How to Recover Data From External Hard Drive

How to Recover Data From an External Hard Drive

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Written by Robert Agar Robert Agar Staff Writer • 49 articles Robert Agar, a staff writer at Handy Recovery, specializes in data recovery and data management topics, with a particular affinity for macOS and iOS. He played a key role in the founding of our team and project back in 2017, and is notably responsible for authoring much of the initial content that graced our website. Robert brings over 30 years of experience in data storage, security, compliance, backup, and recovery to the Handy Recovery team. LinkedIn Approved by Andrey Vasilyev Andrey Vasilyev Editor Andrey Vasilyev is an Editorial Advisor for Handy Recovery. Andrey is a software engineer expert with extensive expertise in data recovery, computer forensics, and data litigation. Andrey brings over 12 years of experience in software development, database administration, and hardware repair to the team. LinkedIn

Ever heard that sinking feeling when you realize you’ve accidentally deleted or wiped important files from your external hard drive?

Don’t panic! While it may seem like they’re gone forever, the good news is that recovering data from external hard drives is often possible, even after formatting or logical damage. Thanks to how modern operating systems handle file deletion, the files are often still physically present, just waiting to be rescued. This is where data recovery software comes in.


This article will guide you through the detailed process of external hard drive recovery, showing you the tools and steps to bring your lost files back.

Wait, Are You Suggesting My External Hard Drive Can Be Recovered?

Yes, recovering files lost due to deletion, formatting, or even corruption on an external hard drive is often possible. This is because, as we discussed earlier, operating systems don’t actually erase data when you delete it.


The key is to stop using the external hard drive as soon as you suspect you have lost data. You need to prevent the operating system from overwriting the deleted items with new information. Unplug the external drive and don’t use it again until you are ready to perform the data recovery.

When you delete a file on a Windows system, logical access to the data is removed but the data remains physically on the disk. The space occupied by the deleted item is marked as available for future use by the operating system. Eventually, that space will be reused as new data is saved to the disk.

Until the original data is overwritten, data recovery software can ‘revive’ it. At the file system level, such software scans the directory entries of deleted files and pieces lost files together. Additionally, it recognizes file signatures, which are unique patterns within file headers, to identify remnant data fragments and reconstruct them into usable files.

Here’s an interesting statistic for you:

External Hard Drive Data Recovery Search Statistics

Our internal statistics and feedback from our users, as well as statistics from services like Google Ads, all point to one thing: users are most interested in recovering deleted data, data from formatted devices, and data from logically corrupted devices. Thankfully, data recovery software is particularly effective in all of these scenarios. So, without further ado, let’s jump into the recovery guide.

How to Recover Files From an External Hard Drive Using Data Recovery Software

Here are the simple steps that will get your files back from an external hard drive using Disk Drill Data Recovery. Why Disk Drill? In short, we like Disk Drill because it supports all major file systems and around 400 file types, has an excellent scanning speed, an intuitive UI, and an excellent recovery rate. And the best part is that it lets you recover 500 MB of data for free. We will cover Disk Drill’s features in detail in one of the sections below.


Important: If your PC is having trouble recognizing your external drive, don’t format it even if it prompts you to! Disk Drill can still read data from it as long as it appears in the device list. For more tips on fixing external drives connectivity issues, check out this article.

Download and install the tool

Download and install Disk Drill for Windows on your computer. Provide system level credentials during the installation and grant the program permission to make system changes if prompted.

Download and install

Connect your external HDD and launch the app

Connect the external hard drive to your machine and launch Disk Drill. You will be presented with a disk list displaying all available devices. Select the external drive from the list.

External hard drive data recovery by Disk Drill

Scan your device for lost files

Click the Search for lost data button to start the scanning process. Disk Drill will run all of its scanning procedures automatically in the optimal order. You will see a status bar indicating the progress of the scan which can be paused and restarted at any time. Data can be even recovered before the scan completes or when the process is paused.

Scan external hard drive for deleted files

Preview the recoverable data

Preview the files found by Disk Drill’s scanning algorithms. The recovered data will be conveniently organized in folders for Pictures, Videos, Audio, Documents, and Archive files, simplifying the recovery process. Disk Drill also categorizes recovered data into three main categories (Deleted, Existing, and Reconstructed) and offers intuitive filters within each category for easier searching. Select the files you want to restore.

