A non-booting hard drive is not the most common cause of data loss, but it has the potential to cause the most damage. If you have suddenly stopped seeing your hard drive in your File Explorer, it can cause quite a large amount of panic. However, before you assume the worst-case scenario, you should know that recovering the files on your hard drive is possible.
This article will take you through some common causes behind non-booting hard drives and how to recover files from a hard drive that won’t boot.
Pro tip: Before you begin reading this article, make sure to stop using the affected drive and computer. Continued use of the drive can cause overwriting of data, which cannot be reversed!
Hard Drives 101
🤔 How Do Hard Drives Work?
Bear in mind that this article is written for users of traditional spinning hard drives and not solid-state drives (SSDs). This is because the mechanisms that the two kinds of storage drives use are entirely different.
Hard drives use physical space orderly and store data by moving magnetic platters in this space. Each part of the drive’s storage space is broken into smaller sectors that are mapped to “remember” where data is saved.
When the drive needs to read or write data, it looks at the map to find free space and moves the platters to access data there. When you delete files, the drive marks their space on the map as “free” and overwrites it when new files are stored. Until the files are overwritten, you can recover them.
SSDs, on the other hand, use flash memory to store data. Flash memory is a great technological leap, making storage drives fast and efficient. However, it also makes it near-impossible to recover data. SSDs are enabled with TRIM technology that permanently deletes data from your drive without marking it for overwriting.
👁️🗨️ Why Is the Hard Drive Not Visible In File Explorer?
If you can boot your computer, but you cannot see your hard drive, it could be due to various reasons. Before you jump to solutions, it is best to figure out what might be causing this problem.
Firstly, if you are experiencing this problem with an internal hard drive, it could be due to:
- In Disk Management, the drive might not be assigned a letter.
- The drive is disabled in the system.
- An offline drive.
If you run into trouble with your external hard drive, in addition to the above, it could be due to:
- Faulty ports or cables.
- Physical damage to the drive.
- Problems with your operating system.
- Driver incompatibilities.
❓ Is it Possible to Recover Data from a Non-bootable Hard Drive?
The reasons behind non-booting drives that we explained in the previous section are either physical damage or logical damage. If your drive has problems due to physical damage, it isn’t easy to retrieve data from it. In such a case, you are best served by a professional data recovery service center.
However, if your drive has logical problems, you can often solve them yourself with a little bit of external help. The most important thing is to try and have a system read your hard drive, after which you can recover your data quite simply.
Interesting Read: How to Recover Data from an Uninitialized Disk.
Attempting to Boot the Hard Drive
Even though it is possible to recover a hard drive that won’t boot, it is best if you can try to get a computer to read it. In most cases, the problem is minor and has an easy solution. Here are some ways you can try to get your hard drive to boot in increasing complexity.
Method #1: Check the Cables and Connector Ports (Easy)
External hard drives often fail to boot because there is some problem with the connector cables.
Try the following solutions:
- Connect a different working drive to the same port. If it fails to boot, there might be a problem with the connector port. In this case:
- Connect your problematic drive to a different port.
- Try connecting the drive to another computer.
- If the port is functional, but your drive is not, try to:
- Change the connector cable.
- Inspect the port on your drive to ensure that it is not damaged.
If this has not solved your problem, you might have a problem with the drivers of your port. Continue to the next step.
Method #2: Recheck and Configure Drivers Correctly (Medium)
When you have a drive that is unreadable, try to ensure that you are using the correct drivers. Typically, the drivers are automatically installed when you connect the drive to the computer. When this does not happen, you will have to install them manually.
Here’s how to configure drivers for your disk drive:
- Type Device Manager in your Search Box and open it.
- Navigate to Universal Serial Bus controllers, locate the port you have a problem with and right-click on it.
- Click on Update Drivers and follow the process in the dialog box that pops up on your screen.
In most cases, this should help with solving software-based issues with ports. However, this does not work for internal hard drives. If you have an internal drive that won’t boot, go to the following method.
Method #3: Enable the Hard Drive in Your BIOS (Medium)
The BIOS is a program that handles information flow from your computer to any attached devices, including hard drives. Sometimes, the BIOS does not detect your hard drive, making it impossible to read or write data on it. This could be because of the above reasons, which you can solve with the rest of our methods. However, a BIOS-specific problem is your hard drive being disabled.
To enable a hard drive that won’t boot through your BIOS:
- Restart your computer. When you see the Setup screen, press and hold the F2 key to enter your BIOS.
- Check whether your hard drive is disabled in the System Setup.
- If it is disabled, toggle it on to enable it.
- Reboot your computer, and you should be able to see your hard drive.
If you were unable to see the hard drive despite following these steps, proceed to the next method.
Method #4: Remove Internal Hard Drive and Place it in Enclosure (Difficult)
A non-bootable internal hard drive is a more complicated problem than an external drive. It is difficult for most basic users to solve it on their own.
