Because of their portable nature, the average external hard drive sees plenty of abuse, frequently getting disconnected without first being properly unmounted, only to be carried loosely inside a backpack and subjected to all kinds of shocks and vibrations.
As a result, there are many people who scour the web in search for the answer to one important question: How to recover data from a dead external hard drive? In this article, you’ll find the answer you’re looking for.
What Is a Dead External Hard Drive?
Before we dive deep into the ins and outs of dead external hard drive data recovery, we should first define the term “dead external hard drive.”
When data recovery experts describe an external hard drive as dead, they usually mean that the storage device is unreadable and/or unrecognizable because it’s either logically or physically damaged.
Logically damaged dead external hard drives don’t suffer from any mechanical issues. Instead, the damage is purely software-related, often involving the file system or even the firmware itself.
💡 For example, certain solid-state disks (SSDs) contain a so-called death bug in their firmware, causing them to fail at 40,000 hours of operation.
Physically damaged dead external hard drives, on the other hand, don’t function properly due to various mechanical issues, from shattered platters to broken connectors.
Why Do External Hard Drives Become Dead?
Now that you know what a dead external hard drive is, we can take a closer look at some of the most common causes of logical and physical external hard drive death:
- 😫 Failed formatting: The purpose of formatting is to set up a new file system. When the formatting process fails before it has the time to finish properly, the entire external hard drive can become unreadable.
- 💦 Water ingress: Water and electronics don’t go well together. Unfortunately, it’s fairly easy to spill a glass of water on an external hard drive placed on a desk, and the consequences can be disastrous.
- 📳 Shocks and vibrations: Traditional spinning external hard drives house rotating plates attached to a movable arm with a read/write head on it. The head floats just a few nanometers above the rotation plates, and even relatively small shocks and vibrations can cause them to physically touch and potentially break.
- 🐞 Software bugs: The firmware that controls how modern external hard drives function is highly complex, so it’s no wonder that it sometimes contains bugs. The same holds true for the operating systems and applications that store data on hard drives. Most software bugs, fortunately, don’t cause external hard drives to become dead, but some do.
- 🔥 Excessive heat: Most external hard disks are designed to operate in temperates of up to 50°C (122°F). During hot summer days, your external hard disk can easily reach and exceed 50°C just by being exposed to direct sunlight. A short exposure should be fine, but a long one can cause irreparable damage.
- 🦠 Malware infection: In recent years, ransomware has become one of the most prominent cyber threats. Designed to encrypt data, ransomware can infect both internal and external hard drives and make them unusable.
As unfortunate as it is, most people get to experience at least one of the above-described causes of external hard drive death sooner or later.
Can You Recover Data From Dead External Hard Drives?
As final as the term “dead external hard drive” may sound, both logically and physically damaged drives can often (not always!) be recovered using a variety of different methods—some free and some potentially costing a lot of money.
In many cases, logically damaged dead external hard drives can be recovered just by fixing the underlying software issue, and we explain how to fix dead external hard drives in the next section of this article. When simple fixes don’t work, data recovery software applications come to the rescue with their ability to recover even permanently deleted files.
While it’s usually not possible to recover data from broken external hard drives at home unless the damage is extremely minor (such as a bend—not broken—connector pin), there are many professional data recovery centers that employ experienced professionals equipped with cutting-edge tools for solving even the most serious data loss scenarios.
How to Recover Data From Dead External Hard Drives?
The good news is that anyone can learn how to recover data from a dead external hard drive without much effort. Let’s take a closer look at several techniques that you can use to recover a failed external hard drive, starting with a technique you’re probably already familiar with.
Method 1: Recover Data From Recycle Bin/Trash
Before you attempt more complicated methods, you should check the Recycle Bin (Windows) or Trash (Mac) folder to see if the missing files are really gone:
- Double-click the Recycle Bin icon on your desktop.
- Look for the data you want to restore.
- Click the Restore the selected items button.
- Click the Trash icon in the Dock.
- Look for the data you want to restore.
- Move the selected items to a safe folder.
If the external hard drive is really dead, this method won’t probably work because both Windows and macOS keep Recycle Bin/Trash data on the storage devices where the data was originally stored, so a dead external hard drive means no ability to recover Recycle Bin/Trash data.
Method 2: Repair the External Hard Disk
Just because your external hard disk seems to be empty or triggers all kinds of strange error messages doesn’t mean that you can’t bring it back from the land of dead computer parts. Windows and macOS come with handy disk repair tools designed to bring dead storage devices back to life:
- Launch the Terminal
- Type chkdsk X: /f and press Enter (replace X with the letter assigned to your external drive).
- If asked, confirm your decision to dismount the drive by pressing Y.
- Type attrib -h -r -s /s /d X:*.* and press Enter (replace X with the letter assigned to your external drive).
- Close the Terminal
- Open Finder and go to Applications > Utilities.
- Launch Disk Utility.
- Select your external hard disk from the left pane.
- Click First Aid.
- Confirm your decision to check the disk for errors by clicking the