Preview recoverable data

Finalize the recovery

Click the Recover button to restore the selected files. A window will appear, displaying a list of suggested disks and folders for recovery. Alternatively, you can select Choose Destination to pick a location yourself. Do not use the original external disk to avoid overwriting the data you want to recover. Once the process completes, your files will be available to your operating system and their original applications.

Perform the external hard drive recovery

More Details on Disk Drill and Other External Hard Drive Recovery Software Solutions

We regularly test software solutions in our daily work and were impressed with Disk Drill. The tool has enabled us to recover from a variety of data loss scenarios and the data protection features let us rest easy that our data is safe.

Disk Drill is a professional data recovery solution that is available for Windows and Mac systems. The tool can restore lost and deleted files and folders from virtually any kind of disk-based storage media.

Disk Drill’s core strength lies in its powerful scanning algorithms. These algorithms enable you to undelete files from any storage device, including external hard drives. Beyond recovering data at the file system level, they can also recover files in around 400 different formats. This feat is achieved by meticulously scanning your drive sector-by-sector and piecing together data fragments based on their unique file signatures.

Here are some of Disk Drill’s core features:

  • Multiple scanning modes recover as much data as possible from your external hard drive.
  • An intuitive and user-friendly interface enables you to recover lost data with a few simple clicks.
  • You can pause and restart scans and recoveries at your convenience.
  • Free data protection utilities safeguard important files and folders.
  • Free disk imaging functionality creates byte-level backups of failing disks.
  • Images – JPEG, NRW, NEF, RAF, GPR, BMP, TIFF, PNG, PSD, and many others.
  • Video – WMV, WebM, AVI, MOV, CRM, MP4, FLV, and many more.
  • Audio – AA, MID, MP3, WAV, WMA, and all other popular formats.
  • Document – APK, DOCX, EMF, DWG, XLS, and many others.
  • Archive – CAB, DMG, TAR, RAR, and ZIP among others.

Both Windows and Mac users get all the free data protection tools and the ability to preview recovered files before upgrading to the paid version. Windows users can restore up to 500 MB of data without upgrading to the Disk Drill PRO . This lets you test-drive the app and see how it can help you recover from unexpected data loss.


Still curious about Disk Drill? We’ve prepared even more comprehensive review of its functionality and scanning results, along with an analysis of its safety.

If Disk Drill didn’t work out for you, consider exploring alternative programs. We’ve compiled a short list of other external hard disk data recovery software worth examining:

  • R-Studio: Excellent for advanced users, offering a comprehensive toolkit for data recovery professionals. However, the Trial version’s restrictive 256 KB file size limit and overall complexity might deter beginners.
  • PhotoRec/TestDisk: These open-source gems work in tandem. TestDisk specializes in repairing external hard drive partitions, while PhotoRec recovers deleted data from formatted/corrupted drives. While completely free, the downside is that recovered data lacks original names and folder structure, as it’s retrieved purely from file signatures.
  • Recuva: This popular Windows data recovery option might not blow you away with its results, often falling short in both file system and signature-based scans. However, it’s completely free and user-friendly, making it a decent last resort.

Be Aware of Losing Data From Your External Hard Disk

There are many reasons that your external hard drive can experience data loss. Some of the most common are:

  • 🛑 Human error – This is by far the most common reason for data loss. It can occur through accidentally deleting files or formatting disks. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the Windows cmd command and accidentally ran a script that deleted a bunch of files. You might realize it a split second after executing the command, but the damage is done.
  • 😔 Faulty upgrades – Occasionally a faulty system or application upgrade can impact your system. If an external hard drive was attached to your machine during the upgrade, it could have been negatively impacted and you may have lost some data from it.
  • Power surges – A power spike can cause damage to your drive and result in a broken storage device that requires data recovery software in order to recover its data. The drive can appear dead after being subjected to an extreme power surge.
  • 🔥 Extreme conditions – Leaving an external hard drive in a hot car or other location where it will be exposed to high temperatures can cause damage to the disk. Similar results will occur if you expose the device to high humidity or moisture.

