Free Data Recovery

Hard Drive Data Recovery

Despite offering world-class data recovery from our workshop here in Portsmouth, we understand that sometimes, the data just doesn’t justify the cost of getting it recovered. If you’re going to go it alone and attempt a DIY recovery, we’ve got some handy tips to avoid making things worse. It might be a good idea to print this page to use as a reference. Also feel free to comment at the end of the post if you’d like any questions answered.

Stop Using Your Hard Drive

If you want to recover data, you can’t do it from the disk you want to recover from. When you boot up a computer it writes data to the hard drive. Even browsing the web or checking e-mails writes little cache files to the disk, potentially overwriting the files you want to recover.

Set Up

You ideally want to work from a different and reliable computer, have plenty of storage space for recovered files, and make sure everything is ready before you attach the faulty disk. You don’t always get a second chance with hard disks, so make sure you’re ready to grab the files if they appear.

Now You See Them

If you suddenly gain access to the files, copy them to another drive as soon as you can. The disk is unlikely to have repaired itself, so this might be the last chance to copy the data before if gives up completely. Take the most important files first. If the copy gets stuck, stop it straight away as the disk could be causing damage.

Watch The Clock

If you decide to try DIY recovery, keep a close eye on the time. If the estimated time keeps increasing it could be a sign of disk trouble. Failure to deal with that could cause the drive to fail completely, and beyond repair (even for us). As a guideline, it should take no longer than a few hours to copy a whole 1TB disk over USB 3.0. If your estimate says much more than that, or keeps going up in time, it could be the disk getting worse. Maybe try copying important files in small batches first. Data Recovery Time Remaining

Priorities

Your priority with a failed drive is either to make a copy of the disk, or copy off the files as soon as possible. Don’t try to scan, repair or fix any errors. A failed repair can completely damage your files beyond recovery. This means don’t ever use spinrite, diskwarrior, techtool, or any other diagnostic tool until after you’ve extracted the data. Some people report success with these tools, but it’s far safer to copy the data first, and run those tools later.

Restore or Reinstall?

Don’t re-install or restore the computer. At best it will overwrite some of the data. At worst it will overwrite all of the data and leave you with a factory-fresh (blank) version of Windows. If you’ve already done this, we can often get data back, but it won’t be as complete as a normal recovery.

Brrrr It’s Cold in Here

Never ever put a hard drive in the freezer. Although this trick is a common part of data recovery folklore, it is likely to do so much more damage than good. We have never used any type of freezing process for data recovery, and neither should you. Leaving your hard disk unplugged for a day is likely to be just as successful, and won’t risk contaminating the delicate disks and heads. Hard disks are not air-sealed so even if you put them in a sealed bag, they already have moist air inside them which can freeze and then cause condensation.

Stop Hitting Yourself

If you saw how delicate the inside of a hard disk was, you’d never consider hitting, tapping or knocking it. Even if you did manage to dislodge some stuck heads, you’ll probably either rip them off, or take a chunk of the disk with it. There are careful ways to remove stuck heads, but they cannot be done at home.

Keep it Together

Never dismantle a hard drive. This is a case when the “no user serviceable parts” label really is true. Not only are disk internals extremely delicate, they have an air filter in the cover to stop particles getting inside the disk. If you remove the cover, all sorts of dust and lint can get in. Dust particles are bigger than the gap between heads & disks, so they can cause the heads to crash into the disks and scrape off the magnetic coating. Once the coating is gone, the data is gone.

Good Luck

If you decide to try DIY data recovery, good luck, and be careful. If you’d rather let us look at the disk instead, get in touch.

What To Do With A Dropped Hard Drive

If there is data on the drive that you cannot afford to lose, then do not try to fix the drive yourself. I would also suggest that you do not even try to power it back on after it has been dropped, as this is what usually causes the most damage. Whether your drive is an external desktop drive or a small portable one, they all work in the same way. Broadly speaking the inside of a hard drive is a bit like a record player with a mechanical moving needle reading the vinyl record. I can remember the times when playing old vinyl records, once you got scratches on them they never really worked the same again.

So I recommend not to panic, decide on what the value of the lost data is to you. Sometimes it may not be money value but a sentimental one. Once you have decided, then carry out some research online and look at data recovery company reviews. From our experience with dropped drives, the amount of work involved in overcoming the problem would not be covered by the low initial cost that some data recovery companies advertise and therefore the cost would soon escalate.

There is always hope of recovering data from a dropped drive but as you have read, it depends on your actions as to the eventual outcome.

How To Ruin Your Chances Of Data Recovery

No Chance Data Recovery

Maybe the title is a bit harsh, but in the past week I have seen an unusually high number of hard drives ruined by avoidable problems. There is nothing more frustrating than knowing the data would have been recoverable if  the hard drive hadn’t been tampered with first.