Only attempt this solution if you have significant experience using computers and the know-how to dismantle and put together hardware components.
- Remove the hard drive from your system. This process will differ from model to model, so refer to your manufacturer’s website for precise instructions. Make sure you have some essential tools such as Torx and flathead screwdrivers.
- Acquire an external enclosure for your hard drive. Once you unlatch your internal hard drive, it should be easy installing it into an enclosure.
- You should have now turned your internal hard drive into an external hard drive. Connect it to a computer through a USB port and see if it boots.
In most cases, if you are comfortable with this method, you will have enabled your hard drive. However, following these steps is daunting for basic users.
Fear not! Even if you don’t dare to attempt this method yourself, or the other methods did not work for you, there is still hope.
Bonus Method #5: Use a Data Recovery Tool (Easy)
When you cannot boot into your hard drive, you should still consider one last option before sending it to experts. Try using data recovery software such as Disk Drill Data Recovery.
Not all data recovery tools come with this function, but the best software can access drives that Windows Explorer cannot. Disk Drill has this capability inbuilt, so in this section, we will demonstrate how to get files off a hard drive that won’t boot using Disk Drill.
- Download the setup for Disk Drill from the official website and install it on your computer. Disk Drill’s algorithms require administrator’s privileges. However, these are safe and are only used to scan files that can be hidden so that your data is recovered faster.
- Launch Disk Drill. In the window that opens, you should see even the hard drive that Windows Explorer cannot locate. This is already positive and means that you can recover data from it without much trouble.
- Select the hard drive you cannot boot, and then click on Search for lost data. You can select between a Quick scan (which is superficial but fast) or a Deep scan (more intensive but takes longer). You can pause the scan midway and continue later.
- Disk Drill will now start its scanning algorithms and map the files on your unbootable hard drive. While it scans your drive, it will show you a list of files that it has already found. If you are in a hurry and require a file on the list, pause the scan and retrieve the file.
- If you wait for Disk Drill to analyze the drive completely, you will be shown a list of all of the files that Disk Drill has located. You can use filters in the program to narrow the files you want to retrieve or recover all files.
- Select a location to recover the files, and then click the Recover button to begin the recovery process. Remember to recover the files to a new location to avoid further data loss.
- Your recovery process is complete, and you should see your files in the new location you chose.
Pro Tips to Help Recover Data and Prevent Data Loss
- 🛑 Immediately stop using the drive if you hear it making clicking or grinding sounds. Such sounds are unusual and are often a sign of your drive failing. If you notice this, try to back up your drive using a reliable data protection tool such as Disk Drill with a byte-level backup facility.
- 🔒 Make sure you have antivirus software installed. Quite often, malware leads to the corruption of your drive, leading to data loss and drive failure.
- ✅ Keep your storage drives in safe spaces to avoid physical damage. Hard drives often get damaged by heat and humidity. The most common cause of physical damage to drives is dropping the drive, which can be prevented by storing the drive in a protective case.
- ☁️ Back up your data often so that you can fall back on them when your drive fails.
Unbootable hard drives are a tricky problem, but you can access data on such a drive using different methods. In most cases, you will be able to solve your problems by ensuring that the cables and connectors of your drive are working correctly. Even if you have an internal drive, you can try to place it in an external enclosure and read it.
While these methods can be a little difficult, you can quickly recover your data using external data recovery tools. Software such as Disk Drill helps you access drives that even your system cannot read and then recover your data from it. The bottom line is that it’s very much possible to recover data from a hard drive.
With our methods, you will recover your data from your hard drive even if you are not familiar with computers.
- Try to boot into the hard drive by connecting it to a different computer or checking the cables and port.
- If you cannot boot into it, try to disconnect your internal hard drive. Then, place it in an enclosure and use it as an external drive.
- Use a recovery tool that can recognize and access drives that Windows Explorer cannot read.
- Create a complete copy of the hard drive, and then scan this copy using Disk Drill. You will be able to recover files from this copy.
- Test the drive using TestDisk, and then allow it to fix any potential issues that the drive might have.
- Repair system errors using CHKDSK on Windows.
If you tried all of our methods and still could not boot into your drive or recover data on it, the chances are that your drive is physically damaged. It is not possible to recover such a drive by yourself, and this is when you should send it to a recovery center. At professional recovery service centers, professional recovery experts will try their best to retrieve the data from your drive.
The clearest sign of HDD failure is clicking or whirring sounds from the drive. The drive can also overheat and start crashing often. The moment you notice that files and folders on your drive go missing that should be the last straw. Immediately stop using your drive and test it with S.M.A.R.T. monitoring features that are built-in for recovery tools such as Disk Drill.
Joshua is a content curator for Handy Recovery. His expertise involves taking intricate IT concepts and breaking them down into super easy to understand chunks. He’s been wielding the writing sword for quite some time now - 3 years to be precise. Digital marketing, data recovery, and anything “techy” are Joshua’s niches.
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.