Recovering Data From an Erased or Damaged Hard Drive

Contents

Disclaimer

By following the instructions in this article, you assume all risks including the possibility of the permanent loss of your data. As I’ll explain in detail later in this article, trying to recover data from a hard drive yourself is risky. Data may inadvertently be written over a deleted file or, in the case of a damaged hard drive, the hard drive may become even more damaged as you attempt to read from it. Before teaching you how to attempt data recovery on your own, this article will help you decide whether to do it yourself or pay a professional data recovery company to recover your data for you.

While I tried my best to be thorough in this article, I simply can’t address or foresee every possible obstacle you might encounter. For example, I’m assuming your hard drive is not encrypted because home users rarely have encrypted hard drives without realizing that they have encrypted hard drives. But, if a user did have an encrypted hard drive, they would find this guide unhelpful. That’s just an example. My point is that this guide should work for the vast majority of users but it can’t work for everyone because there is practically an infinite combination of variables at play and I just can’t address all the possibilities of things users might encounter.

I speak only for myself and not on behalf of my employer or sponsor(s). Neither my employer nor my sponsor(s) have approved or even read this article prior to publication.

For Whom Is This Article Written?

This article is written for users who wish to recover data from a hard drive after that data has been erased or the drive no longer functions correctly. This article only applies to regular mechanical hard drives. It does not apply to solid state disks (SSDs). If you’ve lost data on a solid state disk, stop using the disk immediately and go find an educational resource that deals specifically with data recovery from solid state disks. For example, this article. If you don’t know whether your PC has a solid state disk or a mechanical hard drive (HDD), you may be able to figure it out here if your drive is in good enough condition that Windows can recognize it.

The part of this article instructing users on data recovery deals specifically with the Windows operating system. If you use Linux, Mac OS, Unix or something else for an operating system, this article will only be useful to you if you have the technical knowledge to port my Windows based instructions to your OS of choice.

If you have fallen victim to ransomware, this article is not appropriate for you. It won’t help. You need to stop using the infected PC and call a highly qualified IT professional right away. Don’t shut your PC down. Don’t do anything. Just get qualified help as quickly as you can. Avoid the bargain companies for ransomware infections. Inexperienced technicians may not know whether your data can be saved. And even if they personally know whether it’s possible to save your data, many discount computer repair shops have a policy to just wipe peoples’ hard drives and reinstall the operating system in the event of a ransomware infection.

I’ve written this article with novice home users in mind. It is my goal to strike a balance between being detailed and being easy to follow. But, if I err, I will err on the side of providing too many details.

 

You’re in a Hole: Stop Digging!

If the PC that contains the hard drive from which you wish to recover data is powered off then you should skip this entire section. If your PC is currently in sleep mode, don’t wake it up. In that case, just skip to the paragraph of this section that begins, “Next, we’re going to do something I would almost never advise a user to do.”

If your hard drive has failed you need to stop using it right away. Especially if it’s making an unusual noise. The needle may be loose and scraping the platter that contains your data. This will result in the loss of some or all of your data. If you decide to try to recover your own data, you’ll run this risk. But for now, let’s get that needle parked safely and the hard drive powered off. Powering off the hard drive is NOT the same thing as powering off your PC. Please don’t power off your PC yet.

You’re booted in to Windows right? First we have to make sure hybrid sleep is disabled on your PC. And the fastest way to do that is by disabling hibernation. Hold down the Windows logo key and tap R (Win + R). Type the following in to the run line but don’t hit enter or click ok afterwards. Instead, read what to do next:

powercfg -h off

Now hit CTRL+SHIFT+Enter. You may receive a prompt like the following:

pwruac

If you do, click “Yes.”

Hopefully hibernation and hybrid sleep are turned off now. Now you’re going to put your PC in to sleep mode. First, click the start menu. Now click the arrow next to “Shut Down” but be careful not to click on “Shut Down” itself. Hopefully you do NOT see an option that says “hibernate” and you DO see an option that says “sleep.” Click “Sleep” if “Sleep” is there. Otherwise, just keep following these instructions anyway.

Next, we’re going to do something I would almost never advise a user to do. We’re going to disrupt the power supply to your PC without properly shutting it down first. Don’t just push the power button. If you succeeded in putting your PC to sleep that will wake it up. If you didn’t, that will either start your PC hibernating or shutting down. Unplug your PC from its power source. If the PC has an internal battery (laptop), remove the battery. If it’s a laptop, don’t close it before you remove the battery. Yes, I know that’s awkward. Be careful not to drop it.

Why would I have you turn your PC off without a clean shutdown when doing so can result in file system corruption, logical damage to your operating system and loss of unsaved work? It’s a judgment call I’m making based on my experience. Other IT professionals may advise you differently. I have found that there is an even greater risk in continuing to use a damaged drive than there is in simply turning it off. When a hard drive suddenly has its power supply cut off, the risk is that the needle that reads to and writes from the disk will hit against the platter and ruin your data beyond recovery. To help mitigate that threat, we attempted to put your PC to sleep. When a PC goes to sleep, the hard drive needle is “parked” in a safe position. If you couldn’t put your PC to sleep, then we’re relying on the hard drive’s built-in protection mechanism to safely park that needle. When you shut down your PC or ESPECIALLY if you hibernate it, much writing to the disk is done. On a failing disk, that’s risky. It’s a lot riskier than just cutting off the PC’s power supply.

Even if you’re just trying to recover a deleted file from a hard drive that’s in good shape, you should still follow the above instructions. When you delete a file from your computer (I mean really delete a file, not just send it to the recycle bin), Windows marks the space that the file was using on your hard drive as available. Other programs are then free to write data to that space. Until a program actually does write data to that space, the deleted file remains intact. Every time the disk is written to, there’s a chance that the file you want to recover may be partially or completely overwritten. So, to maximize your chance of recovering the file, you must stop your PC from writing to the hard drive ASAP. When your PC is shut down, it writes to the hard drive quite a bit… especially if it needs to install or configure updates. So you’ll have a better chance of recovering your data if you don’t do a proper shutdown. I’m making an assumption here–that recovering your deleted data is more important to you than your hard drive itself. Again, there is a risk of damaging your hard drive involved here.

 

Pay With Your Time Or Pay With Your Money?

This is the part of the article where I help you decide whether to attempt to recover your data yourself or to pay someone to do it. Recovery of your data will be costly either way: either in terms of money or in terms of the amount of time you have to spend trying to recover the data. For someone without IT experience, it’s either going to eat up a whole Saturday, or you’re going to pay substantial money.

If you decide to pay money, there are two types of services you can use to try to recover your data. Any qualified IT technician can attempt to recover your data. They’re going to use a procedure similar to the one I’m going to describe in this article in the section where I teach you how to attempt to recover your data yourself. Alternatively, you can pay a professional data recovery lab. That’s going to cost you an arm and a leg but the chances of successfully recovering your data are much improved over any other option.

In this section of the article, we’re going to explore the pros and cons of all three possibilities so you can make an informed decision about which method is most appropriate for your situation.

