Hard Drive Data Recovery: A Complete Guide for 2020

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Hard Drive Data Recovery: A Complete Guide

Around 300 million hard drives ship each year, but not all end up serving their users equally well. Some hard drives start experiencing serious issues after just a few months of use, while others become corrupted by malware and buggy software applications. There’s, of course, also the fact that not all users use hard drives responsibly, which only increases the chance of hard drive failure and data loss. 

No wonder then that hard drive data recovery is a commonly discussed subject among Windows, macOS, and Linux users alike. 

Just read these calls for help gathered from the web:

  • “How do I recover data from a corrupted hard disk?” (Quora)
  • “I’m having a very difficult time accessing my WD 1 TB My Passport external drive. PLEASE HELP WITH DATA RECOVERY.” (Tom’s Hardware)
  • I stupidly formatted the wrong hard drive when there are two external hard drives connected on my computer … Do I have to use a data recovery program to get back my videos?” (CNET)

The good news is that hard drive recovery is usually possible and can be performed at home using hard drive recovery software. 

We say “usually” because there are many different kinds of hard drive issues that can cause data loss, and not all of them can be addressed at home, which is why you should always perform a hard drive diagnosis to determine the best hard drive data recovery approach possible. 

Diagnosing Hard Drive Issues 

hard drive diagnosis

Broadly speaking, hard drive issues can be divided into two broad categories:

  • Logical damage: Hard drive issues that belong to this category have something to do with software and the way data is stored on and retrieved from the file system. It can occur due to buggy firmware, driver problems, malware, reformatting, power outages, and other causes. A hard drive that has suffered logical damage works as intended, but the data stored on it may not be accessible. In most cases, you can recover the data stored on a logically damaged hard drive using data recovery software. 
  • Physical damage: On the other hand, hard drive issues caused by some kind of physical damage prevent the hard drive from operating correctly (or even turning on at all). Such issues include dead and torn heads, platter scratches and other damage, stuck motor, and environmental damage. These issues often manifest themselves by clicking sounds and other noises, and they must be addressed before data recovery software can be used to perform data recovery. 

Here’s how you can tell if you’re dealing with logical or physical damage

1. Does the hard drive turn on? 

  • Yes = possible logical damage 
  • No = physical damage 

2. Does the hard drive make strange noises? 

  • Yes = physical damage 
  • No = possible logical damage 

3. Does your operating system recognize the hard drive? 

  • Yes = logical damage 
  • No = possible physical damage 

4. Can you access at least some files stored on the hard drive?

  • Yes = logical damage 
  • No = possible physical damage

5. Does your operating system detect the right capacity? 

  • Yes = unlikely physical damage 
  • No = possible logical damage

Result: Physical Damage

If you’ve determined that you’re dealing with physical damage, send your hard drive to a professional data recovery lab. Don’t attempt to fix the issue at home unless you have the necessary equipment and expertise. It’s very likely that you would just make the already bad situation even worse. Scroll down for a comparison of professional data recovery services with data recovery software. 

Result: Logical Damage

If you’ve determined that you’re dealing with logical damage, there’s a strong chance that you’ll be able to recover your data using hard drive recovery software. In the next section of this article, we provide step-by-step instructions for recovering lost data with software on Windows, macOS, and Linux.  

Recover Your Data with Software

linux windows mac logos

When it comes to the recovery of formatted hard drives and individual files that have been accidentally deleted, hard drive recovery software is your best option

During the data restoration process, data recovery software scans the drive, looking for pieces of data that can be undeleted. It then pieces the salvaged data back together in a readable format. Hard drive recovery software applications can recover all types and brands of drives.

Types of Hard Drives 

Internal Hard Drives 

(SATA, PCIe, M.2, U.2, mSATA, SATA Express, SCSI, SAS)

External Hard Drives

(USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB-C, eSATA, FireWire, Thunderbolt)

Laptop Hard Drives

(M.2 or 2.5-inch SATA and SSD used by Dell, Asus, and other laptop brands)

Hard Drive Manufacturers 

Western Digital

Seagate

Toshiba

Samsung 

There’s a number of hard drive recovery software solutions for users to choose from. You should select a reliable solution that runs on your operating system and supports all the file formats you need to recover. For the purposes of this article, we selected Disk Drill as our hard drive recovery software of choice for Windows and Mac, and we picked PhotoRec as a reliable solution for Linux. 

Data recovery tips: Before you begin, here are a few data recovery tips for increasing your hard drive recovery success rate.

  • Always recover to a different storage device than the one on which your files were stored. 
  • Avoid unnecessary data transfer operations until you complete the recovery of your files. 
  • Use a reliable hard drive recovery software application. 

windows section

Hard Drive Data Recovery on Windows 

Step 1: Install Disk Drill for Windows

windows disk drill installation

First, download Disk Drill for Windows and install it on your computer. The installer will ask for administrator privileges, so don’t be surprised when it does. Remember to install Disk Drill on a different drive than the one you’re trying to restore. 

Step 2: Launch Disk Drill & Initiate a Scan 

disk drill select drive

With Disk Drill installed on your computer, you can go ahead and launch it. Again, it will ask for administrator privileges, which are required to access storage devices at the file system level. Once the main window appears, you should see a list with your storage devices, and your hard drive should be included among them. Select it and click Search for lost data to initiate a scan. 

