If you’re asking yourself this question, you’re in a group composed of millions. Every day more people are added to the list, and yet even more money is wasted paying professional ‘recovery’ experts to retrieve data from those crashed hard drives. The biggest problem the average computer user faces is that they don’t have the hundreds to thousands of dollars to pay those experts. Keep your chin up – all hope is not lost. There are circumstances where the only payment you’ll be required is the time spent recovering lost data.
First, the recovery software discussed here is for Windows based computers only. You will need a computer with a working Windows operating system – preferably XP or a previous version. The reason for this is that most Vista computers are 64 bit, and Windows 7 is definitely 64 bit. Also, operating systems after Windows XP have problems running the software you’ll need. You’ll also have to determine if the drive was infected with a virus. If it was a virus attack, a different strategy needs to be used than the steps below.
Second, determine if the hard drive is totally fried or if it is just corrupted. This is where you’ll need to take the computer apart if the hard drive in question was your main drive with the operating system, and remove it. With most computers this is accomplished by unplugging the computer, removing the two side plates from the mini-tower, unplugging the wires from the hard drive (be sure to touch a grounded piece of metal before touching the hard drive), removing the four screws securing the hard drive in place, and sliding the drive out. For desktops, ultra slim towers, and other types of custom systems you’ll have to consult the manual which came with them or ask someone familiar with their basic construction.
At this point, you’ll need a working Windows based computer with access to the internet. Go online and download PC Inspector File Recovery, Recuva, or Zero Assumption Recovery. Both PC Inspector and Recuva are freeware, while the free version of Zero Assumption is a trial version (which can still come in handy since it’ll allow you to recover up to four directories at a time with the unregistered version). For the best results, download and install at least two of the programs.
From this other computer (or the same computer if the drive is a secondary and you can still boot the system) you’ll need to determine if the drive is just corrupted. Examine the hard drive to check for physical damage such as a melted circuit board. If there was smoke coming from your computer when the hard drive crashed the odds are that it is unrecoverable without professional help, or you can swap out the circuit board yourself with a board from an identical drive. If there are no signs of physical damage, the easiest way to test the drive is to put it into an external USB hard drive enclosure and plug it in. If you don’t have an external enclosure, you’ll have to repeat the second step in reverse – putting the hard drive into another computer. Listen for loud beeping from the drive, or a grinding noise (smoke is also a factor to watch for).
The other operating system will not always recognize the drive. If Windows determines that new hardware has been detected, you should be able to see the drive in the Control Panel. The most important factor is to see if the computer recognizes that hardware is present, even if a drive letter (example: C:/) isn’t assigned to it. Keep in mind that it sometimes takes over twenty minutes for Windows to recognize a corrupted drive. It is also not absolutely necessary for Windows to recognize the hard drive as long as one of the programs does.
Start one of the programs you’ve chosen. All three programs listed have a wizard which will help you through the process. Follow the directions or consult the help menu or online directions. If any of the programs find the drive, you basically just let the program scan it. Depending on the drive size, and/or the amount of damage, scanning could take as much as twenty-four hours. It may also be necessary to enable the option for deep scan, lengthening the process.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you almost certainly will not be able to recover each and every file on the drive. Depending on the corruption, whether physical or otherwise, some of the files will have been located in now bad sectors on the hard drive. Forensic data recovery experts might be able to get some of the files, but that will cost you at least a thousand dollars.
If all has gone well, you now have recovered a majority of the files you thought lost forever without paying an arm and a leg. If not, don’t lose hope. Keep researching the problem, even if it requires you to learn to swap out circuit boards or replacing the bearings inside the hard drive itself. No research is wasted, and you may learn a valuable skill which will make you more attractive to employers.