Option #1: Pay a Professional Data Recovery Service

Pros

  • Greatest likelihood of successfully recovering your data
  • Employees of reputable companies are background checked so there’s less of a chance that your data will be stolen than if you hire an IT technician
  • Far less time consuming than trying to do it yourself

Cons

  • Very expensive
  • Slowest turnaround of all the methods although you can pay some professional data recovery labs to expedite the recovery process
  • Drive could be further damaged in shipping even if you pack it correctly which would reduce the chance of the lab recovering your data

Option #2: Pay a Qualified IT Technician

Pros

  • Much more affordable than paying a professional data recovery lab
  • Can be very fast
  • Because the technician is (hopefully) experienced with data recovery, he or she is more likely to recover your data and less likely to cause damage to the drive that could prevent a professional data recovery lab from recovering your data in the future.
  • Much less time consuming than if you do it yourself
  • In the event that your hard drive’s controller board is shot, some IT techs may be willing to attempt to transfer the board or even the disk itself to another unit. This is beyond the scope of this article and transferring the disk itself outside of a “clean room” is extremely likely to cause data loss. You should consider this option as a last resort if you want your data back but not badly enough to pay a professional data recovery lab.

Cons

  • You might hire a technician who doesn’t know what they’re doing
  • You might hire a technician who is unethical and will scam you or steal your data
  • The technician is less likely than a professional data recovery lab to recover your data even if he or she is very experienced and knowledgeable. They just don’t have access to the same equipment and facilities that a professional data recovery lab does. An honest and qualified IT technician should warn you about that before you hire them.
  • Even if the technician does everything correctly, your drive could be further damaged to the point that a professional data recovery lab can not recover it even though they could have if you had not first sent the drive to that technician.
  • It’s more expensive to pay a technician than it is to try to recover the data yourself.

Option #3: Attempt to Recover Your Data Yourself

Pros

  • Cheapest option
  • You might find it fun if you have an interest in computers
  • Bragging rights

Cons

  • Lowest chance of successfully recovering your data unless you’re a pro
  • Greatest chance of damaging your drive such that even a professional lab can’t recover your data unless you’re a pro
  • Very time consuming and potentially frustrating. Set aside your whole day for this if you have no experience

 

So You’ve Decided to Hire a Professional Data Recovery Lab

If you’re going to hire an IT technician (who doesn’t work for a professional data recovery lab) or try to recover the data yourself, you can skip this section.

The most important thing about hiring a professional data recovery lab is that you need to make sure it’s an actual data recovery lab and not just an IT technician’s basement. So what can a data recovery lab do for you that Joe the IT guy can’t? The main answer to that is that the lab has a room called a “clean room” where they can safely remove the magnetic disk from your hard drive and mount it to a machine that will allow the technicians there to recover your data even though your hard drive’s controller board or the arm or the needle or whatever may not be functioning correctly.

An extremely knowledgeable and experienced IT technician may be able to do something similar to this outside of a lab but, because the air is unfiltered, there’s a high likelihood that the drive will be damaged and your data will be permanently destroyed. But technicians in a “clean room” don’t run such risks.

You need to be careful when you’re shopping around because you’ll find a seemingly infinite offering of data recovery services. But only a tiny handful of these services actually have a “clean room” or specialized equipment. You mustn’t cheap out if you’re going to hire a professional data recovery lab. You need to do your homework and find out what others are saying about the business you decide to hire.

Once you’ve chosen a data recovery service, visit their website to find out how to get the ball rolling in terms of recovering your data. They’re going to have you ship your hard drive to them (they’ll probably send you a special box to ship your hard drive in since hard drives are very delicate and must be packed carefully). They’ll probably charge you a diagnostic fee for them to assess your drive and find out what data they’ll be able to recover. You can expect this fee to be $75 to $150. Most companies get to keep this fee even if they decide your data is unrecoverable. If they decide your data is recoverable, you’ll get a directory listing and you’ll select which files and folders you want them to try to recover. When all is said and done, you may pay between $500 and $7000 (or more).

Some of my clients have used a data recovery lab called Drivesavers with good results. They’re well known and have a good reputation. I don’t personally know anyone who has used Kroll Ontrack Data Recovery but they are well known and have developed data recovery software that I’ve used before. Those are just a couple examples. Do your research and find out what people are saying about various data recovery services before you shell out all that money.

So You’ve Decided to Pay a Qualified IT Technician

Skip this section if you’re going to attempt to recover the data yourself.

Finding a good technician can be challenging. You need to shop around and explore the reputation of any technician you consider. You’re trusting this person with your data. They could steal your private financial information, your personal photos, your personal correspondence, your passwords that you saved in your web browser or any other data on your damaged hard drive. Don’t just go with the cheapest offer. Whomever you hire may charge you an hourly rate or they may charge you based on the volume of data you ask them to recover or they may just charge you a flat fee. Watch out for the hourly rate charges. You won’t necessarily get ripped off but techs who are working by the hour have no incentive to work quickly. Before you agree to hire the technician, they should warn you that they may or may not be able to successfully recover your data and that you’ll have a greater chance of successfully recovering your data if you send your hard drive to a professional lab. They should also warn you that attempting to recover your data may damage the drive even further than it’s already damaged and that, as a result, a professional data recovery lab may be unable to recover your data later as a result of that additional damage.

A technician who bills you by the hour is likely to charge you between $100 and $175 an hour. You may find better deals than that especially outside of major metropolitan areas.

A technician who bills you by the amount of data you expect them to recover will likely charge $0.50 to $1 per GB and may have a minimum amount you have to pay.

A technician who bills you a flat rate may charge between $100 and $1500. Deals between $300 and $500 are common.

These are all rough numbers and of course you’ll find offers outside of those parameters.

Check Google, Yelp, Angie’s List and other websites for reviews before selecting a technician. It’s even better if you know someone who can recommend a good technician.

I’m not interested in freelancing through this website at this time.

So You’ve Decided to Attempt to Recover Your Own Data

Before proceeding, you’ve read the Pros and Cons and understand the risks of trying to recover your own data right? If not, please go back and read about the risks now. Attempting to recover your own data is the most risky option in terms of rendering your data unrecoverable.

This is going to be tricky. First, I would suggest you have a positive attitude about this experience. Between procuring the equipment, removing the hard drive, hooking everything up and copying your data, this is going to take several hours. It will be much less stressful if you can find the fun in it. If you’re short-tempered, you should consider hiring someone to do this for you.

 

Buy The Equipment You’ll Need

You don’t need to buy the exact supplies I link to. They’re just examples.

  • Anti-static Wrist Strap (optional) – This will electrically ground you and reduce the possibility of you accidentally frying your hard drive controller board. Alternatively, you can just discharge your built-up static electricity in to something metal before you start working on your PC.
  • SATA/PATA to USB Data Recovery Kit – Be sure the kit you purchase is compatible with the hard drive from which you wish to recover data. The kit to which I’m linking here will work with just about any home user’s hard drive.
  • Computer Screwdriver Set – To get at your hard drive you’re going to need a screwdriver. Usually you will only need a phillips head. Sometimes you’ll need a flathead to gently pry something open or a star shaped screwdriver for some PCs. The set I’ve linked to should have bits that will allow you to remove the hard drive from any desktop PC or laptop.
  • Another Windows PC Besides the One With Your Lost Data – You could recover your data using a Mac or a Linux PC but this guide only teaches you how to do it with a Windows PC.
  • Tweezers (optional) – Tweezers can be handy for pulling the jumpers off hard drives. But you can do it with your fingers.

Prepare Your PC for Hard Drive Removal

Please pay attention to this subsection! If you don’t follow these instructions there’s a small but significant chance you’ll short out a PC component with a metal screwdriver and there’s a minute chance you’ll receive an electrical shock. You need to read and pay attention to this whole subsection but, if you do absolutely nothing else, unplug your PC from the wall for your safety before you work on it. A power spike could result in you receiving an electrical shock if you’re in contact with an electrified PC component at the time. I don’t mean to scare you. The risk of electrical shock while you remove your PC’s hard drive (especially from a laptop) is extremely small. I haven’t heard of it happening since major improvements were made to PC design in the mid 1990s. But it’s definitely better to be safe than sorry.