Manufacturing

Hard drives are manufactured in a controlled environment. Staff wearing white overalls,  gloves, and masks, control machines which are carefully organised to prevent contamination getting inside the hard drive.

Clean Room

To prevent contamination when repairing the inside of a hard drive, it is necessary to use a cleanroom. This is a specially designed system that filters the air and keeps airborne particles to a minimum. A cleanroom is the only safe way to open a hard drive. We have one of these, which allows us to carry out the most intricate repairs without any risk of particle damage.

Damage

Before opening a hard drive for internal rework, it is crucial to confirm that there is an internal mechanical problem in the first place. For instance, our data recovery process has numerous tests we can carry out before we confirm that the problem is under the hood. Only then will we open the top cover and check for damage inside. Unlike CDs or DVDs, the internal disks of a hard drive are not designed to come into contact with normal air. Even a fingerprint could mean the difference between a successful or unsuccessful recovery. If you slip with a screwdriver then forget it.

The numbers

On a percentage basis of all the failed drives we receive (hundreds per year), we only need to go to the cleanroom with around 10%. There are likely to be far less intrusive ways into the data without ever taking off the top cover.

Even if…

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told, “It’s an internal fault. The heads are clicking.” Although some drives will click as a symptom of failed heads, there are so many other reasons to cause a drive to click that it is not a reliable way to diagnose problems.

Reasons a hard drive will click

  • Electronic fault
  • Firmware fault
  • Bad sectors
  •  Weak (but not completely failed) heads
  • Problems reading partition info

All of the problems above can be overcome without ever unscrewing the top cover. In fact, removing the top cover will only introduce more doubt to the diagnosis. If the top cover is removed outside of a cleanroom, then not only do the above problems need to be solved, but also new problems of contamination and possibly damage by tools.

(Don’t) Get the discs out

Another common wrong diagnosis is to take the disc pack from one drive and place it into a donor drive. Although this is a correct course of action for some drives, there are some serious implications. First, when the disc pack is built it is clamped together onto the spindle motor. This alignment is so crucial that if you remove one disc at a time, you will never be able to regain this alignment. This was true 20 years ago when the magnetic data was nowhere near as densely packed. Rotate the discs a fraction of a millimetre and you can wave goodbye to all the files.

It is also the case that most of the hard drive firmware is now stored on the discs, so moving them to a new donor will not help if the fault is firmware based.

Advice

If you are even considering a destructive course of action, at least get some professional advice first. You don’t need to follow the advice, but at least it gives somebody (maybe me) the option to give a warning. You don’t want to find out later that the data would have been simple to recover, if only…

Data Survival Guide Mac

Many hard drives we see have been more damaged by a failed recovery than they were in the first place. We have released the Data Survival Guide to help people avoid some of the common mistakes. This first version is for Mac users but we have more on the way.

Why not print this out and keep it in your laptop bag in case of emergency!

Data Survival Guide Mac
Data Survival Guide Mac

Troubleshoot Buffalo External Hard Drive

Like most external hard drives, Buffalo external drives are simply a wrapper around a regular hard drive. Aside from the protective shell they also have some electronic parts to convert between the internal hard drive and the external USB, Firewire, eSATA or Thunderbolt connections.

If you have problems with an external drive, you can perform a relatively simple test to check where the fault lies. Be aware that opening the external drive case will probably void your warranty, and if there is crucial data on the drive you should seek professional data recovery. That’s the obligatory warning out the way, so lets have a look at some troubleshooting.

Troubleshooting tips.

  • First check all cables are plugged in securely, and not damaged or frayed near the ends.. If you have an identical drive with spare cables try them, but make sure you don’t plug in a power supply with different voltage! Hard drives don’t handle extra voltage well so you’ll end up in a worse position than you started.
  • If you know how, you could remove the hard drive from the external case and attach it directly to a PC to see if that allows access to the data. If it does, you should copy the data off straight away. The drive could still be faulty & fail again soon.
  • Whatever you do, don’t dismantle the actual hard drive. Hard drives are built in controlled clean-air environments and even the smallest spec of dust can cause permanent damage to the drive.
  • Since the introduction of unique ROM chips on the hard drives, it is often no longer possible to exchange circuit boards with another hard drive to access the data. In our experience circuit board problems are far less common than they used to be.

If you are looking for a data recovery service for your external hard drive then have a look at our external drive recovery services.

5 DIY Data Recovery Tips

There is never a good time for your hard drive to fail. It always happens when you have something urgent to work on. Before you start frantically trying to gain access to your data, take a deep breath and read our top 5 things to look out for. It could just save your files.