IMPORTANT POINT: These are just some of the causes of data loss that may confront you. A critical point to remember is to immediately stop using the external storage device as soon as you suspect data loss has occurred. Failure to follow this guidance can lead to the deleted data being overwritten before you have a chance to recover it. Put the drive to the side and fire up your data recovery software.

Protect the Important Files on Your External Hard Disk

Here are some tips to help protect valuable data on external hard drives.

  • Have more than one copy of data that is very valuable or that cannot be created. This may involve backing up your external drive to the cloud or making a full copy to another device of similar or greater capacity.
  • Label external drives to minimize the potential that you will accidentally format the wrong device.
  • Employ data protection tools such as Recovery Vault and Guaranteed Recovery offered by Disk Drill.
  • Keep your external hard drives out of direct sunlight and do not subject them to extremes of temperature or moisture.

Getting into the habit of backing up your external hard disk is the best defense against data loss. There are multiple options available for creating backups. Here are some suggestions for reliable methods with which to back up your valuable data.

  • Windows Backup: Windows users can use the Windows Backup facility built into the operating system.
  • Time Machine: Mac users can take advantage of Time Machine which comes installed on macOS systems.
  • Cloud Backup: Many cloud backup offerings are available that can be used with any or multiple operating systems. Some popular choices are iDrive, Carbonite Safe, and CrashPlan.

Look around for a plan that fits your budget and storage needs. You can also consider trying some 3rd-party backup solutions. However, you do it, start backing up your data today!

Other External Hard Drive Issues Worth Mentioning

Not all hard drive problems result in catastrophic data loss. However, some issues that may only be annoying at first can subsequently get worse and lead to bigger problems. Here are some signs that your external hard drive is experiencing some issues that may demand your attention. Ignoring them is not recommended!

  • 🔊 Scratching or clicking sounds coming from the drive are never a good thing and are often a signal that the physical components are wearing out.
  • 🐢 Slow response time when accessing the drive is another indicator that the drive is having problems.
  • ⏹️ System and application crashes when using the external drive may be caused by a failing or damaged hard disk.
  • 🧱 Unexplained errors when you are reading or writing to the disk can be caused by physical damage or disk corruption. We will look a little deeper into the issue of disk corruption in the next section.

If your external hard drive starts exhibiting any of these signs of looming problems, your best course of action is to contact a data recovery specialist. If you prefer DIY route, create a byte-level backup of the device that can be used for potential data recovery. This type of backup only reads your device one more time and saves the drive from the physical activity required for a recovery procedure. Disk Drill provides this capability for free and the backup can be used to recover files that had been deleted from the external drive.

Is It Possible to Recover Data From a Dead External Hard Drive?

The answer to this question is a firm “probably”. At the beginning of this article, we discussed how to get Windows to detect your external hard drive. If you are successful in this effort, you can recover the lost data using data recovery software. Your drive wasn’t really dead in this case, just temporarily stunned.

If you cannot get your operating system to recognize the drive, your options are pretty much limited to engaging a professional data recovery service to restore your data. They will use specialized hardware and software techniques to disassemble and clone the data on the drive.

Finding a Reputable Hard Drive Recovery Service

You can spend a lot of money trying to get your data back. What you want is a reputable and cheap external hard drive data recovery service. Here’s how using a quality data recovery service works.

  1. You contact the service and explain the problem.
  2. You ship the external hard drive to the recovery center.
  3. Technicians investigate the drive and determine if it can be fixed.
  4. You receive a firm price quote.
  5. Work begins once you give your OK.
  6. When recovery is complete, your data is shipped to you. If recovery is not successful, a reputable company will not charge you.

There are many reliable data recovery services available. Here are a few to get you started on your search.

Make sure that whatever company you engage with has a “no data/no charge” policy to avoid getting ripped off. Skilled recovery professionals will know after the initial evaluation if they can get your data back.

About article
Staff Writer Robert Agar

This article was written by Robert Agar, a Staff Writer at Handy Recovery Advisor. It was also verified for technical accuracy by Andrey Vasilyev, our editorial advisor.

Curious about our content creation process? Take a look at our Editor Guidelines.

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