If you are going to use an anti-static wrist strap, attach the bracelet end to your wrist and ground the other end at this time. All of your equipment listed above should be within easy reach. I won’t go in to the debate over whether an anti-static wrist strap should be used here. If you want to weigh the pros and cons, Google it. If you’re on the fence, just go ahead and use the strap. It won’t hurt anything. Don’t waste a ton of time thinking about it. If you’re not going to use the wrist strap, discharge your static electricity by touching something metal before you lay a hand (or tool) on your computer. If you ARE going to use the strap, don’t start opening up your computer until you’ve correctly put on and hooked up the wrist strap.

Make sure your PC is powered off and completely disconnected from all external power sources. If your PC has a battery (probably because it’s a laptop), remove the battery. In case you’re wondering about the little CMOS battery on your motherboard, you don’t need to worry about that. Just leave it alone. Now, with the battery out and the PC disconnected from all power sources, press and hold the power button for five seconds. Now do it a second time. If the LED that indicates “power on” status comes on the second time, repeat a third time. Keep going until the “power on” LED doesn’t come on anymore when you press the power button. The purpose of this is to discharge any built-up electricity. If you have to do this more than twice, you probably need to have your PSU replaced. I won’t teach you how to do that here. You can proceed with following the instructions in this article to recover your data without replacing your PSU.

Remove The Hard Drive From Your PC

The method by which you’ll remove your hard drive from your laptop or desktop varies from one model to the next. In the “old days,” even five years ago, I would have told you to go find the service manual for your laptop or desktop to learn how to remove the hard drive. That’s still an option, and always a last resort, but nowadays there are a ton of online resources you can use for an easier to read/watch experience. I think a good video will be the most helpful. So start with Youtube. If that doesn’t work, progress to a general Google search.

For our example, let’s say you have an ancient Dell Inspiron 1200. That particular laptop was manufactured circa 2005. It’s an old laptop but it will work for our purposes. I just happen to have one handy here. So I head to Youtube and I search for “remove hard drive from inspiron 1200” (without the quotes). Well phooey! I don’t see a good video guide on the first page of results for removing the hard drive from an Inspiron 1200. I see one for a Vostro 1200 but not for an Inspiron 1200.

So next, let’s head to Google and see if some kind soul has posted an easy to find guide to remove the hard drive from an Inspiron 1200. There are some quick instructions posted in response to questions asked in forums but I see no thorough walkthrough that would help a novice user remove the hard drive from an Inspiron 1200. That’s perfect because we get to continue our example.

With Youtube and Google not having yielded the result we seek, let’s find the service manual. Service manuals for any given PC are published by the PC’s manufacturer and are usually available on the manufacturer’s website. In our case, the manufacturer is Dell, so let’s head to https://www.dell.com. Service manuals are usually somewhere under the “support” section of the manufacturer’s website, so we’re going to move our mouse over the “support” tab at the top of the page. We have several choices… nothing really jumps out as being the proper location for a service manual so let’s click “View All Support.”

It’s asking us for a “service tag” for our PC. A service tag is the term Dell uses for relatively short alphanumeric identifiers (similar to serial numbers) it assigns to its PCs. If your PC is not a Dell, your website might ask you for a serial number or some other identifier. In any case, if you don’t know how to find the identifier your manufacturer requests, use Google to find out where to find it. In the case of Dell laptops, like the Inspiron 1200, the Service Tag is located on a sticker on the bottom of the PC.

So I enter my service tag and click “Submit.” On the page that appears, I see there are a solid handful of links on the left side of the page. One of those links is “manuals and documents.” That sounds right, doesn’t it? So I click that link and I’m brought to a page where I see a link to “Inspiron 1200 Service Manual.” Voila! Again, if you’re not using a Dell, your manufacturer’s website will be different. You’ll have to use your intuition to navigate your way to the service manual.

After I follow the four easy steps in the service manual under the Hard Drive: Removing the Hard Drive section, I’ll be holding my hard drive in my hand.

Can’t Find The Service Manual?

So you’ve checked Youtube, you’ve searched Google and you’ve looked for the service manual on the manufacturer’s website… all to no avail. Or you’re just impatient (you’re going to have a bad time with this process… just saying!). If you found good instructions on removing the hard drive for your model of PC then skip everything under the “Can’t Find The Service Manual” heading and all its subheadings. Just follow the instructions you found.

Removing the Hard Drive from a Desktop With No Instructions

If you’re using a laptop, skip to the next subsection: Removing the Hard Drive from a Laptop With No Instructions.

Removing a hard drive from a desktop PC varies considerably between manufacturers and models. But the process boils down to this:

  1. Identify the hard drive
  2. Disconnect the power cable from the hard drive
  3. Disconnect the data cable from the hard drive
  4. Unscrew the screws holding the hard drive in place (often not necessary on modern PCs… details later)
Step The First: Identify the Hard Drive

This is what a desktop PC hard drive looks like:

3.5" Desktop Hard Drive

Some desktop PCs use the smaller size hard drives normally used by laptops but usually desktop hard drives are the larger of the two sizes. Above is pictured a desktop sized hard drive.

If you have more than one hard drive in your PC, you’re going to need to figure out which hard drive failed or contained your deleted data. As of the time I’m writing this, I’m unable to find any articles online that purport to show a novice user how to identify which of their hard drives has failed or contained their deleted files so I guess it’s up to me.

Help! I Have More Than One Hard Drive!

You can skip this subsection if you only have one hard drive. Most people only have one hard drive inside their PC.

Teaching you how to easily identify which of your hard drives has failed is going to be difficult. I spent about three hours trying to come up with a way for end users to easily identify their failed disk. But the methods I came up with were so lengthy (involving bootable USBs and such) that it actually makes more sense for users to just test every possible drive one at a time. I’m going to offer a couple quick methods for potentially identifying the failed disk. If you don’t have a failed disk but you’re trying to recover data that was accidentally deleted then don’t bother with this section. You’re just going to have to connect every disk that your deleted data could be on until you find the right one.

First, see if you can deduce which drive housed your missing data (or is failing) based on what you know about your drives.

Here’s an example:

Mike has a Dell Optiplex PC with two hard drives. His first hard drive is a 500 GB Western Digital SATA hard drive that contains Windows and some programs. The second hard drive is a 3 TB Toshiba SATA hard drive that contains his digitized movie collection and his lifetime of photographs. One day, he boots up his PC and goes to watch Batman Returns. The PC started up just fine. He clicks “Computer” on his start menu (it’s Windows 7). He double clicks the E: drive. He receives the error “The disk in Drive E is not formatted. Do you want to format it now?” But the E drive is where he keeps his pictures and movies! Of course it’s formatted! Something must be wrong with that disk. Mike knows that the damaged drive is the 3 TB Toshiba because he bought that huge hard drive specifically to store all his digital movies and his photos. He knew he’d need a lot of space. The 500 GB hard drive must have come with the PC. The 500 GB drive has Windows on it and he had no problem booting up his PC and logging in to Windows. So that disk must be fine. He deduces that the 3 TB Toshiba is the bad drive.

