Can I still recover files from broken external hard drive?

Lost files from a broken external hard drive can feel devastating. Important documents, irreplaceable photos, and priceless memories can disappear in an instant. But don’t panic – recovering data from a damaged external hard drive is possible using the right tools and techniques. This guide will explain how external hard drives fail, the common mistakes that worsen data loss, and the most effective methods for safely recovering files from a broken drive.

How do external hard drives fail?

External hard drives can fail for many reasons, but some of the most common include:

  • Physical damage – Dropping or impacting an external hard drive can damage internal components like the read/write heads, motors, or platters.
  • Corrupted file system – File systems can become corrupted from sudden power loss, improper device removal, viruses, or system errors. This renders the data unreadable.
  • Degraded drive parts – Components like the controller or platter bearings wear out over time leading to malfunctions.
  • Bad sectors – Permanent defects on the physical platters prevent data from being read or written.
  • Electrical issues – Power surges, controller circuit failure, or connection problems can prevent access to the drive.
  • Firmware damage – Bugs, crashes, or attacks on the drive’s firmware can make data inaccessible.

The end result of these failures is an external hard drive that does not show up, is not recognized, or has inaccessible data when plugged into a computer. But even a drive with severe physical damage, a completely dead drive motor, or corrupted firmware still has recoverable data on the platters inside.

Warning signs of external hard drive failure

Watch for these signs that your external hard drive may be failing:

  • Unusual noises – Clicking, grinding, buzzing or loud spinning from the drive.
  • Slow performance – Long delays when reading or writing data.
  • Disappearing files – Files become corrupted or go missing.
  • Bad sectors – Your system reports read/write errors or bad sectors.
  • Failure to mount – Drive does not show up or mount on your computer.

Taking action at the first signs of a problem can allow you to recover data before the drive completely fails. Ignoring the issue can result in more corrupted or lost data.

Common mistakes that make data recovery harder

When an external hard drive fails, many people make unfortunate mistakes in trying to recover the data. Avoid these errors that can worsen data loss:

Trying to fix drive hardware yourself

Do not try to pry open, repair or tinker with a malfunctioning drive. You can damage sensitive components and lose data permanently. Leave disassembly and repairs to data recovery experts.

Continuing to use the failing drive

Once problems appear, stop using the drive immediately. More operations could overwrite your files or further corrupt the file system.

Allowing faulty drive to auto-repair

When a drive errors, your computer may prompt you to run chkdsk /f or repair tools. Do not let these tools modify the drive, since they can overwrite data in bad sectors.

Formatting or repartitioning the drive

Formatting, repartitioning, or resetting the drive erases your files. Your data is still there under the new file system, but only experts can recover it after reformatting.

Improper handling and transport

Physically damaged drives require special care to prevent components shifting and data loss. Do not shake, drop, or travel with the drive until recovered.

Avoiding these mistakes gives you the best chance of successfully recovering all your data. Now let’s look at the techniques that work best for retrieving files from a broken drive.

Data recovery options

When your external hard drive fails or becomes inaccessible, you have 3 main options for data recovery:

1. Use data recovery software

Data recovery software scans the drive and extracts recoverable data from it. It works best in cases of accidental deletion, file system corruption, power failure, or minor physical damage. Follow these steps when using data recovery software:

  1. Select a good recovery tool – Choose a reputable recovery program like Ontrack EasyRecovery that can retrieve files from healthy, formatted, corrupt, or physically damaged drives.
  2. Connect the drive – Connect your external drive to another computer it can be accessed from.
  3. Scan the drive – Run a deep scan on your damaged drive to find all recoverable data.
  4. Preview and recover – Preview found files before recovery to check their integrity. Then recover files to another safe drive.

2. Send away for professional data recovery

For drives with more severe physical damage or complex issues, send it to a professional recovery lab. They have clean room facilities and specialized tools to physically repair drives and extract data at the platter level. Professional recovery involves:

  1. Find a reputable lab – Search reviews to choose a facility with a high success rate. Get free diagnostics and quotes beforehand.
  2. Ship the drive safely – Carefully package the drive to avoid more damage in shipping. Most labs provide shipping materials.
  3. Let experts recover data – Facilities use specialized tools, powerful software, and clean room work to retrieve your information.
  4. Get your recovered data – The lab returns your recovered data on a new storage device. Many provide free worldwide shipping.

Professional recovery yields the highest success rate for damaged drives. However, costs range from $300 to $2500 so only use for critical, irreplaceable data.

3. Attempt DIY recovery

With the right tools, you can disassemble and access the data platters in your drive as a last resort. This is complex and has risks of total failure if done incorrectly. Steps include:

  1. Disassemble carefully – Follow a guide to open the drive in a dust-free space without touching/damaging the platters.
  2. Remove drive parts – Detach circuit board but leave drive motors attached to platters.
  3. Read platters separately – Use a donor board or adapter to read platters individually on a working drive.
  4. Try recovery software – After copying platter data, attempt recovery using software.

