disc. But it is still very useful for fixing pc problems.

    Its also possible that somehow, if the heads have came into contact with the platter, it may have created physical damage on the drive and if that damage was on the File Allocation Table (FAT) Your computer may try to read it but it cant and that means it may or may not mount the drive, but if it does the drive will not know where it stored files on itself. But this will usually give error messages. Try running command console and put this into command window ” CHKDSK c: /R /F “. replace c: with the problem drive if it does mount.

    Use google to find anything I have mentioned.

    Whatever you decide to do BE AWARE that if the heads actually have crashed on the platter and you keep trying to fix it yourself, when the drive spins, you ARE creating more damage and making it more difficult to recover and a technician will charge you more to recover it professionally. You may even make it completely UNRECOVERABLE, even by a professional.

    • @ caspez – Excellent ansewer, I couldn’t agree more with you!! – at $89 dollars US it’s by far the best option. In addition it can be used on all hard drives to maintain them and fix errors before you loose important data!!

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