If that doesn’t work, get in to your BIOS and find where your hard drives are listed. If you don’t know how to access your BIOS, google “access bios on a” then type the make and model of your PC. BIOSes are different so I can’t walk you through exactly how to do this. First and foremost, don’t change anything in your BIOS. Changing a BIOS setting could render your PC non-booting. If you accidentally change a setting, make sure you don’t save your changes when you exit the BIOS. Try looking for a section called “System Information” or something like that. If you find where your hard drives are listed and you notice that the number of hard drives listed is one less than the number of hard drives in your PC, then I have good news and bad news for you. The good news: you’ve identified your failing hard drive. It’s the hard drive that isn’t listed. The bad news: If your hard drive has failed in a way that the BIOS can’t even recognize it, the chances of recovering your data are considerably diminished. It is not impossible though.

Ok, still can’t tell which hard drive is your failed hard drive? Then you’re just going to have to remove them one at a time and connect each one to your hard drive/USB adapter until you find the right hard drive.

I may come back and update this section of the tutorial at some point after I put my head together with some smarter techs than myself to see if they have any better ideas for how novice users can easily identify which hard drive is the one that’s failing.

 

Step the Second: Disconnect the Power Cable From The Hard Drive

So now we’re going to unplug the cable the supplies electricity to your hard drive. Since you’ve already unplugged your PC in a previous step and discharged any built-up electricity, you’re ready to complete this step with no risk to yourself or your PC.

The cable that supplies power to your PC is probably going to look like one of the following:

Molex/SATA Power Heads

Experts may notice that the Molex power head is actually the Molex end of a Molex to SATA adapter. But it’s close enough for our purposes.

Do you see a cable like that attached to the failed hard drive (or hard drive from which you wish to recover deleted data)? You should. If not, then that would be why your drive stopped working. These plugs really don’t just fall out though. I’ve never seen that happen. Unplug the Molex or SATA power cable from your hard drive now.

 

Step the Third: Disconnect the Data Cable from the Hard Drive

Your data cable probably looks like this:

Right-Angle SATA Head

 

But if your desktop PC is old, your data cable might look like this:

PATA Cable

In either case, grab the head of the cable, not the cable itself, and gently pull the cable straight back away from the hard drive. In the case of the IDE cable, it will likely have a thin little handle-cord to help you pull it out. In the case of the SATA data cable, you might have to gently squeeze in the head before you can pull it out. It should come out without much force.

 

Unscrew the Screws Holding the Hard Drive in Place

On today’s PCs, you can usually remove a hard drive without having to unscrew any screws. For example, on the old Dell Optiplex Gx- 260s, one would remove a hard drive by squeezing the tops of the greens rails on either side of the hard drive towards each other. Then the hard drive would just slide right out. Look for a brightly colored plastic thing attached to your hard drive. If you see one, that is probably the mechanism by which you can easily slide that hard drive out of there. If you don’t see one then it’s quite likely you’ll have to unscrew the hard drive before you slide it out. There should be two screws holding the hard drive in on each side. So you’ll possibly have to remove both sides of the PC case in order to get at the hard drive screws on the far side. In some cases the manufacturer may have the hard drive mounted in a cage that swings outward if you pull the right lever or push the right button first. Those levers or buttons are usually designed to grab attention. A colorful sticker may be affixed to them. Then once the hard drive cage swings out, you can either remove the hard drive by unscrewing the screws on both sides or sometimes it’s easier to just unscrew and remove the cage itself.

If you’re not experienced with PCs then I’m sure you just had a heck of a time getting that hard drive out of there. Maybe take a break now if you need one. Don’t forget to discharge your static electricity when you come back before you touch your hard drive.

 

Removing the Hard Drive From a Laptop With No Instructions

This is what a laptop hard drive looks like:

laptop hard drive

Your laptop probably only has one hard drive in it. A newer laptop, especially a high end laptop, may have a solid state drive instead of or in addition to a traditional hard drive. As a reminder, this guide does not cover solid state drives. Before proceeding, try to make sure the data you’re missing is on your traditional hard drive. Some laptops may have bays to accommodate more than one hard drive but this is rare. Users who have such laptops usually have them because they intentionally sought out and purchased such a laptop. But if that’s your situation, that you have more than one hard drive, just use this guide on one drive at a time until you find the right drive. Laptop hard drives are pretty easy to remove.

You really should try to find instructions for your specific laptop on removing the hard drive because the procedure varies so much from one model to the next. But if you can’t, I’ve (probably) got you covered here.

You’ve already disconnected your laptop from its external power source and removed the battery, right?

Here are the approximate steps to remove your laptop’s hard drive:

  1. Find where the hard drive is located
  2. Remove the appropriate screws
  3. Open the access panel
  4. Unscrew hard drive bracket from laptop if necessary and pull it loose
  5. Unscrew hard drive from bracket

 

Your hard drive could theoretically be anywhere inside your laptop. But it’s usually in one of a few places. Let’s look at some examples.

 

Example 1: Dell Latitude E4310 — Hard Drive Along The Side Of The Base

Your hard drive is most likely located just inside one of the sides of the base of your laptop. So turn your closed laptop upside down. In this configuration (hard drive located inside one of the sides of the base of the laptop), there is a small (three inches across or so) panel of plastic that attaches to the end of the hard drive. The plastic panel blends in with the rest of the laptop casing. After we remove the screws that hold it in place, we’ll be able to slide it straight out with your hard drive attached to it. Two or four screws on the base are holding it in place. Use your little phillips head screwdriver to remove the screws near the panel. Put those screws someplace safe. In this configuration, the screws do need to come all the way out of the their holes. Now, using your fingernails or a flathead screwdriver or a butterknife, gently pull the panel straight out the side of your laptop.

 

Hard drive is located inside the base at the bottom right of image.

 

I unscrewed the screws I’ve circled in red

 

I gently pulled the panel attached to the drive straight out away from the base using my fingernails

 

The drive has been successfully removed

 

So that was an easy one. On 14″ to 15″ inch laptops, you’ll frequently find that the configuration resembles Example #2 in terms of hard drive location.

Example 2: Sony PCG-81114L — Hard Drive Under Panel of Base

Bottom of Laptop Base

If you’re familiar with the dimensions of a laptop sized (2.5″) hard drive, you’ll probably be able to guess that the hard drive for this laptop is underneath the panel with the bright yellow sticker at the bottom left. Someone unfamiliar with the dimensions of a laptop hard drive might guess that the hard drive is under the middle panel. But that’s where the RAM is. If you remove a panel and you don’t see the hard drive, just put the panel back in place and try the next possible panel. But, in this case, the hard drive is indeed under that bottom left panel.

Panel Over Hard Drive

I’ve red-circled the two screws holding the panel in place. I removed those screws and put them in a safe place. They were the same size so I didn’t need to make any notes about which screw goes where.

Unscrew the Hard Drive

I use my fingernails to remove the panel and see the above. Once again, I’ve red-circled the screws that would need to be removed. Notice the empty screw holes on the hard drive bracket? That’s because the same screws that held the panel in place went through those screw holes. So you would just need to unscrew the top two screws circled in red.

Now I just grab the clear plastic tab and pull it in the opposite direction indicated by the arrow near it. That arrow indicates the direction that should be used to slide the hard drive bracket back in to place when you reinstall it. A little force is necessary but not much. If it doesn’t slide, then something is still holding it in place. Check for hidden screws or latches (there are none present in this case). Now just lift the bracket up and out of the laptop. Turn it upside down and you’ll see that the hard drive is in there.

Surprise!

For my advanced class: After turning the bracket over and seeing the above, how would a user know that this guide is not appropriate for their situation and that they should find an appropriate guide or contact an IT technician? Hint: three words.