DIY recovery has potential to work when all else fails. But you risk complete data loss if drive components are mishandled during disassembly.

Choosing the best recovery method

The optimal approach depends on the failure, value of data, and your technical expertise:

Failure Type Recommended Method
Deleted or lost files Data recovery software
Formatted/erased drive Data recovery software
Corrupted file system Data recovery software
Minor physical damage Data recovery software
Severe physical damage Professional data recovery
Mechanical failure Professional data recovery
Critical unrecoverable data Professional recovery + DIY

Software has the best cost-effectiveness for simple logical recovery cases. But if budget permits or critical data is unrecoverable, use professional recovery services or DIY methods.

Data recovery software solutions

When choosing data recovery software, select a program with features to handle your specific external hard drive issue. Here are top software solutions for common problems:

Best for accidentally deleted files:

  • EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard – Retrieve deleted files fast from internal/external drives and Windows/Mac.
  • Stellar Data Recovery – Find lost documents, multimedia, emails, and other file types.
  • Disk Drill – Recover permanently deleted data even with no original file record.

Best for formatted/erased drives:

  • R-Studio – Powerful formatted drive recovery with advanced scan options.
  • GetDataBack – Grab data from freshly formatted or accidentally initialized drives.
  • ReclaiMe File Recovery – Retrieve files from quick/full reformats and partition loss.

Best for file system corruption:

  • EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard – Repair corrupted file systems and recover data.
  • DMDE Free – Affordable recovery from damaged partitions and boot sectors.
  • Raise Data Recovery – Scan drive images for recovery after corruption or bad sectors.

Best for physical damage:

  • Ontrack EasyRecovery – Leading recovery from all drive failure types including physical damage.
  • R-Studio – Advanced options like disk imaging help with physically faulty drives.
  • SpinRite – Repair damaged hard drives and recover more data.

Free trials allow you to preview recovered external hard drive files before purchasing a license. Finding the most suitable software for your data loss situation boosts recovery success.

Recovering data from platters

If your external hard drive has severe physical damage or a dead motor, you may need to extract the data platters and access them separately. Here are a few ways data recovery specialists access drive platters:

Platter transplant

They remove the platters from inside your damaged external drive and install them into a functionally identical donor drive. After connecting the donor drive to a computer, the drive is detected and data can be copied off.

Platter removal tool

A specialized device designed to safely remove platters while keeping them intact is used. The platters are then inserted into a drive adapter or custom reader device.

Donor board swap

The circuit board on your external drive is detached and replaced with a working donor board. This lets you access the drive’s platters when connected to a PC.

Accessing platters separately from the damaged drive chassis and electronics is the only hope for recovery once a drive motor fails completely.

Safely storing recovered data

After getting your files from a broken external drive, be sure to back them up so they are not lost again! Follow these tips:

  • Use cloud storage – Save copies of important data in cloud drives like Dropbox or Google Drive.
  • Make spare external backups – Rotate between 2 external hard drives to have an offline backup copy.
  • Store critical files on internal drives – Keep irreplaceable files on your computer’s local drive as well.
  • Encrypt before storing – Enable drive encryption before backing up sensitive documents.
  • Examine RAID configurations – RAID setups can provide redundancy if a single drive fails.

Storing backups in multiple physical locations prevents data loss if a drive is damaged or stolen. You never want to go through severe external hard drive failure again.

Should I upgrade to SSD external storage?

SSD, which stands for solid state drives, are newer external storage units with advantages over traditional hard disk drives (HDDs):

SSD External Drives HDD External Drives
Faster read/write speeds Slower disk-based speeds
More shock and drop resistant More easily damaged if dropped
Silent with no moving parts Audible spinning disks
Lower power consumption Higher power draw
Lightweight and compact Heavier and bulkier

While HDDs are more affordable, SSDs provide speed, durability, silence, and portability benefits. Upgrading to an SSD external drive may prevent future failed drive issues.

Converting internal drive to external

You can convert an unused internal hard drive into an external drive. This provides a low-cost way to expand your external storage.

All you need is an appropriate hard drive enclosure or USB adapter cable to house the internal drive. Look for enclosures that match the size (2.5″ laptop or 3.5″ desktop drive) and interface (SATA, IDE, etc.) of your spare internal drive.

Then you can easily connect the converted external storage to any computer like a regular external hard drive for extra capacity.


Data loss due to external hard drive failure can seem devastating. But recovery is possible using the right tools and techniques. Software solutions can restore data in many cases, while professionals have the best chance for mechanical failure recovery.

Just be sure to stop using a malfunctioning drive immediately and avoid any improper repair attempts. Following proper recovery procedures, the irreplaceable data on your external drive can often be saved from even serious failure situations.

Storing backups in multiple locations will help you avoid relying on a single damaged drive in the future. With the right recovery methods, your important files are not necessarily gone forever even if your external hard drive stops working.