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The Realities of File Recovery: Three Pervasive Hard Drive Repair Myths Debunked

Think you know a thing or two about recovering files from a damaged or corrupted hard drive? Before you go trying that cool new “hack” you read about in the blogs, make sure you’re not banking on a myth.

Myth:  You should try fixing your hard disk by putting it the freezer/giving it a good whap/dropping it on the floor.
Reality: Risking physical damage to your hard disk drive should be a last resort.  The first thing you should do is create a disk image.
Lurk the forums long enough and you’ll hear anecdotal evidence that popping a failed hard disk drive into the freezer can sometimes bring it back to life. But that doesn’t mean that’s the first thing you should try. Freezing your hard drive can cause condensation or air to infiltrate your disk and otherwise compromise the integrity of the delicate innards of your drive. And the risks of dropping or striking your hard drive are obvious.
Before you resort to cruel and unusual physical punishment, you should try a less invasive remedy. In the case of a failing hard drive, that would be creating an image of the disk. If a disk read/write head is damaged, you risk destroying data each time you read a sector. That means you may only get one shot to recover the data. Creating an image of the disk lets you control the damage and work from the image, rather than risking further corrupting of the disk. It’s a bit like studying a replica of the Declaration of Independence, rather than unrolling the original document onto your desk and poring over it with a cup of coffee in hand.
Now, if the disk is absolutely unreadable and can’t even be mounted or detected by your file recovery software, then you can escalate to physical “quick fixes.” There is likely something mechanically wrong with your disk, so popping it into the freezer or firmly tapping it might not hurt. It might not help, either, but if you’ve already exhausted the first wave of non-invasive recovery steps, then you have nothing to lose.
But at the end of the day, it’s really not a good idea to attempt one of these apocryphal remedies. You’re better off consulting a data recovery professional.
 
Myth: A failed hard drive can be repaired or refurbished.
Reality: Physically damaged hard drives can’t be considered reliable, even after being “repaired.”
When a hard disk drive or solid state drive starts failing, it usually means one of two things: (1) there’s a problem with the partition or file tables and it needs to be reformatted or (2) there is something physically wrong with the hardware and you need a new hard drive. In either of these cases, what you want to do is recover any files that you can and back them up to another disk. But what should you do with the damaged disk afterwards?
Unless there’s an obvious software issue at hand—i.e. a format, repartition, or other disk maintenance operation failed or was performed improperly—the safest bet is to destroy the drive (for security purposes) and get a new one. A whirring, clicking, or whining hard drive is another good sign of an impending physical failure.
It’s true that you can “repair” a corrupted disk by marking the damaged sectors as “bad” and limiting read/write activity to the remaining good sectors. But it’s important to consider how these sectors became corrupted in the first place. If there is something wrong with the read/write head, logic board, platter, or other mechanical parts in the drive, then it’s likely that you’ll experience more problems down the road.
Reformatting or “repairing” a disk with bad sectors does not turn those sectors into healthy sectors. By doing so to your hard drive, you are often treating a symptom rather than the cause.  Be wary of “repaired” disks or refurbished drives. Stay on the safe side and invest in a new drive.
 
Myth: Solid state drives don’t fail.
Reality: While solid state drives have fewer moving parts than hard disk drives, they aren’t impervious.
There are many reasons to choose a solid state drive (SSD) over a hard disk drive (HDD) if you can afford it, performance being the number one factor. But the belief that SSDs never fail is flat out wrong. The rationale behind this belief is that SSDs have no moving parts, and therefore there are fewer points of failure. That’s true to a certain degree. An SSD won’t “lock up” and it’ll stand up to jostling and falls a lot better than a hard disk drive. But there is still plenty that can go wrong with an SSD. A capacitor could go out, the firmware could get corrupted, or a memory IC (integrated circuit) may fail. And when that happens, your SSD is nothing but an expensive brick.
In many ways, solid state drives are more reliable than a hard disk drive. Read this thorough investigation by Tom's Hardware  to learn more, if you are interested. But ultimately, an SSD doesn’t protect you 100% from data loss. In fact, it could be argued that SSDs are more prone to data loss, since there is less warning of an impending disk failure. But if you do have an SSD that is failing but is still readable, you can still use the same file recovery tools and disk imaging utilities that you would use with a hard disk drive.

Conclusion

In spite of geek culture priding itself on its high tech airs, there are still a few persistent “old wives’ tales” floating around out there about hard disk drives. Make sure that the file recovery methods you use are practical and well-founded. Otherwise, you may end up causing more damage.


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