If Finding Your Hard Drive is Hard

STOP!If you have a tiny laptop or the engineers at your laptop’s manufacturer are sadists, the hard drive may be hidden under the keyboard or you may have to remove the entire base cover to get to the hard drive. If that’s the case, you should reconsider whether you really want to do this yourself. Removing the base will involve removing a lot of screws. If you want to put the laptop back together, you’ll have to make sure the right size screw goes in to each hole. The screws may be different sizes so you need to keep careful track of which screw you remove from which hole. And a screw or two may be hidden (under the battery or maybe even under the laptop’s rubber feet or just about anywhere). It’s a real pain if you’re not experienced. Of course, the only way to get experienced is to do it. But if you’re not up for a challenge, maybe just stop here and call a technician.

The challenge will be similar if your hard drive is hidden underneath your keyboard. Removing a keyboard isn’t that difficult except for the first few times you do it. And you could easily accidentally break the plastic clip that holds the keyboard cable in place on the main board. It would be one thing if you had a good instruction manual, but since you’re reading the section of this article about how to remove a hard drive without instructions, it’s likely that you don’t have a good instruction manual. Your life will be easier in the short term if you hire someone to finish this process. But you will gain valuable knowledge if you continue on your own. Tough call.

One more screwball some manufacturers will throw at you… star shaped screws. Some manufacturers don’t use phillips head screws. They use these weird screws that require a star shaped screwdriver. Hopefully you bought a screwdriver set with star shaped bits. If not, you can either go buy such a set or you can get thee to a technician.

 

Remove Your Hard Drive From The Bracket And Remove The Adapter If There Is One

Removing your hard drive from the bracket may or may not be necessary. You need clear and unfettered access to the end of your hard drive that has the data/power ports. In the case of Example #2 above, we would have to remove that bracket. In the case of Example #1, it would not be necessary. I advise against removing the bracket if it is not necessary to do so for a couple of reasons. First, the bracket will help keep your hard drive elevated during the data recovery. Second, it’s just more screws to keep track of and potentially lose. If it’s not necessary, don’t bother.

Your bracket will be held in place by screws. Remove the screws and your hard drive should come totally loose from it. Don’t try to remove the screws that hold the circuit board on the hard drive.

By the way, be gentle with your hard drive. Don’t drop it. Don’t shake it. Don’t use it as a coaster. Keep it away from magnets. Unofficially, it doesn’t really matter if you use a magnetic screwdriver. The magnets on screwdrivers are weak. Just don’t move it over the top or bottom of your hard drive. But the “textbook policy” on magnetic screwdrivers is that you shouldn’t use them with computers or with hard drives. This is kind of like the wrist strap thing. You’ll get different answers depending on who you ask. I’m sure I’ll get some incredulous and perhaps even angry emails for not admonishing users against the evils of magnetic screwdrivers. I don’t hesitate to use magnetic screwdrivers on peoples’ PCs when I work on them but I try to avoid them when removing hard drives from brackets lest I absentmindedly set the magnetic screwdriver on top of the hard drive.

Got the hard drive out of the bracket? Good. Now, there’s a possibility that there’s an adapter attached to the end of your hard drive that you’re going to need to remove. It’s just a little plastic piece that looks like part of the hard drive. Unfortunately, as I sit here writing this, none of the four laptop hard drives I have handy have adapters. I may add a photo of such an adapter to this tutorial in the future if I come across one. I assure you they are not uncommon.

If your hard drive contains an adapter over the data and/or power ports, you need to remove it. You should be able to gently coax it off with a fingernail. If not, carefully use a flathead screwdriver.

 

Get Your Hard Drive Hooked Up to the SATA/PATA to USB Adapter

Ok that last part was probably hard. Take a break then come back. Things get easier from here but you need to be focused. When you return from your break, remember to discharge any built up static electricity in your body before touching your hard drive. This is now more important than it’s been at any previous point of the process because you’re working with your hard drive directly outside of your PC.

Handle your hard drive with care. Don’t drop it. Don’t bang it.

Boot up the Windows PC that you’re going to use to recover your data. Open your SATA/PATA to USB Adapter.

The way in which you’re going to connect the adapter to your hard drive depends on what type of hard drive data/power interface you have. The only types that your hard drive are likely to have are SATA (SAY-tuh) and PATA (PAY-tuh). Your hard drive will only have one of those data interfaces although it may or may not have both power interfaces (both a molex power connector and a SATA power connector). You need to figure out which type of connector your hard drive uses. There are three possible likely interfaces. A desktop sized (3.5″) PATA hard drives use a data connector with pins that are spaced out more than they are on a laptop sized (2.5″) hard drive. Hopefully you bought an adapter that works with the type of drive you have. If not, you’ll need to exchange it for an adapter with the correct interface. If you bought the kit I recommended then you’re covered for all three interfaces.

 

PATA
PATA on a desktop sized (3.5″) hard drive
laptop PATA
PATA on a laptop sized (2.5″) hard drive
SATA
SATA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I do apologize for the poor image quality on the SATA photo. I was having an issue with the flash on my phone (anyone know a good IT technician?).

With the PATA drives it’s important that you insert the drive’s pins in to the adapter the right way. The manufacturer has taken precautions to ensure that you can only insert the pins the correct way. If you bought a low quality adapter, it may not incorporate support for these protective features. Specifically, do you notice how one of the pins on your PATA hard drive is missing? That’s called the “keyed pin.” High quality ribbon cables, motherboards, PATA to USB adapters and other devices have only a blank filled in square instead of a hole. That blank square should line up with the missing pin. If it doesn’t, then obviously, your drive pins won’t go in to the device you’re trying to plug it in to because an actual pin will be trying to go in to a hole that does not exist. So if the drive isn’t connecting, don’t force it or you might bend the pins (that’s really bad). Check and see whether the blank square is lined up with the hole. If there is no blank square on your adapter, then hopefully there’s a nodule above the double row of holes. That protrusion (I’m calling it a “nodule”) should line up with a gap in your drive. That serves the same purpose as the missing pin/filled in hole. If your adapter lacks both of these features, then I would encourage you to avoid purchasing from that manufacturer in the future. If you manage to plug the adapter in backwards (because your adapter lacks the features to prevent you from doing that), it probably won’t hurt the drive but it isn’t going to work. So be prepared for the possibility that you may have to start this process over and turn your adapter around. If your adapter has either of the protective features then you don’t need to worry about plugging it in backwards.

If you have a PATA drive, be careful with those pins. Don’t bend them. The pins should be perfectly straight. If any of them become bent, you should give up and contact a professional data recovery lab to retrieve your data.

PATA drives are usually found in older PCs. Newer PCs generally use SATA.

Before you begin connecting your hard drive to the adapter, you need to get the drive situated correctly. The circuit board is exposed so you don’t want it touching anything conductive once you get electricity flowing through it. Generally, you should place your hard drive upside down (with the circuit board side up) on the ground, desk or table near your PC. You may notice a warning on the non-circuit board side of your hard drive that says something like, “WARNING: Do not cover this hole!” Unless you’re performing this data recovery operation at an extreme altitude (on a plane, on a mountain, under the sea), you don’t need to worry about that. If you’re interested in learning more about that hole and its function, visit: https://www.howtogeek.com/127433/what-is-the-purpose-of-the-do-not-cover-this-hole-hole-on-hard-drives/.

 

If You Have a Desktop Sized (3.5″) PATA Hard Drive

Desktop sized (3.5″) PATA drive with interfaces labeled

Here we go. Your chances of recovering your data will be greatest if you follow these instructions carefully and in order.

This section only applies to you if you have a desktop sized (3.5″) hard drive with a PATA interface.

