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What Is An I/O Device Error for an External Hard Drive?

November 7, 2023

External hard driveAn I/O Device Error is a potentially serious symptom that occurs when a computer cannot interface (trade data) with a storage device. It’s commonly associated with Windows, though input/output errors can occur on any operating system.

You might encounter an error message that reads something like: 

Operation Can’t Be Performed Because of an I/O Device Error

That message doesn’t provide much actionable information — and that’s simply because the computer doesn’t know why the device is failing to respond. 

What causes an I/O device error?

I/O errors can occur for a variety of reasons, and some of them can be easily addressed:

  • The computer’s USB port (or other connection port) is not working properly, or the USB cable is damaged.
  • Flash drives may prompt an I/O error if their connectors are dirty, wet, or damaged.
  • The storage device has an unexpected drive letter. In other words, software expects the hard drive (or other device) to have one drive letter, while the operating system has assigned a different letter. 
  • The drivers for the target device are corrupt or incompatible.
  • The operating system is attempting to transfer data via an operation that the device does not support.
  • The storage device has damaged firmware.
  • The storage device has suffered an electronic or physical malfunction.

Unfortunately, the last scenario is one of the most common for external hard drives and solid-state drives (SSDs). Read/write head crashes, firmware problems, motor seizures, and other issues may generate an I/O error, and in those cases, operating the hard drive can cause permanent data loss. 

Related: How Can I Tell If My Hard Drive Is Broken?

Can I fix a hard drive, SSD, or other device with an I/O device error?

If you notice any signs of a physical drive failure, we strongly recommend seeking assistance from a professional data recovery provider. If your drive has failed, you may have only one opportunity to recover your files — running the drive can cause platter scoring, extensive file corruption, and other issues that will impair recovery efforts.

Common signs of physical hard drive failure include: 

  • The drive makes unusual noises such as clicking, grinding, or whirring.
  • Prior to the I/O error, the drive operated slowly, or the operating system had trouble recognizing the device. 
  • The operating system lists the drive with the incorrect capacity, or does not recognize the file structure.
  • The drive has recently sustained physical damage from a drop, water exposure, or electronic event (such as a power surge). 

If you haven’t noticed any of these symptoms, you can’t necessarily rule out hard drive failure — and if the data on the device is important, the best practice is to get it to a professional data recovery laboratory.

However, if the data is not important — or you’re willing to take a significant risk — you can try basic steps to resolve the I/O error:

If these steps don’t resolve the issue, you may need to replace the device. Learn why we don’t recommend using data recovery software to fix I/O errors.

Expert Resources for Professional Data Recovery provides risk-free evaluations for all hard drive and SSD brands, makes, and models. We support our services with a no data, no charge guarantee: If we’re not able to recover the files you need, you don’t pay for the attempt. 

To schedule a free evaluation, submit a case online or call 1-800-237-4200 to speak with a member of our team.