  1. Don’t assume that recovery software will work on your failed hard drive. If your computer cannot see the drive then neither will the recovery software. Some drives need more than software to get the data off in good condition.
  2. Don’t put the drive in the freezer. This myth has been floating around the internet for years, but no real data recovery has ever required a freezer.
  3. Don’t run Checkdisk, Scandisk, Spinrite, Disk Warrior or anything that could WRITE data to your failing drive. If the drive is failing then you could be accidentally overwriting the data you want back.
  4. Don’t try swapping the PCB from one drive to another. A once-simple fix (circa 1990) is now very unlikely to work. Most of the firmware to control the drive is actually stored on the disks, so swapping the card won’t work. Also most drives now have unique PCB information which varies from drive to drive. We usually have to adapt a replacement PCB to make it work with another drive.
  5. Don’t panic. The data is probably recoverable. If the drive has just failed and you haven’t tried any recovery software there is a good chance that we can get back all of your data.

Contact us via the form on the right, or have a look at our different service levels here.

Dual boot Ubuntu & Windows

We needed a dual boot Ubuntu and Windows 7 setup today, which had a few stumbling blocks.

Problem 1. – GPT Partition

Installed Windows 7 on half a 500GB drive and left 250GB free for Ubuntu. When booting to install Linux, it didn’t see Windows 7 due to the GPT partition that Windows 7 uses by default.

Solution 1.

Used Gparted from the Linux live cd to format the drive with an MBR partition layout. (Note:- This destroyed the original Windows installation.) Then installed Windows back to the drive. This time, Ubuntu saw Windows 7 during installation and was happy to install alongside it.

Problem 2. – Default Windows Dual Boot

Although the machine was now happily dual booting, it would default to Ubuntu, regardless of which changes i made to the grub config. Startup manager would make changes to grub, but it would still default to Ubuntu.

Solution 2.

Nariub on the Ubuntu forums suggested changing the os-prober number, so it loads that first. This puts Windows at the top, making it the default. Perfect for what we needed.

The command for this, which worked for us on Ubuntu 11.10 & Windows 7:

mv /etc/grub.d/30_os-prober /etc/grub.d/09_os-prober
update-grub

So now we have the machine booting as we want, with each operating system happily taking up half of the 500GB drive.

Stop Password Expiration In Windows 7

My brother has just brought me his laptop to look at after forgetting the login password. It was frequently asking him to change the password, and one day he changed it and then forgot it. I found a simple command to stop the password from expiring:

First run Cmd (Command Line) as Administrator (click Start -> and type cmd. Right click on Cmd and choose “Run As Administrator”). If you followed correctly this should give you a black command line window with white text.

Then type:

net accounts /maxpwage:unlimited

And press return or enter.

It should congratulate you, or say successful (can’t remember the exact wording).

The password should then last forever, or until it is changed manually.

Note: It is good practice to change passwords regularly, however outside of corporate IT land can be a huge hassle. Just ask my brother 🙂 

Make a file or folder hidden in Finder

Sometimes when we clone a Mac drive using unconventional methods, it works fine, but has an annoying side effect; Files that are usually hidden in the Finder are instead displayed and accessible to users. These files are hidden for a reason, and contain things like the UNIX system files and some Mac system files which you probably shouldn’t mess with.

Luckily there is a simple terminal command to make these files hidden again. It doesn’t delete them, just changes their file attributes.

sudo chflags hidden filename

sudo allows you to run commands as Super User so be careful! It will ask for a password (but not display it as you type…)

Where it says filename you can either replace it with a file or folder name, or drag a load of folders onto the terminal window and it will fill out the names for you.

An example below:

sudo chflags hidden /var

That would hide the var folder on the root of the boot drive.

I found this really helpful but as usual use it at your own risk…

Data Destruction Discussion On Slashdot

Slashdot had an interesting article today about how to destroy hard drives. It’s a commonly asked question, but deserves a bit of time every once in a while. Of course there are the usual physical destruction options, from the humble hammer and screwdriver, to more exotic (and dangerous) techniques like a propane furnace.

For most purposes we still advise that a simple zeroing of the whole disk is a pretty safe bet. *

Failing that, then as long as you totally destroy the platters, you are good to go. That means taking the disk apart and grinding, bending and scraping the disks to bits.

* During normal use, a hard drive will get occasional bad sectors, which are then mapped out and prevented from being used. When that same sector is requested again, a new spare sector is used from another part of the disk. With the right knowledge, it is possible to access this list of remapped / bad sectors and see if there is any useful data within them. The chances of finding anything useful in these sectors is slim, but you never know.

Read the article on Slashdot