First, we need to make sure the master/slave jumper is configured correctly. With PATA drives, each drive connected to an IDE ribbon cable either runs in slave mode or master mode. Another jumper position will likely be “CS” for “Cable Select.” IDE ribbon cables have two drive interfaces (and a third interface to connect to the motherboard). One interface defaults to master and one interface defaults to slave. So if a drive is set to CS, the drive will function as either a master or a slave depending on which cable interface it’s plugged in to. Regardless of whether your hard drive was a master or a slave inside your desktop, we need to get it jumpered as a master before you use it with the USB kit. It will probably be easy. There’s usually a guide printed on the label sticker on the hard drive that tells you which set of pins sets the drive for “master” mode. If your drive is set to CS, that should be fine, but go ahead and move it over to the “master” setting just to be sure.

This drive has the jumper settings labeled on the circuit board instead of the label.

If your drive doesn’t have a guide printed on it, then you need to google your drive’s make and model and try to find its manual (NOTE: You need to find the manual for your hard drive… not for your PC). Or just try to find a forum post where a user with the same drive as you asked about jumper settings. Usually, the “master” setting is where the jumper covers the pin with a missing pin below it. To move the jumper, just carefully grip it between your pointer and thumb and slide it off the pins. You might have to use a fingernail or even a flathead screwdriver to gently pull it off the pins. Then just slide it right back on over the pair of pins for the “master” setting. Be sure to check the guide first because the jumper is probably already on the “master” setting. If you’re having too much trouble finding what the master setting is, just try the drive with the jumper over the pin-“pair” that’s missing a pin. To be clear, I don’t mean the missing pin over on the PATA data interface. The jumper will never go on the PATA data interface. It will go on one of those pairs in the “Master/Slave” section on the hard drive.

See the long double row of pins on your hard drive? That’s your data interface. Take your PATA to USB adapter out of the kit and look at the opposite end from the USB end. If you bought an adapter that works with laptop sized (2.5″) and desktop sized (3.5″) hard drives, you’ll notice that the connection interfaces for the two are a little different. On your adapter, you want to use the double row of holes that’s spaced out a bit more than the other double row of holes because that’s the double row that works with desktop sized (3.5″) hard drives. If your adapter has a “missing hole,” make sure it is lined up with the missing pin when you go to connect the hard drive to your adapter. Once you have it lined up correctly, go ahead and connect the adapter to those pins. Be careful. Don’t force it. If you bend a pin, you’re not going to be able to unbend it correctly without bending other pins. You’ll have to procure the services of a professional data recovery lab in that case. The pins on the hard drive should slide in to the holes in your adapter with relative ease.

Desktop Sized Hard Drive PATA interface on adapter
Desktop sized (3.5″) PATA hard drive interface on my adapter. Notice the nodule at the top to ensure I connect it to drives correctly.

 

Desktop sized hard drive connected to adapter
My SATA/PATA to USB adapter connected to a desktop sized (3.5″) PATA hard drive

Do the pins just not line up correctly no matter how you turn the adapter? You might be working with a laptop sized (2.5″) PATA adapter. Search your adapter to see if there’s another double-row of holes that are spaced further apart than the ones you were trying to use. If there is, try using that double-row of holes instead. If there isn’t, search your kit to see if there’s another PATA to USB adapter with a double-row of holes that is spaced further apart than the double-row of holes you were trying to use. If there is, then bingo! If not, then you may have an adapter that only works with laptop sized (2.5″) hard drives. Verify this by carefully reading the box or the manual. In that case, you’ll have to purchase a PATA to USB adapter that works with desktop sized (3.5″) hard drives. If your box or manual says that your adapter should work with desktop sized (3.5″) hard drives, then your drive may have a bent pin. Look closely. A bent pin means game over: just get the drive to a recovery lab or give up and recycle it.

At this point you should have your hard drive connected to the PATA interface on your adapter but you should not have the USB end of the adapter plugged in to your PC yet. You already plugged it in? Not a big deal. Just leave it. Don’t unplug it or you might interrupt a driver installation.

This next part’s easy. Find the AC power adapter that came with your kit. The end of the power adapter that doesn’t plug in to the wall should have four holes (it’s called “molex.”)

Molex Power Interface on the adapter

Connect that four-holed head to the four power-pins that constitute the hard drive’s power interface.

 

Molex Power Interface on Hard Drive

If it doesn’t fit, turn the head around and try plugging it in that way. It will only fit if you’re plugging it in the right way.

 

At this point, you should have the hard drive connected to both the power cable and the data cable. But the data cable should not be connected to your PC and the power adapter should not yet be connected to the electrical outlet.

 

If you’d like a break, take it now. Once you supply the hard drive with electrical power, assuming it’s damaged, you have a better chance of recovering more data if you work quickly (but not carelessly). I’ll have you power up the hard drive and connect it to your PC at the beginning of the section where you attempt to recover your data. When you’re ready to proceed, skip to that section..

 

If You Have a Laptop Sized (2.5″) PATA Hard Drive

Good news! This is the simplest of the drive types to work with in this guide because it requires no AC power adapter! It’s going to be powered through the USB adapter. There is no separate power connection. Just do the data connection I’ll describe and the drive will receive all the electricity it needs to operate (although I can’t promise you it will be readable since it’s presumably a damaged drive that you’re working with).

 

A laptop sized PATA hard drive’s data interface is similar to a desktop sized PATA hard drive’s data interface but it’s smaller. This is what a 2.5″ laptop sized PATA hard drive looks like:

 

PATA Laptop Connectors
Laptop Sized (2.5″) PATA Hard Drive

 

All you have to do in this section is connect the hard drive’s data interface to the USB adapter:

 

USB Adapter Laptop HD Connector

 

Go ahead and connect the drive to the USB adapter now. Be careful not to bend any pins. If you bend a pin, just give up. You’ll need to send your drive to a professional recovery lab or dispose of it. Do not connect the USB adapter to the laptop yet. You’ll do that first thing in the next section. If you would like a break, go ahead and take one. After you connect your hard drive to the laptop via the adapter, you’ll need to work quickly but carefully to maximize your chances of a successful recovery.

 

If You Have a SATA Hard Drive

SATA Hard Drive
SATA Hard Drive

With a SATA hard drive, the connection process will be the same regardless of whether you have a laptop sized hard drive or a desktop sized hard drive.

Your adapter may not have SATA power and data connectors already attached to it. If it’s like my adapter (or the one I recommended that you buy), it will come with a SATA data cable that you have to attach to the USB adapter and a molex to SATA power adapter that you’ll have to attach to the molex end of the AC adapter.

You may notice on my SATA hard drive, above, that the hard drive has both a molex (four-pin) power connector and a SATA power connector. If your hard drive has a molex power adapter, you can use it if you’d prefer. You still have to use the SATA data interface though.

If it’s necessary to configure your data and power adapters for use with a SATA hard drive, you should go ahead and do that now. I’ll walk you through how I configure mine.

With the hard drive I’ve pictured above, I could forego using the SATA power adapter because a molex power interface is present on the drive. But if that weren’t the case, I would need to connect the white end of the molex-to-SATA adapter (below) that came with my data recovery kit to the molex interface on the power adapter. Then the black end of that adapter, which is SATA, could be used on the power interface of a SATA hard drive.

Molex to SATA Power Adapter

 

After configuring the power adapter for use with a SATA drive, I must connect the SATA cable to the USB head so that I can use the USB adapter with a SATA drive. Again, I must remind you that your adapter may be different. It may even already be configured for use with a SATA device. So you can’t follow this part of the guide exactly.

