How to recover data from a failed hard drive.

Here’s the scenario.   You have a computer that’s been running for years.  Everything has been fine until one day when it crashes on you.  Perhaps it goes out in style with a BSOD (Blue Screen Of Death).   You don’t realize the impact yet.  You reboot, but when it starts to load, BAM!, another BSOD.    Now you panic.  Your heart starts beating really fast, and you start to sweat uncontrollably as you think about all of those pictures that can never be retaken.  Gone.  All gone.   Or is it?

Did you know that when a hard drive fails, it’s usually not completely dead?   Even if you cannot boot up into Windows, it’s still likely that you can recover some data from it.

Here’s what you need to do.

  1. TURN THE COMPUTER OFF! – This is an important one.  The longer the drive runs, the worse it will be.  If you can hear the drive clicking, time is of the essence.  Turn the computer off and prepare for the next step.
  2. MAKE A PLAN – You need to identify what your absolute most important data is.   Is it your pictures?  Your music?   Your life’s work that’s stored in an Excel file?   Whatever it is, if it cannot be replaced, and it’s vitally important to you, this is your primary focus.  Just like a military mission, you have a mission to get in, and get your important data out.
  3. BURN A RECOVERY CD – Call a friend if you have to, but you need to burn this recovery CD from a different computer.  You cannot risk booting up off of your hard drive normally.  Even if you succeed, Windows may start one of its many scouring processes and finish the drive off.   Then you’ll really be out of luck.   You need to burn a boot CD so that you can safely recover the files with Windows offline.   My personal favorite is Scoobix.  You can also use something like Ubuntu.  Both are free.  Both work well.
  4. BOOT UP FROM YOUR RECOVERY CD – You need to put the CD in your computer and boot it up.   Make sure that it boots from the CD.   If it starts loading Windows, you’ve done something wrong.  See if it asks you to change the boot device when it starts.  Sometimes you can do that by pressing F12.   Make sure that it boots up the recovery CD.
  5. CONNECT A RECOVERY DRIVE – The best thing for this is usually a pocket USB drive.  One of those flash drives.  If you don’t have one, go run to Staples, Walmart, or any other such store to get one.   Plug it into the computer.  You need this to copy your important files to.
  6. COPY YOUR MOST IMPORTANT DATA FIRST – Depending upon which recovery CD you chose, you should be able to see your drive in the list of available drives, after it boots.   Click on it.   Now find the USB flash drive that you plugged in.  Click on that too.   Find the files that you identified in step #2, and start copying them over to the USB flash drive.
  7. Pray.

If all goes well, and about 70% of the time, it does, you should be able to get your data off of the drive and safely onto your USB flash drive.   Learn from this experience.   Now that you have a flash drive handy, use it.  Periodically copy your important files to it every month or so to ensure that you always have a copy.   Desktop drives fail after about 3 to 5 years of steady use.  Many laptop drives fail between 1 and 3 years of steady use.  If you have an old drive that’s running on borrowed time, consider replacing it.   But please, backup your data.   Now.