Step 3: Select Your Files and Recover Them 

disk drill select files

Give Disk Drill some time to find the missing files and then use the filters in the left pane to locate the files you want to recover. You can hover your mouse over any file and click the Preview this item button to view the file before you recover them. To select files for recovery, click the small checkbox next to them. When you’re ready to recover them, you can click the Recover button. Disk Drill will help you select a suitable recovery drive. 

mac section

Hard Drive Data Recovery on Mac

Step 1: Install Disk Drill for Mac

disk drill installation mac

Despite sporting a different design, the Mac version of Disk Drill has a lot in common with its Windows counterpart. You can install it just like any other Mac app, but you need to grant it Full Disk Access to access your storage devices for data recovery purposes. This tutorial explains how, and Disk Drill for Mac also displays similar instructions when you first launch it. 

Step 2: Launch Disk Drill & Initiate a Scan 

disk drill select drive

You can now launch Disk Drill and initiate a scan by clicking the Recover button next to your hard drive. The recovery process is completely automatic from start to finish, so you can go make a cup of tea and let it finish. 

Step 3: Select Your Files and Recover Them 

disk drill mac file selection

After just a few minutes, you should see all recoverable files listed in the main window. You can preview each file by clicking the little eye icon. Use the scan result filters in the toolbar to narrow down the search results. Click the checkbox next to each file you want to undelete and begin the recovery process by clicking the Recover button in the top-right corner. Make sure to restore the deleted files to a different drive than the one on which they were originally located.  

linux section

Hard Drive Data Recovery on Linux

Step 1: Install PhotoRec

Because PhotoRec is a popular data recovery application, you should be able to find it in your distribution’s repositories (PhotoRec is part of Testdisk, so look for it as well). If not, you can download it directly from its official website

Step 2: Launch PhotoRec 

You can launch PhotoRec from your favorite terminal using the following command: 

$ sudo photorec

Step 3: Begin the recovery process 

photorec recovery linux

Using the arrow keys, select the drive you want to recover and choose Proceed. Next, select either a specific partition or the entire drive if you’re not sure on which partition your files were located. PhotoRec will ask you to specify the file system type on which your files were stored. Finally, select where you want to save the recovered files and hit C on your keyboard to confirm. Unfortunately, PhotoRec always recovers all deleted files it finds, and there’s no way to recover only certain files. 

Do I Really Need to Use Hard Drive Recovery Software? 

Hard drive recovery software is the only way to recover permanently deleted files, but not all inaccessible or accidentally deleted files are necessarily permanently deleted. Here are three solutions that you can try instead of using a hard drive recovery software application like Disk Drill or PhotoRec.

Solution 1: Recycle Bin/Trash 

recycle bin icon

Windows, macOS, and most Linux distributions have a special folder for deleted files, called the Recycle Bin on Windows and Trash on macOS and Linux. Deleted files are moved to this folder as a precautionary measure against accidental file deletion, and they stay in the folder for a certain amount of time or until the folder is manually emptied. 

We recommend you check the Recycle Bin/Trash every time you accidentally delete an important file since it takes just a few seconds to do so. However, don’t expect the Recycle Bin/Trash to contain files that were located on external hard drives or hard drives that have been formatted. 

Solution 2: Hard Drive Repair 

repair icon

If you encounter hard drive corruption, bad sectors, and internal errors that make it impossible to access certain files, you should try to repair the hard drive using the hard drive repair tool included with your operating system.

  • Windows: The go-to hard drive repair tool on Windows is CHKDSK, and you can tell it to scan your hard drive by entering the following command in Command Prompt: chkdsk /r c: (replace “c:” with the letter assigned to the hard drive you want to fix).  
  • macOS: Apple’s Disk Utility contains a feature called First Aid, and you can use it to repair a storage device with a few simple clicks. First Aid performs various partition map checks and automatically attempts to repair any corruption or logical damage it encounters.  
  • Linux: Short for file system consistency check, fsck is a handy utility for fixing file system errors, and it’s available to all Linux users. Because each Linux distribution is slightly different, you may need to improvise a bit when following an online tutorial on how to use fsck, such as this one

Solution 3: Backup

backup icon

You can always recover all lost data if you have an up-to-date backup. Not only are backups reliable, but they also save time because you don’t have to download, install, and familiarize yourself with hard drive recovery software. 

There are several different kinds of data backup solutions to choose from, including manual backups, automatic backups, and online backups. Each of these solutions has certain pros and cons, but they all get the job done and allow you to recover deleted and lost files. 

If you don’t have a backup, now is the right time to come up with an effective backup strategy so you can at least avoid data loss in the future. 

Hard Drive Recovery Services 

data recovery services

As we’ve explained earlier in this article, you should never attempt to fix physical hard drive damage at home unless you really (REALLY!) know what you’re doing and have the right tools for the job. In virtually all cases, it’s better to ship the hard drive to a data recovery lab and have experienced professionals working in clean rooms figure out what’s wrong with it. 

Here’s a brief comparison of hard drive recovery services and recovery software to help you decide which is right for you:

 

Recovery Services 

Recovery Software 

Can recover:

Physically and logically damaged drives.

Logically damaged drives.

Speed:

24 hours or more.

Between several minutes and several hours.

Reliability:

High.

Moderate to high.

Cost:

Typically starts at several hundred dollars.

Rarely more than $100.

Privacy:

Low

High

As you can see, both hard drive recovery services and recovery software have certain advantages and disadvantages, but that doesn’t change the fact that recovery software can’t overcome physical damage. 

Conclusion

The next time you encounter a hard drive data loss problem (and we hope that it won’t be anytime soon), you’ll know how to perform a hard drive diagnosis to determine the best data recovery approach possible. Hopefully, you’ll have your data safely backed up and won’t need to use hard drive recovery software like Disk Drill or spend money on professional data recovery services. 

David Morelo is a professional content writer in the technology niche, covering everything from consumer products to emerging technologies and their cross-industry application.
Andrey Vasilyev, CFE
Approved by
Strong knowledge in data recovery, computer forensic and data litigation. 12 years experience in software development, database administration and hardware repair.