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How to Recover Data from an External Hard Drive

July 4, 2015

External hard drives are helpful tools for storing large amounts of data, but like all other storage devices, they can fail (and because they’re mechanical, it’s a question of “when” rather than “if”).

If your external hard drive crashes or stops responding, here are a few tips for getting the data off of the device. This is just a general process — hard drives can fail in thousands of ways, so we’re not able to provide a detailed guide for every scenario. However, if you’d like more information or if you have an idea for a more specific guide, please email us at

  • Look and Listen. External hard drives aren’t really that complicated; they consist of a standard internal hard drive hooked up to an interface that relays information to and from your computer. If your device isn’t working, there’s either something wrong with the hard drive, the interface, the data connection cable, or your computer. Listen for any sounds. If your external hard drive is clicking, clacking, or doing its best impression of a trash compactor, turn it off immediately. Sounds are a severe symptom, and your drive probably needs treatment in a clean room.
  • Don’t Try to Repair the External Hard Drive. Don’t put it an freezer (that absolutely never works, although it was a widely used tactic for a few years in the late 1990s; we’ll explain why in an upcoming post). Don’t open the drive, and don’t try to swap the printed circuit board. These techniques could cause additional damage, and we receive dozens of drives every day that are permanently damaged because of bad recovery techniques. If you really believe that you’ve got a technique that could work, give us a call and run it by our engineers before you try it; we’re happy to provide some free assistance. Otherwise, keep the drive off and send it to a trustworthy data recovery company that operates a clean room.
  • Try Another Computer. The problem could be caused by an issue with your computer or cable, so try hooking the external drive up to another computer, then try switching the connection cable (usually USB). If you can’t get a hold of another computer, try hooking the drive up to a different connection port.
  • Remove the Drive. If you’re technically inclined, you can try removing the internal drive from the enclosure and hooking it up to a computer directly. Before handling the internal hard drive, ground yourself to make sure that you don’t shock the drive. Turn your computer completely off before hooking up the internal drive. Be aware that you might void your external hard drive’s warranty by opening it up (most warranties don’t cover data recovery services, but they will cover a hard drive replacement).

If you still can’t read data, write down any error messages generated by your computer and call us. We’ll try to guide you through some additional steps to regain access to the data, and if the problem is severe enough to require in-lab data recovery, we’ll set you up with a free evaluation.

How to Recover Deleted Data from an External Hard Drive

If you accidentally deleted files or if you think that your hard drive failed for software-related reasons (virus attack, etc.), you may be able to recover data from the external hard drive with software.

As a data recovery company, we obviously cannot recommend this — many of our customers accidentally delete their files while trying to use software, so we recommend choosing a trustworthy data recovery company and actually sending the device in. If it’s a fairly minor issue (the type of issue that could be treated with software), the cost will be low, and we evaluate external hard drive data recovery cases for free. If you’re facing a strict deadline, we also offer online data recovery services, which can restore the missing files within a couple of hours. Call 1.800.237.4200 if you’re interested or if you’d like to speak with an engineer.

However, we know that many of our visitors will still try to perform data recovery on their own, so we offer the following tips to consider when using software:

  • Choose reputable software. We have a conflict of interest here, since we offer data recovery services, so I want to reiterate that we do not recommend any data recovery tool for home computer users.With that being said, we recommend reading user reviews before paying for/downloading any data recovery software. Free utilities are often sufficient in simple situations, so there’s no reason to pay hundreds of dollars (especially considering that professional data recovery services will often cost less).
  • Don’t install the software to the external hard drive. Data recovery software should be installed on your primary hard drive; it will access your external drive to attempt recovery, then transfer the recovered files to another device (such as your primary hard drive). If you install software to the external drive, you will overwrite your data.
  • If the software fails, turn off your drive right away. A failed recovery may create files that are unreadable, or they may look unusual when you try to open them. For instance, a document file might have random letters and numbers in it. This can be a serious symptom, and recovery is usually past the expertise level of a home computer user. If the files are important, call a verified data recovery company. If they’re not crucial enough to pay for, you just learned an important lesson — back up your data!

We’re always available at 1.800.237.4200 to discuss external hard drive data recovery, data recovery software, or just about anything else (as long as it’s related to data recovery — we can’t get you movie showtimes, unfortunately).

If you’ve got a hard drive issue, give us a call. has real laboratories, real engineers, and real customer service; everything you need to get your files back up and running again.