Tutorial: How to Recover Data and Fix Common Hard Drive Problems

hard drive interiorIf you have been into technology culture for a little while then chances are you have experienced a catastrophic loss of data. Maybe your hard drive simply stopped working one day, or you accidentally deleted something important, or maybe your disk has begun developing bad sectors. However it’s happened, most of us have been there. Lucky for us we are empowered tech nerds and there’s nothing we can’t fix! Ok, maybe we aren’t all Linus Torvalds, but that does not mean we have to take our data loss lying down. With this guide, my intent is to provide a few common scenarios along with solutions to them.

Scenario #1 – Accidental Deletion

So there you are, knocking out some work on your PC. You’ve spent a few hours working on a file. You save it to your regular documents folder but notice that things have gotten awfully crowded. Since you’re a bit of a digital neat-freak you start to clean house; deleting files and organizing others into sub-directories. Once you’re all cleaned up you promptly delete everything in your recycle bin to recover that precious drive space but suddenly that pang of dread hits. You’ve just deleted the file that you were working on… permanently.

Solution

Never fear! Lucky for you the file is likely not gone forever. In fact, it is generally very easy to recover a file that has been lost this way. I have recovered countless files for users with the help of a trusty tool called Recuva from software developer Piriform. And best of all, it’s free!

Recuva has quite a few fancy tricks up its sleeve such as secure deletion, batch recovery of multiple files, and gives you the ability to search by file-type. If you’ve made a mistake and deleted a file accidentally I could not recommend this more. It’s as simple as scanning your drive and selecting the file or files you need back!

After installing the software and running it you will be prompted with the recovery wizard seen below, just click next to move on to the important stuff.

You will then see a screen with a list of options of file types that you may want to recover, for this tutorial I simply chose to recover a previously deleted picture so I will select the Pictures option.

Clicking next will bring you to a menu of places that you would like Recuva to look for your files. In this case I know that I recycled my image and cleared the recyle bin as well so I’ll choose In the Recycle Bin . 

Click next and allow Recuva to scan your selected locations. Once it has finished you will be presented with a display listing everything it was able to find and whether it is recoverable or not. I prefer to select the advanced mode in the upper right of the window to get a more detailed look at what it found. From here we sort by name, recovery status, size, etc.

From here you can simply check the box or boxes of the files you would like to recover and then click the recover button at the bottom right of the window. You will then be prompted to give a destination to recover to.

And that’s pretty much it! If it was recoverable then you should be able to find it with this software. Simple, huh?

Scenario #2 – Hard Drive Stopped Showing Up in Drive Listing

You boot your PC and are all ready to start working with some file but when you open My Computer you only see your C: drive! Unfortunately, this can be caused by quite a lot of things, some of them are simply not recoverable, but there’s always hope.

Solution #1

If you’re lucky, this may simply be a case of Windows not initializing your disk correctly during boot. To fix this, simply click Start -> Right-Click Computer -> Select Manage. From here you will need to expand the Storage tree and select Disk Management. This should enumerate all disks attached to your machine. If Windows failed to initialize it for some reason, simply loading this panel can give it the swift kick it needs to find the disk again.

Before you leave though, you should probably assign it a drive letter if one hasn’t already been assigned. To do this, you simply right-click on the drive that you want and select Change Drive Letter and Paths. From here you can set the drive to any letter you choose.

Solution #2

If the previous solution didn’t work, your problems may be a bit worse than Windows being flakey. My next step to troubleshoot an issue like this is to remove the drive from the machine or its enclosure if it is external, and connect it to the computer with a USB-to-SATA adapter. A perfect example can be found here on Amazon. Typically these can be bought for under $20 and they are really handy to have around. Below you can see an example of how an adapter like this would be connected to your drive and PC.

The idea here is to remove all possible hardware issues by using a known-functional device to connect the disk to your machine. From here Windows should detect the disk as normal if the disk is actually working correctly.

Scenario #3 – Warning Messages During Boot-Up

Pretty much all hard drives nowadays have some form of diagnostic capabilities. In Operating Systems like Windows most of these diagnostics are monitored in the background. Upon booting into your OS most will perform a basic diagnostic of the hardware and filesystem to ensure a clean boot. This is why you may occasionally see Windows fail to boot fully and inform you that it needs to perform a chkdsk (check disk function) where it actually scans the drive for bad sectors. If this continues to be a problem it may very well be an indication of impending data loss. Luckily there are steps we can take to resolve these issues even after they’ve done damage to a drive.

Solution

This method can really go hand-in-hand with the previous as we would prefer to eliminate all possible hardware issues. There are innumerable tools out there that will do data recovery for you; many of them are free, but these also typically require more than a novice’s understanding of computers. I have used many of these tools before, but by far one of the most reliable has been SpinRite. This is a tool that can get you out of some seriously bad spots with a drive, and for the cost ($89) it’s nothing compared to sending in a drive to be recovered by a professional company. I don’t really have the room to go into detail on how to use the tool here as that could easily be an entire article unto itself, but I can tell you that the tool is quite simple to use.

After purchasing the software from the SpinRite website you will need to download and burn the image file that you downloaded. If you are unfamiliar with how to do this then please see this tutorial. Once you have your recovery CD simply reboot your computer with the disc in the drive and tell it to boot from that disc. This process may vary, but typically this can be done by pressing the F12 key and selecting your disc drive from the menu.

Once the software has loaded you will be presented with a few options; in this particular case we will be selecting the Level 2 option to perform a data recovery.

You will then see a menu of the drives that the software has detected, to select it press the space bar. You will then see a screen that reviews all the selections you have made.

All you need to do now is press Enter and wait. The length of time this will take will be dependent on how large your drive is and how badly damaged some of the sectors on it are. It is not uncommon for this process to take upwards of an entire day, but it might just be worth it to get those family photos back without paying through the nose.

**It is very important that after you recover your data in this manner that you immediately backup EVERYTHING important on it to a new hard drive. SpinRite will only recover data from bad sectors and move them to new ones. That means that if you continue using the drive in this manner you run the risk of losing some data forever.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot more tools and tips for home data recovery than what I have covered here. By all means you should read up and learn what you can about the technologies we use every day. Every one of us will face data loss some day, hopefully with a bit of patience and knowledge we will be prepared.

As a final note, you should absolutely back up anything that is important to you, whether on an external hard drive or to a cloud service. One can never be too careful, if it’s important to you, then it’s important enough to make a copy of.

Good luck and be sure to comment with your recommendations or questions!

Comments

  1. says

    Leland Flynn, I have to say that I have used Recuva in the past for doing data recovery with great success and I absolutely love it, however I wanted to ask you if you have ever used a program called R-studio, I know this is not a free software, but a lot of people seem to like it and I wanted to know what your thoughts are about it and if you had used it in the past, Thanks!

    • Profile photo of Leland Flynn says

      Manuel,

      I have never used R-Studio. Looking at their website and the cost of the software I’m quite impressed. AT $80 that is not too bad at all, and I love that it is cross-platform. I really appreciate the info, I may just buy a copy of this!