A hard drive failure is when a computer’s hard drive stops working properly, resulting in the inability to access or save data. This can occur for several reasons:

  • Mechanical failure—The most common cause of failure is damage to the physical hard drive components, such as the read/write heads or platters, which prevents data access.
  • Logical failure – The hard drive’s file system or partitioning gets corrupted, so the data is still physically there but inaccessible by the operating system. This can happen from sudden power loss, viruses, or faulty updates.
  • Electronic failure – The hard drive’s electronic circuit board experiences an electrical issue that renders it unusable. This may result from power surges, overheating, water damage, etc.
  • Firmware corruption – The hard drive’s firmware becomes corrupted, preventing proper functionality. Firmware handles the communication between the OS and hardware.
  • Bad sectors – Portions of the hard drive platter develop physical defects or magnetic issues that make data inaccessible in those sectors. These bad sectors tend to spread over time.

A hard drive failure can occur unexpectedly, so regular backups are crucial. But when it does happen, the inability to access your files can be stressful. This guide will walk you through the steps to recover that data.

Backup Your Data

Backing up your data regularly is the best way to avoid losing files when a hard drive fails. Having a backup ensures you can restore your files, photos, documents and other important data. Backups protect you from all kinds of data loss, whether from hard drive failures, accidental deletion, file corruption, ransomware, or other issues.

Maintaining routinely updated local and off-site backups is critical—store backups on external hard drives and cloud storage services. Schedule automatic backups to run daily to protect your files in multiple locations. Test restoring from backups periodically to verify they work correctly when needed.

It is recommended that you follow a 3-2-1 backup strategy—have at least three copies of your data on two different media, with one copy stored off-site. This ensures maximum protection if hardware fails or gets damaged/lost. Don’t rely solely on cloud backups, either—have physical backups, too, in case you lose internet access.

Overall, consistently backing up your data is the most critical thing you can do to avoid losing your files if a hard drive fails. Make backups part of your regular computing routine.

Try Repairing the Drive

If your hard drive is experiencing errors but you can still access it, you may be able to repair it and recover your files. Start by running disk-checking utilities that come with your operating system.

On Windows, open Command Prompt as administrator and run “CHKDSK C: /f” to check the C drive for errors and automatically fix them.

On a Mac, open Disk Utility and run First Aid on the drive to check for problems. This can fix directory issues and bad sectors.

If your drive isn’t being recognised properly, you can also try repairing the master boot record (MBR) or GUID recognisable (GPT). Go to Command Prompt on Windows and type “bootrec /fixmbr” to rewrite the MBR.

On Mac, you can use a tool like TestDisk to repair GPT/MBR issues. Be careful when running repairs, as you could make things worse if you don’t know what you’re doing.

If simple repairs don’t work, your drive may have physical damage and require more advanced recovery methods. However, fixing filesystem errors can get a failing drive working again long enough to recover data.

Replace the Hard Drive

Replacing a failed hard drive will allow you to install a new working drive in your computer or external enclosure. Here are the steps for replacing a failed hard drive:

  1. Before beginning replacement, back up any data you can recover from the failed drive. If necessary, use data recovery software or send it to a professional service.
  2. Determine the type of drive that needs to be replaced. This includes the interface (SATA, IDE, etc.), size (2.5″, 3.5″), and storage capacity.
  3. Purchase a new replacement drive that matches the specifications of the failed drive as closely as possible. Compatibility is important.
  4. Follow manufacturer instructions for removing the failed hard drive from the computer or external enclosure. Be gentle and avoid static electricity.
  5. Securely mount the new replacement drive in the drive bay. Connect all necessary cables.
  6. Reinstall the drive bay if needed, and replace any screws or components that were removed.
  7. Boot up the computer or external drive enclosure and see if the new drive is detected correctly.
  8. Partition and format the new drive so you can begin using it. Transfer any recovered data.
  9. Reinstall your operating system and applications if needed.
  10. Run diagnostics on the new drive to verify it functions properly before restoring your data.

Replacing a failed hard drive requires some technical skill but allows you to get up and running again with a working drive. Take precautions to avoid data loss and follow all manufacturer instructions closely. You can get your computer or external hard drive back to normal with some effort.

Use Data Recovery Software

Recovering data from a failed hard drive is possible in many cases by using data recovery software. Many software options can scan the drive and recover deleted files and folders. Here are some top data recovery software choices:

  • Recuva – A free Windows utility that can recover deleted files. Recuva has deep scan options to search the drive more thoroughly.
  • EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard – An easy-to-use paid software for Windows that can recover from hard drive failure. It has different scan modes for quick or deep searching.
  • Stellar Data Recovery – A comprehensive data recovery suite for Windows and Mac. It can recover from hard drive crashes and has advanced scan options.
  • R-Studio – A full-featured data recovery tool for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It can recover data after formatting or hardware failure.
  • Disk Drill – A Mac-focused recovery app with quick and deep scan modes. It can reconstruct lost partitions and recover data.
  • Ontrack EasyRecovery – A professional-grade Windows recovery software with a deep scan mode and clean room recovery options.

When using data recovery software, the key is to avoid writing new data to the failed drive, as it could overwrite deleted files. Scan the drive read-only with recovery software to extract as much data as possible before attempting drive repairs or replacement.

Recover Data from Backups

Restoring data from the cloud or external backups can be a lifesaver when your hard drive fails. If you have the foresight to maintain good data backups, you have a ready way to recover your files.

