Ask LH: How Can I Recover Data From A Dead Or Erased Hard Drive?

Ask LH: How Can I Recover Data From A Dead Or Erased Hard Drive?

Dear Lifehacker, I have a hard drive with valuable information on it, but I can’t seem to access it — the drive is either damaged or erased. Is there any way I can see what’s on the drive and get it off? Sincerely, Drive Paramedic

Title photo made using Sashkin (Shutterstock) and Fer Gregory (Shutterstock).

Dear Paramedic,

Don’t worry, we’re not going to ask where you got the drive, but there are plenty of ways to examine it and see if any of the data is recoverable. With a little time, the right tools, and some care, you may be able to get some data off of that drive. That said, if the data is particularly valuable and you have no other backups, proceed with caution — you may be better off using a recovery service.

Step One: Assemble Your Tools and Examine The Drive’s Condition


The first thing to do is make sure you have the tools required to connect this drive to another computer safely. Ideally, you’ll have some kind of SATA/IDE to USB cable or USB drive enclosure or sled that you can mount the drive into and connect it to your computer easily. If you have a desktop and like getting your hands dirty you can try to install the drive as an internal device, but an external connection is faster and easier.

Next, take a look at the drive itself. Is it damaged in any way? Are the pins bent or broken? Make sure that the drive is in good enough condition to actually use before you try anything in the first place that may damage it even further. If the drive is too physically damaged to attempt recovery, you may need more drastic measures. If everything looks good and you have the equipment required to connect the drive to your system, we can proceed.

Step Two: Grab Some Data Recovery Software And Connect The Drive

Before you do anything else, make sure your antivirus and antimalware tools are up to date. You don’t know what you’ll find on this drive, and you don’t want it to start misbehaving once the drive is connected to an active system. Once you’ve done that, it’s time to download and install some data recovery tools. Here are a few we love:

  • Recuva (Windows, Free): Personally, Recuva has been indispensible. Made by the same folks behind CCleaner, Recuva makes data recovery simple and easy. If you’re only interested in browsing and restoring selected files off of the drive, Recuva is a great option. Alternatively, check out Undelete Plus for Windows.
  • FileSalvage (OS X, $US80): File Salvage for Mac will set you back some serious money, but it’s one of the best tools to pull data off of a connected hard drive in OS X. It can recover virtually any type of file on multiple partition types, and prides itself on its ability to recover from damaged drives and corrupt media. If you want an alternative, try Data Rescue for Mac ($US100).
  • TestDisk (Win/OS X/Linux, Free): If you’re not afraid of the command line, TestDisk is an open source utility that can run against almost any platform or partition type. It does a great job of recovering data quickly, and won’t do unnecessary writes against the drive you’re trying to recover from.
  • Bootable Linux distros for drive recovery: If you’re not interested in messing around with apps (or paying for them), consider burning a bootable CD or USB key with BackTrack, Bart PE or SpinRite on it, so you can boot to an OS that’s not your primary drive, avoid writing or touching the drive you want to recover from, and run a host of free and effective recovery and forensics tools against that drive.

A number of these tools can recover from formatted drives, especially if the data hasn’t been overwritten. We’ve tackled this topic before, and used Knoppix as our bootable linux distro, but the steps apply to the ones we’ve mentioned as well. For more reading, check out this old but still largely accurate guide at to recovering from formatted drives.

Remember, the less you work with the drive you want to recover data from, the better. As you read from the drive, you run the risk of exacerbating any damage it may have experienced. The more you write to the drive, the more likely you are to overwrite something you want to recover. Bootable linux distros — many of which have tools like TestDisk pre-installed — are the best way to go if you’re familiar with the method and if you’re interested in recovering entire partitions, or making a non-bootable drive bootable again. If you’re just looking for files and you know the drive was in a Windows system or a Mac, a stand-alone app is an easier way to go.

Step Three: Get Out The Big Guns (And Your Wallet)


OK, so the drive is physically damaged, has been wiped and overwritten, or nothing else you try works and you really, really need the data off of it. You’re even willing to pay a lotfor it. We’re not going to ask why, but at this point it’s time to call in the professionals. Photo by Glenn Fleishman.