On my USB adapter, this is the SATA data port, in to which I would need to connect a SATA cable:

USB Adapter SATA Data Interface

 

And this is the end of a SATA cable. I would connect it to the adapter above:

Right-Angle SATA Head

 

This head is at a right-angle. Some SATA heads are bent at right angles and some are straight. It really doesn’t matter for our purpose here. And both ends of the SATA data cable are the same. You can plug either end in to the adapter.

 

At this point, if necessary, you should have configured your data recovery kit for use with a SATA hard drive using the instructions in the preceding paragraphs. Let’s begin by connecting the SATA data cable from the USB adapter to your hard drive. See the SATA data cable above? I will reiterate that, although the head of this cable is bent at a right-angle, yours might not be. Yours might be straight. Either way is fine. Look at the ports on the hard drive. It should be glaringly obvious which interface the SATA cable should connect to. It’s the smaller of the two sideways “L’s” if that helps. As you can see, the L shape of the connector prevents you from incorrectly connecting the cable. So just plug it in so that it fits.

 

USB Adapter Connected to SATA Hard Drive

 

After connecting your adapter to the hard drive, it should look similar to the above.

 

Now connect the SATA head of the power adapter to your hard drive. It connects like a bigger version of the data cable. Super easy. Don’t connect the power adapter to an electrical outlet yet. That’ll come next. Proceed to the section on recovering your data.

 

Recover Your Data

Ok, friends… the moment of truth is here! Let’s find out if your data is recoverable. At this point, your hard drive should be connected to your USB adapter and, unless you have a laptop sized PATA drive, to your power adapter. Your power adapter should not be plugged in to an electrical outlet and your USB adapter should not yet be plugged in to your PC.

 

Overview

 

Let’s do a quick overview of how this is going to work before we begin. You’re going to need to work steadily. Don’t rush and don’t fail to read as you go. But don’t dawdle either. If you’re working with a damaged hard drive, it may become progressively more damaged while it’s powered up. So we want to get your recoverable data to safety quickly. Please read the overview section before you begin attempting recovery so you have an idea of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it as we go.

We’re going to begin by trying to make your drive be recognized in Windows and assigned a drive letter. If this works, you’ll be able to copy your files directly off of your hard drive the same way you would ordinarily copy files in Windows. After each attempt, you’ll “eject” and disconnect the drive. If it doesn’t work, you’ll have to decide if you want to try again or if you want to try using data recovery software.

If you opt for data recovery software, you’ll have to do some research on which application(s) you’d like to try. I’ll have some suggestions of applications for you to look in to.

If that fails, you’re going to have to decide whether to hire a professional data recovery lab or give up on recovering your hard drive.

 

Attempt To Recover Your Data Through Windows

As of now, you still should not have the hard drive connected to the laptop or to an electrical outlet.

Is the PC you’re going to use to attempt to recover your data freshly booted? If not then restart it. We want to maximize our chances of success and minimize our chances of anything going wrong. A freshly restarted PC goes a long way towards that. At least close out of any applications you have open. We don’t want a bunch of stuff getting in the way when you’re trying to recover your data.

You need to make sure you’re logged in to your PC with an account that has local administrator rights or that the UAC settings are such that you’ll be prompted for admin credentials to perform elevated actions. If you don’t know what that means, just log in to your PC as an administrator before you go any further. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to use the account called “administrator” (although that account almost always has local admin rights so it would work perfectly here). Are you asked to put in a user name and password when you install a new program? If NOT, then you are probably a local administrator.

I have Windows 10 so these instructions work on Windows 10. If you’re using a different version of Windows, you’re going to have to improvise in slight ways. Icons may look a little different and text may be a little different for you. So be prepared to do a little critical thinking.

To start with, create a folder on your desktop and call it “Recovery” (or whatever else you want). To do this, right click on the background of your desktop, making sure not to accidentally right click on an icon. On the context menu that appears, move your mouse on to “New.” When the submenu appears, click “Folder.” A new folder icon should appear on your desktop. Type “Recovery” and hit enter. Now hit enter one more time to open the folder. This folder that you just created is where you’re going to copy any data that you’re able to recover.

I would disable the antivirus on the recovery PC at this point to speed up the file copy process and to maximize my chances of successful recovery. It’s not absolutely necessary that you do so. If you’re not comfortable with that, or just don’t feel like it, then don’t. But, if nothing else, you really should at least disable the feature on your antivirus that automatically scans new devices when you plug them in. We want to minimize the amount of disk activity taking place on the target hard drive. Having an antivirus scan it is contrary to that aim. But, again, if you’re uncomfortable with temporarily disabling any aspect of your antivirus, you can skip this part. Just know that, if you’re working with a damaged hard drive, your chances of successfully recovering data will be diminished if you leave your antivirus completely active.

Unless you’re using a laptop sized (2.5″) PATA hard drive, go ahead and connect your power adapter to an electrical outlet. Listen to your hard drive for a few seconds as it “spins up.” Is it clicking? That’s not normal. Grinding? That’s bad. Unusual noises mean there’s an increased likelihood that you’ll be unsuccessful in recovering your data.

Now connect the USB end of the USB adapter to an available USB port on your PC. Do you know what USB 3 port is? Do you have one? If so, that’s the best port to connect to. If you don’t know what that is, don’t sweat it. Just connect the adapter to any available USB port.

The moment of truth has arrived! Look at your system tray, down by your clock. A little text balloon should appear letting you know that new devices are being installed. Go ahead and click it. A window should appear showing you the status and progress of the device driver installations. Wait for it to finish.

Did a window just pop up asking what you want to do with the device you just plugged in? If so, that’s a good sign! In that case, you can click the option with the folder icon and skip the next instructions about opening “This PC.”

Tap the Windows logo key and type “this pc.” Capitalization is not important. If you’re using an earlier version of Windows, try typing “computer” instead. Click on “This PC” or “Computer” when the option appears. In the window that appears, look for a drive that isn’t usually there. In the example below, it’s the E: drive. It may very well be the E: drive on your PC as well but isn’t necessarily the E: drive.

 

ThisPC

If you do not see your drive listed, proceed to the section “I Do Not See My Drive.” If you see your drive, continue with the section, “I See My Drive.”

 

I Do Not See My Drive

Here, if I were doing a data recovery on a hard drive, I might use the Disk Management snap-in to see whether Windows is recognizing my disk. But I’m not going to advise you to do that. It can just be way too confusing. Instead, we’re going to “safely stop” the drive and disconnect it. Then I’ll advise you further. Here on Windows 10, there’s an icon in the row of little icons near the clock that looks like a USB flash drive. It may not be there for you since Windows apparently didn’t mount your drive. But if it is, click it and select the “Eject” that corresponds to your device. There will likely be just one eject option but there could be more if you have other ejectable devices connected. But if the option to eject your device is there, select it and wait for a notification that it is now safe to disconnect your device. Once you see that notification, you can disconnect your device. If you get a notification that it is not safe to eject your drive, you can wait a few seconds and try again or you can just go ahead and disconnect it by disconnecting the USB adapter from your laptop.

Once your drive is disconnected from your laptop, you need to unplug it from the electrical outlet.

You can take a deep breath and slow down a bit now. That did not go well and you have a choice to make. You can try again. Just because it didn’t work the first time doesn’t mean it won’t work the second… or the fourth… or the fiftieth. I’ve had drives that suddenly worked after an hour of trying. Just keep in mind that you may be damaging your drive further every time you use it. So if this is really important data, maybe it’s time to throw in the towel and hire a professional lab?