Cloud backup services like Dropbox, Google Drive, or iCloud make accessing your data from anywhere easy. Download the files from the cloud backup to your new hard drive. Be sure you have the latest cloud backup available so you don’t lose any data created since the last backup.

External hard drives and USB drives also commonly serve as backup destinations. Connect the external drive to your computer and copy the files to the new drive. If you use backup software like Time Machine on Mac or File History on Windows, you may be able to restore the entire backup to your new drive.

The key is having a recent, up-to-date backup available when disaster strikes. Backups provide insurance against data loss, so maintaining and testing them regularly is critical. If you restore from a backup after a hard drive failure, you can return to where you left off.

Prioritise Recovering Data

When your hard drive fails, prioritise and recover your most important files first. Here are some tips for determining which files to focus on:

  • Personal photos and videos—For many people, pictures and home videos are some of their most cherished possessions. If lost, they may be irreplaceable, so make recovering them a top priority.
  • Critical work files – If you use your computer, focus on recovering current projects and files needed to do your job. Losing these could impact your work productivity or professional reputation.
  • Financial information – Tax documents, financial statements, and other money-related files should be recovered quickly. You don’t want to lose anything critical for managing finances.
  • Legal documents—Wills, insurance information, property records, and anything related to legal or compliance matters deserve urgent recovery attention.
  • Creative projects – If you’re an artist, writer, musician, or other creative professional, your in-progress works and portfolio pieces are on the priority list.
  • Saved game files – For gaming enthusiasts, saved games represent hours of invested playtime. Make recovering these a priority (after more critical files).

The key is to list your most important file types, folders, and data you never want to lose. Focus your recovery efforts on those high-priority items first before trying to rescue everything. A phased approach can quickly recover your ” must-haves,” and then you can move on to less critical data if needed.

Send to a Data Recovery Service

You may need a professional data recovery service if your hard drive suffers from physical damage or complex issues beyond DIY software repairs. These services can access specialised tools and facilities to repair drives and recover data.

Professional services are beneficial for mechanical failures, water damage, fire/smoke damage, platter damage, deleted partition recovery, and RAID recovery. They use techniques like:

  • Disk imaging to safely copy drive data without risking further damage
  • Opening the drive in a dust-free clean room to repair internal components
  • Advanced recovery methods for formatted, deleted, or corrupted files
  • Parts replacement if the read/write heads, motor, or circuitry fail
  • Bypassing damaged areas of the platters to extract data

The process involves shipping your drive to the facility and getting a diagnostic quote for expected recovery costs. This is based on the drive assessment and how much data needs recovering. Costs often range from £300-£800+ depending on the service level and data loss severity.

Professional data recovery can retrieve lost files when DIY options have failed. But it comes at a premium price and is not guaranteed to succeed. Weigh the value of your lost data vs. the recovery costs before proceeding. And know that heavily damaged drives with extensive physical issues may have unrecoverable data despite the service’s best efforts.

Prevent Future Failures

Hard drive failures can often be prevented by taking some proactive steps. Here are some tips for preventing hard drive failures:

  • Keep your hard drive clean and dust-free. Dust buildup can lead to overheating, which puts additional strain on the drive. Clean out your computer case regularly.
  • Avoid moving your computer when powered on and the drive is in use. Sudden movements can damage the drive’s internal components.
  • Maintain a stable power supply. Power surges and outages can damage drives. If you experience frequent power fluctuations, consider using a UPS (uninterruptible power supply).
  • Monitor your drive’s SMART status. SMART provides insight into the drive’s health and can warn you of impending failure. Tools like CrystalDiskInfo offer an easy way to check SMART data.
  • Don’t leave your computer on all the time. Shut down fully at least once a week to give your hard drives a break. Constant spinning stresses the drive.
  • Handle laptops gently and avoid bumps/drops. The bump protection in laptop hard drives has limits.
  • Keep drives cool and well-ventilated. Excessive heat shortens drive lifespan. Ensure your PC case has decent airflow.
  • Consider using SSDs with no moving parts, which are less prone to mechanical failure. However, SSDs can still fail, so backups are still essential.
  • Always safely eject external hard drives before disconnecting them to avoid data corruption.
  • Maintain complete backups of your important data. That way, you can quickly recover from a failed drive.

Concluding Tips

Hard drive failures can happen unexpectedly and cause data loss if unprepared. Here are some final tips to help you recover and prevent future failures:

  • Invest in a quality external hard drive and regularly back up your essential files. Backups are the best insurance against data loss.
  • Handle your computer and hard drives gently to avoid physical damage. Dropping or exposing them to magnets, liquids, or extreme temperatures increases failure risk.
  • Keep your operating system, programs, and security software updated. Updates often include drive optimisation and protection against corruption.
  • Monitor your mechanical hard drive health with tools like Disk Utility or a SMART data reader. Watch for warning signs like bad sectors.
  • Monitor your Solid State Drive with free software like CrystalDiskinfo. Check the Temperature and read and write.
  • Consider cloud backup services like iCloud or Google Drive for extra data redundancy. The cloud provides an additional backup location.
  • Know where to turn for professional help, like a data recovery service. However, you can try DIY software solutions first to avoid high costs.
  • Stay calm, act quickly, and follow good processes if a failure occurs. Panicking and using faulty drives will make matters worse.

With vigilance and good backup practices, you can minimise the likelihood and impact of an inevitable hard drive failure. Just be prepared and patient, and your data can likely be recovered.