The convenience of external hard drives is undeniable. They allow us to carry terabytes of data everywhere we go, they can be easily shared among many devices, and their installation could hardly be any simpler. Because of their ubiquitous nature, we have come to rely on them so much that we seldom consider just how fragile external hard drives are.
How many people know how to recover files from external hard drives and how many would simply panic, not knowing what to do? If you know how to recover data from external hard drives, you have much better chances to prevent the worst from happening and turn what could be a disastrous situation around.
The goal of this article is to explain common hard drive issues and the different ways how they can be solved with the help of external hard drive recovery software tools.
Before You Perform External Hard Drive Data Recovery
Before you go online and download the first data recovery tool you come across, pause for a minute and let us explain some of the most common causes of hard drive failure to help you successfully solve the underlying issue.
By using a wrong hard drive recovery tool, you could make your problem worse and lose any chance to recover your data. But before we get to the most common causes of a hard drive failure, we first need to touch upon how hard drives work.
How Do Hard Drives Work?
Inside every external hard drive is an assortment of sensitive components that record data as a magnetic pattern formed by groups of magnetized metal grains. These grains cover circular platters that spin at 7,200 rpm, at least on consumer drives. Each platter has its own reading head, which hovers several nanometers above the platter’s surface, writing converting strings of bits onto the disk using electrical current fed through an electromagnet.
Attached to the bottom of the hard drive is a circuit board, which houses the main controller chip as well as many other electronic components that control the operation of the headers. One of these electronic components is a small memory chip that stores the firmware, which is permanent software that provides the necessary instructions for how the hard drive communicates with the other computer hardware.
Diagnosing Common Types of Hard Drive Failure
Hard drive failures can be categorized into two broad categories: software failures and hardware failures.
#1 Software Data Loss
Software data loss is most commonly caused by badly written software applications or unfortunate user errors. During the Windows XP era, there were many computer viruses designed to inflict as much damage as possible by deleting the data stored on hard drives.
Fortunately, this type of malware, short for malicious software, is much less common today, but software programmers still make many of the same mistakes as they did several years ago. The same, of course, also applies to computer users. Every day, important files are lost because someone decided to empty the Recycle Bin without first checking whether it doesn’t contain something important.
The one thing that most cases of software data loss have in common is recoverability. There are many capable tools that you can use to recover external hard drives after a software data loss without any expert knowledge. In the next chapter, we recommend our top 5 favorite tools for recovering external hard drives.
#2 Hard Drive Isn’t Spinning
This often happens after a sudden voltage spike. Inside the hard drive are special diodes that act as fuses. A voltage spike may cause these diodes to blow, making the hard drive seem as if it were dead and all data were lost. Usually, it’s enough to replace the printed circuit board (PCB), which can be done in a normal environment without opening the hard drive enclosure.
#3 Clicking or Beeping Noises
Clicking sounds are often an indication of serious hard drive damage. They occur when a hard drive is unable to return the rear/write head to its home position. The head may be stuck on a platter, scratching it violently as the disk controller attempts to move it. A scratched platter usually means an irreversible data loss.
A hard drive may make beeping sounds when it’s trying to spin the platters, but it’s unable to do so. This can happen because of something that’s known as stiction. Because the gap between the hard drive heads and platters is so small, they can literally stick to each other. A hard drive recovery service center with a well-equipped, dust-free lab should be able to solve this problem, for a hefty price.
#4 Hard Drive Inaccessible
When your computer recognizes your hard drive, but you’re unable to access the files stored on it or boot into the operating system, it often means that the file system has been damaged. The damage can be extremely localized, perhaps affecting only the boot sector, or it can be widespread. The good news is that data recovery tools such as Disk Drill can easily recover data from inaccessible hard drives and help you spot growing file corruption before it gets out of hand.
#5 Hard Drive Not Detected
When your computer is unable to detect a hard drive which you know is otherwise in a good working order, it could mean that the hard drive is not compatible with your motherboard. This shouldn’t happen when dealing with regular desktop hard drives connected to regular desktop computers, but it can happen when dealing with exotic server equipment or older hardware.
5 Best Tools to Recover Files from External Hard Drives
External hard drive data recovery is easy when you know what the best data recovery tools are. Based on our experience, user reviews, and features, we’ve selected top 5 best tools for recovering external hard drives.
1. Disk Drill
Disk Drill is the most versatile, most user-friendly, and most feature-complete data recovery solution on the market, which is why it’s at the very top of our list.
If you have Disk Drill, you don’t really need any other software tool to recover data from your external hard drive. You can download Disk Drill for free from its website and instantly test just how quickly and effortlessly it can recover your lost files.
To recover deleted files from an external hard drive:
- Connect an external hard disk to your PC
- Launch Disk Drill
- Select your drive from the list
- Click Search for lost data
- Preview files that Disk Drill can retrieve
- Select the files for recovery and click Recover all button
Disk Drill for Mac version also includes helpful hard drive management utilities that cover everything from data backup to hard drive health monitoring. Even though Disk Drill is the tool of choice for many IT professionals, it still manages to be just as accessible and easy to use as data recovery tools aimed at complete beginners.
This open source data recovery software can help you recover lost partitions and make non-booting disks bootable again. TestDisk runs under DOS, Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, SunOS, and macOS. The tool is part of many popular system rescue CDs such as CAINE, GParted LiveCD, and Parted Magic. TestDisk runs in the command line, which is why we can’t recommend it to casual computer users. That said, if you are comfortable with the command line environment, TestDisk is a fantastic, lightweight alternative to graphical external hard drive recovery tools.
Stellar Phoenix Windows Data Recovery can recover deleted data from Internal and external hard drives, help you retrieve lost data from inaccessible partitions, and do all of this in just a few minutes and with 1 GB of lost or deleted data for free. The software supports most file formats and storage devices, and it has already been downloaded by over 2 million customers. Unlike Disk Drill, which runs on Windows and macOS, Stellar Phoenix Windows Data Recovery runs only on Windows, as the name suggests.
Multimedia file formats, such as JPG, PNG, AVI, or MP3, represent a majority of data computer users store on their hard drives. Understandably, it’s much easier to accept the loss of a PowerPoint presentation than the pictures from the graduation ceremony of your only child. PhotoRec is an open source data recovery utility designed to recover pictures, videos, and other common file formats from hard drives, memory cards, and digital cameras. It recognizes over 480 file extensions from about 300 file families and runs under DOS, Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, Sun Solaris, and macOS. Just like TestDisk, PhotoRec is a command line utility with no graphical interface.
R-Studio is a family of data recovery tools designed to solve just about any data recovery scenario. R-Studio can recover data from all major file systems, perform raw file search, fix startup issues, perform data recovery over LAN, and much more. Its intended audience are technicians and network experts tasked with recovering data from corporate networks and business computers.