If you don’t want to hire a lab but you’re willing to pay some money, you can try a data recovery software package. There is a free one available that I’ll teach you about but, in my experience, it’s less effective than the ones that you pay for. Why don’t you at least read the beginning of the section on data recovery software and consider whether it’s an option you’d like to explore. Most data recovery software packages will give you a free trial so you can at least determine whether the software will be likely to recover your data. Of course, if you actually want that data, you’re going to have to pay them.

So:

(1) Try again by repeating the instructions in “Attempt to Recover Your Data Through Windows.” Obviously you don’t have to recreate the recovery folder… it already exists because you already created it. You can try again as many times as you like. Just know that, as long as you’re using a damaged hard drive, you may be exacerbating the damage and perhaps making it so that even a professional lab won’t be able to recover your data.

(2) Buy a data recovery software solution. Skip ahead to “Data Recovery Software.”

(3) Hire a professional data recovery lab. Go back to the beginning of this document and find the relevant section.

(4) Give up. If your data isn’t worth paying to recover and your patience in trying to recover it through Windows has been exhausted, you should dispose of your hard drive. At least in theory, you should destroy it to render it unreadable. A common way of doing this is drilling a hole through it. I’ll leave that up to you or find another guide on destroying old hard drives.

I See My Drive

Double click your drive. Did it open quickly? That’s a good sign! You should already have the window for the “recovery” folder open. The recovery folder window and the window with your target hard drive in it should be grouped together under a single icon on the taskbar (unless you disabled that for some reason). The icon probably looks like a folder. Hold down your left shift key and right-click on it. On Windows 10, you should select “show windows side by side.” The phrasing is different on earlier versions of Windows but choose the equivalent. Now both folders should be on your screen next to each other.

You’re going to work your way through your hard drive and find the files and folders you want to recover. Remember, you can click and drag to select multiple files and folders. You can hit CTRL+A to select all the files and folders in the current window. You can hold down CTRL and left click to select or unselect files without unselecting the ones you’ve already selected. Shift+click is handy if you know it but it’s not required so I’m not going to try to teach it to you in the middle of battle. Every time you highlight a group of files or folders you want, you’re going to hold down the right mouse button and drag that group of files and folders over to the “recover” folder window and just drop it in the white space. If you do this with the right mouse button, which you should, you’ll be given a context menu so you can decide whether to move or copy the files. Choose copy instead of move because move adds extra disk activity on your old (and possibly damaged) hard drive. We want to minimize activity because activity can cause more damage.

Don’t be greedy. Be efficient. If your hard drive is damaged, it may stop working at any time. Grab the files and folders that are most important to you first. You can come back for the others afterwards. In Windows 10, your important stuff will probably be under your individual account folder under the Users folder. So, for example, if I were recovering Adam Smith’s data, here’s what I’d grab for him before looking for anything else:

E:\users\ASmith\appdata\local\microsoft\outlook\archive.pst (His old archived Microsoft Outlook email)

E:\users\ASmith\desktop\

E:\users\ASmith\documents\

E:\users\ASmith\pictures\

E:\users\ASmith\videos\

E:\users\ASmith\favorites\

If you don’t know what to save first, start there, but of course you should replace ASmith with your own username from Windows on your old hard drive. And you should use the appropriate drive letter for your hard drive. It may or may not be E:.

If you can, it’s best to just type the folder location in to the location bar and directly pull it up rather than clicking your way through the folders. Each time you click to open a folder, your hard drive is read from to get a list of the files and folders at that location. And, as you probably know by now, we want to minimize the amount of reading from and writing to your hard drive. You may (indeed, you should) receive an error about permissions when you try to open your old user folder. Just go ahead and confirm that you want to give yourself permission to access the folders you’re trying to recover.

If your hard drive is damaged, the file copy may take a long time and it may fail numerous times. Your PC may stop recognizing the drive. If it does, start the process over again by disconnecting the hard drive and reconnecting it. Reboot your PC if you have to.

By the way, if you get a scary error message when you reboot your PC about how it can’t read your hard drive, don’t worry… your PC is attempting to boot from the external hard drive. You just need to disconnect it from the laptop and then reboot again and your computer will start right up.

If you manage to recover your data, don’t forget to re-enable your antivirus.

 

Third-Party Data Recovery Applications

If you’re reading this section, then Windows file-copy didn’t do the trick. At this point, unless you’re too experienced to even really need this guide, you’ve spent hours trying to recover your data. In for a penny, in for a pound, right? At least in terms of your time, you may as well spend a little more. But what about paying for a data recovery program license? Well, the good news is that most data recovery applications will give you some sort of a limited free trial so you can at least see whether they’re likely to be able to recover your data before you shell out money to pay for them.

You have many choices when it comes to data recovery software. I’ll cover a few of them here. You should probably just start trying them until you find one that proves to you, during your free trial, that it can see your missing data. If the free version can’t show you your missing data, then it’s highly unlikely that the paid version can recover your missing data.

  • Recuva by Piriform — This is an extremely popular data recovery program because it’s free. It’s also very user friendly. In my experience, it’s not particularly effective at recovering data compared to some of the paid options out there. But if you’re on a limited budget or if user-friendliness is one of your primary selection criteria, Recuva is a good place to start. Recuva is a fine option for recovering files that you accidentally deleted.
  • Stellar Phoenix Home Edition — I haven’t used a third party data recovery program in quite some time now but Stellar Phoenix was my favorite because I found that it yielded the highest rate of success in recovering data from difficult drives. As of the time I’m writing this, you can recover up to 1 GB of data free of charge with the trial version. That’s probably enough to recover your most important data. Back when I used to use it, Stellar Phoenix wasn’t super user-friendly… it really seemed geared more towards technicians. I didn’t mind that, of course, but unless they’ve changed it to cater more to end users, you might be frustrated unless your level of tech knowledge is on the higher side.
  • OnTrack by Kroll — Kroll is a well-known data recovery company. I’ve used their software a couple of times but it’s been years now. Based on their reputation, they might be worth a look.
  • EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard — EaseUS is getting to be pretty well known. I’ve used something or other by them before although I don’t think it was their disk recovery software. Their free data recovery software will allow you to recover up to 2 GB of data. After that, you’ll have to shell out for their pro version.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve found this guide useful and, whichever method you chose, I hope you were successful in recovering your data. Going forward, you should back up your data. Backup solutions for home and small business users are beyond the scope of this tutorial. But I think the cloud is a wonderful option because, once you set it up, you just have to pay your cloud provider and everything just works. Then, one day in the future, when your hard drive fails, all your data will be there safe and sound. With an external hard drive, a lot more responsibility is put on the user and they’re a lot more likely to let backups fall through the cracks (or to not realize that something’s gone wrong with their hardware and backups aren’t taking place). I recommend using Google to find a reliable cloud backup provider. Some well known ones are Carbonite, Mozy, Backblaze, iDrive (not to be confused with Apple’s iCloud) and CrashPlan.

Although I’m unable to offer free (or paid) technical support to people on this website, I’d love to hear how your recovery experience went. Which method (recovery lab, technician or yourself) did you choose? How did it work for you? If you hired a lab or a technician, who did you use? Did you find any parts of this guide confusing, frustrating or incorrect? Did you have to supplement this guide by using additional resources? If so, what did you use?

I worked hard on this tutorial over the course of several weeks. I hope you’ll consider supporting this site by visiting my advertiser (see the banner on the right… unless you’re blocking ads). If you don’t want to support this site financially by visiting my advertiser via the banner ad, then perhaps you could share this tutorial on social media?

As always, thanks for reading!

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