Is data lost if hard drive fails?

The short answer

Data can potentially be lost if a hard drive fails, but it is often possible to recover the data, at least partially. There are professional data recovery services that are often able to recover data from failed drives. The likelihood of successful data recovery depends on the type of hard drive failure and how soon recovery is attempted after the failure.

Common causes of hard drive failure

There are several common causes of hard drive failure:

  • Mechanical failure – The mechanical parts of the hard drive fail, such as the read/write heads, spindle motor or bearings.
  • Logical failure – The hard drive’s firmware experiences corruption or damage to its electronic components.
  • Physical damage – Physical damage from impacts, fire, water, etc. can make the drive inoperable.
  • Overheating – Excessive heat causes failure of electronic components.

Mechanical failures are most common, accounting for about 60% of hard drive failures. Logical failures account for about 30% and physical damage about 10% on average.

Signs of hard drive failure

Some common signs that a hard drive may be failing include:

  • Strange noises – Clicking, grinding or buzzing sounds coming from the hard drive.
  • Slower performance – Programs and files taking longer than usual to open and save.
  • Frequent freezes and crashes – The operating system freezing or crashing more often.
  • Data corruption – Files and data becoming corrupted or going missing.
  • Failure to boot – The computer failing to boot up or not being detected by the OS.

If you notice any of these issues, it’s important to take action quickly to recover your data and replace the drive before failure occurs.

Is the data completely lost?

When a hard drive fails, the data is often still recoverable, but the likelihood depends on the cause and type of failure:

Mechanical failure

With mechanical failure, the data itself is typically still intact on the platters inside the hard drive. But the physical components to read that data are damaged or non-functional. Professional recovery services can often swap these damaged components with working ones and salvage the data.

Logical failure

Logical failures involve corruption of the hard drive’s firmware and other electronic components. The data may still be readable if the corruption is isolated. But widespread firmware corruption often causes data loss. Logical recovery has a lower success rate than mechanical recovery.

Physical damage

Physical damage such as from dropping, fire or water often make data recovery the most challenging. The physical platters where the data is stored can become warped, scratched or otherwise damaged. However, recovery specialists utilize techniques like disk imaging and clean room repairs that can sometimes recover data despite physical damage.

Factors affecting recoverability

Some key factors affect the likelihood of successfully recovering lost data from a failed hard drive:

  • Timeliness – The sooner recovery is attempted after failure, the better the chances of recovery. Leaving a failed drive powered on decreases chances further.
  • Failure type – As outlined above, mechanical failures have the highest recovery rates, followed by logical then physical damage.
  • Drive model – More advanced drives with features like RAID improve redundancy and recoverability.
  • Repair method – Professional data recovery services using specialized tools and clean rooms yield higher success rates than DIY software tools.

DIY data recovery methods

There are some DIY methods you can attempt before seeking professional recovery services:

Software recovery tools

Software like Recuva, Disk Drill and Stellar offer free versions for recovering data from failed drives. They scan the drive and try to reconstruct damaged files. However, they have limitations compared to professional services.

Remove the drive and mount in another computer

If the drive failure is logical, you may be able to remove the hard drive and mount it as a secondary drive in another working computer to access the files. This risks further damage to the drive though.

Freezer method

For mechanical failures, some attempt putting the drive in a freezer inside a sealed bag. This can temporarily contract and realign platters enough to allow short term data access. However, this is risky and temporary.

Professional data recovery services

For the best chance of recovering data from a failed hard drive, professional data recovery services are recommended. Here are some key capabilities of professional recovery:

  • Clean room facilities – Hard drives are disassembled and repaired in dust-free clean rooms to avoid further contamination.
  • Advanced tools – They utilize specialized tools and technologies like disk imaging, component-level repair and platter transplants.
  • Expertise – Experience and advanced training improves the odds and minimizes risk of permanent data loss.
  • Diagnostics – Professional analysis can diagnose exactly what failed and best repair approach.

Some well-known professional recovery services include DriveSavers, Ontrack and Gillware. Costs range from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on failure type and required work.

Preventing hard drive failure

While hard drives inevitably fail eventually, there are ways to help extend their lifespan and minimize failure risks:

  • Handle drives gently – Avoid physical shocks, drops, bumps and vibrations.
  • Keep drives cool – Ensure adequate airflow and don’t let drives overheat.
  • Perform regular backups – Backup your data routinely to mitigate data loss if failure occurs.
  • Check S.M.A.R.T. errors – Monitor alerts from built-in drive diagnostics tools.
  • Consider RAID – Use RAID mirroring or striping for redundancy.

Replacing drives proactively once they reach about 3-5 years can also reduce failure risks.

Recovering data from the cloud

One way to protect against data loss from local hard drive failures is to keep data backups in the cloud. Cloud storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud and OneDrive make your files accessible from anywhere.

Here are some benefits of using cloud data recovery if a local hard drive fails:

  • Access files from any device – Retrieve files from any computer, tablet or smartphone with internet access.
  • Offsite protection – Files stored in the cloud aren’t impacted if a local drive fails.
  • Automatic syncing – Files added or changed locally are automatically copied to the cloud.
  • Version history – Many cloud services retain previous versions of files allowing rollbacks.

However, cloud storage is not a foolproof backup solution. You should still have a secondary local backup in case of failure or disruption of cloud services. Also, internet outage prevents cloud access until connectivity is restored.

Best practices for cloud data recovery

Follow these tips to effectively leverage cloud storage for data recovery:

  • Enable automatic syncing to cloud to keep online and local files identical.
  • Keep critical files in at least two different cloud services for redundancy.
  • Store previous file versions in the cloud to allow rollbacks if needed.
  • Download cloud files to a local drive if internet disruption occurs.
  • Have a robust local backup in addition to cloud storage.

Final thoughts

Hard drive failures are unfortunately quite common, but your data is rarely lost for good as long as you act quickly and properly. Follow best practices for drive health and backups to minimize risks. And leverage both professional recovery services and the cloud when failure does strike to ensure your important files remain accessible.


Data loss when a hard drive fails is not inevitable. Professional recovery services can often salvage data even from failed drives. Cloud backup provides another layer of protection against data loss. By combining local backups, professional recovery techniques and cloud storage redundancy, most data today can be recovered with effort, expertise and occasionally substantial expense. The key is being proactive and having robust plans in place before failure occurs. With proper preparation, virtually no data is truly lost forever even if a local hard drive fails.