Pick up the phone and call the folks at a service such as Kroll Ontrack to see what they can do for you. I’ve had good experiences with OnTrack. Professional companies do a superb job at pulling data even off of drives that have been formatted, overwritten, or even severely physically damaged. Keep in mind though that these services generally run in the thousands of dollars and higher.

If the drive is yours, or the data you get from the drive is valuable, we’d strongly suggest you make sure your data is backed up, both locally and online. After all, it’s better to be able to get the data back quickly than have to jump through these hoops every time a drive fails. Remember, every hard drive will fail eventually; it’s just a matter of time. Now go forth, use this knowledge for good, and recover!

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • Used Recuva just the other day for the first time on a users HDD and was extremely impressed. A couple of other apps were just no good. Recuva took longer but man did it find a lot of files.

    Some of them ‘ahem’ shall stay deleted.

  • If you are in sydney there is a decent place in St Leonards Call xyber. i have used them twice. they were very honest and professional. cost me about $500 to recover a broken hard drive ( 1st time) and to recover a disk that had been formatted incorrectly (2nd time)
    could help someone in need

  • Not for the feint of heart and only after all other possibilities have been exhausted:

    Wrap the hard drive up in as many bags as possible to ensure no moisture gets in and chuck it in the freezer overnight. You may be able to get it to kick in long enough to grab an image using Clonezilla ( and then work on the file system/recovery from that image.

    I have recovered multiple hard drives this way however it is a last resort if you do not want to open your wallet up for the professionals.

    4 from 5 is my success ratio using this method – Once bitten twice shy, backup your data!

      • you may have missed the ‘damaged’ part of ‘damaged or erased’.

        As well as the freezer trick, just turn the drive upside down and try again. sometimes that small change will let you pull some data off a damaged drive.

  • I’ve used Craig who runs DataRetriever before to recover a broken hard drive. I can’t recommend him highly enough (if you are in this situation where you need to bring in the big guns, otherwise I highly recommend a backup), he is highly professional and upfront about everything, and he was only a fraction of the cost of other places.

    He is based in Melbourne but takes drive submissions Australia wide. Last time I checked he does free assessments and no charge if recovery is unsuccessful.

    • I recently used Craig based on this comment, and I highly support SimonG’s thoughts.

      Craig did provide a free quote, and kept us informed throughout the process. Highly recommended.

  • My problem is the ability to hook the damn drives up and make use of them. I have so much stuff sitting on shelved HDDs that it is laughable. If I could get a Tower in which I could plug all my damn HDDs so they can be accessed from my Laptop I could get the job done.

  • The dead hard drive eventually affects all computer users. Frustration soon kicks in due to the loss of pictures, music, documents and other files – files that you can’t always replace. Do not worry, unless corruption has occurred within the files, the files can actually be saved and most of the time, the data is intact. It is good if you have a backup of your important data.
    Like iPhone, if you have the data recovery, you can get back the files from iTunes. If not, use some software like iOS Data Recovery. Android Phone can use Android Data Recovery. Then you can recover the data.

  • How do you mean “dead”?

    If you reformatted it and everything is gone, then a recovery program like the one mentioned above will probably get most of the data back.

    If you have dropped, shook it while it was running and no longer works, then you will have to send it in to a specialist to recover the data. Will likely cost a fair bit of money.

    If the drive has been significantly damaged and/or the chassis of the drive is bent inward, then it is likely that platter inside has shattered and there is nothing you can do.
    To test for this, carefully shake it (unplugged of course) and listen for anything rattling around in there, accroding to Any data recovery

  • This I bet is the worst situation faced by almost many computer users. All people look for is ways to get their data back and at the end they reach out to a professional to do this task as stated in this article. If it is for computer I would strongly recommend Recuva but if you are an android user then I would recommend Android data recovery software –
    Shout for help if you need any.

  • When you lost data ,
    the first thing, check out the backup, whether you have synced the data to Gmail account, or saved on your pc.
    Then, you should never add more data to your phone after data loss, cuz they can take up more space, the lost data will be overwritten.
    Last thing, you can try recovery methods, Recuva, you can also try professional data recovery programs.

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