What to do after hard drive fails?

A hard drive failure can be stressful and leave you wondering what to do next. Getting your data back and having a working computer again should be your top priorities. With some guidance, you can get through this process efficiently.

What are the common signs of a hard drive failure?

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

  • Your computer won’t boot up or takes much longer to start
  • You get error messages saying the drive can’t be found or can’t be read
  • Unusual noises coming from the hard drive like clicking or grinding
  • Problems accessing files and data on the drive
  • Generally slow computer performance
  • Frequent computer freezes or crashes

If you notice any of these issues, it’s very likely you have a hardware problem with your hard drive.

First steps – recover your data

Before anything else, your top priority is recovering your important files and data off the failing drive. If the drive completely dies, you could lose your files forever.

Here are some tips for recovering data:

  • Use data recovery software to scan the drive and restore files. Software like Disk Drill and Stellar Data Recovery have good reputations.
  • Try removing the drive and connecting it to another computer as an external drive. This may allow you to access the files.
  • Boot your computer from a separate startup disk to copy data from the drive.
  • Take your disk to a data recovery service for help recovering files if needed.

Be sure to recover your files and data to a separate safe location like an external drive, not back to the same failing drive.

Replace the failed hard drive

Once your data is safe, it’s time to replace the failed drive. Here are your main options:

Buy a new internal hard drive

This is the most straightforward option. Get a new hard drive that’s compatible with your computer. Make sure it has enough storage capacity for your needs. Install it in your computer in place of the failed drive.

Use an external hard drive

External hard drives connect via USB or other ports. This allows easy plug and play storage. They are portable and you can get large capacities. Just make sure your computer supports booting from external drives if you want to run your operating system off an external drive.

Switch to a solid state drive (SSD)

Upgrading to a speedy SSD is a great option. SSDs have fast data access and high reliability compared to traditional spinning hard disk drives. They are more expensive per gigabyte though.

Consider cloud storage

Services like Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive allow you to store files securely online. This protects your data from local drive failures. Consider combining local and cloud storage for a resilient backup solution.

Install and format the new drive

Once you have a replacement drive, it’s time to install and configure it. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Physically install the new drive if needed. External drives just need to be plugged in.
  2. Turn on your computer and enter the BIOS setup menu. This allows you to access boot order and drive settings.
  3. Set your new drive as the first boot device so your system starts from it.
  4. Exit and reboot from the drive. It will be unformatted.
  5. Use disk management tools like Disk Utility or Disk Management to format the new drive.
  6. Give the drive a recognizable name and file system like HFS+ for Mac or NTFS for Windows.

Refer to your operating system’s documentation for exact steps on the install and formatting process. Take care not to format the wrong drive and erase your data.

Reinstall your operating system

With the new drive installed and formatted, it’s time to reinstall your operating system.

How to reinstall your operating system

  • Locate your OS install discs or recovery media. You may be able to download installers as well.
  • Boot from the OS media instead of the drive.
  • Follow the on-screen prompts to install the OS clean onto your new drive.
  • Select options to erase/format the destination drive before a clean OS install.

Many operating systems offer a recovery partition or media for conveniently reinstalling the OS. If not, you may need the original install media.

Reactivating your license

If your license is tied to old failed hardware, you may need to reactivate your license for the new drive:

  • For retail copies of Windows, use your original license key to reactivate.
  • For OEM Windows licenses tied to a motherboard, you may need to purchase a new license.
  • For Mac OS, sign in with your Apple ID to automatically reactivate the license.

Consult your operating system support for help restoring licenses.

Restore your data and files

Once you have a working OS again, you can bring your files back to the new drive:

  • Copy data from backups and any external drives you recovered files to.
  • Reinstall any software programs you need.
  • Restore system settings, configurations and customizations.

Take this opportunity to clean out old program installs, temporary files, and other clutter when copying data over.

Learn from the failure

Hard drive failures often come without warning. To avoid future data loss, make sure you:

  • Implement regular backups to external or cloud storage. Back up any new important data.
  • Have a backup startup disk ready in case of failures.
  • Monitor your drive health with tools like SMART to catch problems early.
  • Consider new drives as a preventative measure. Hard drives have a limited lifespan.

Following best practices for backups and monitoring can help you avoid or recover from a future sudden drive failure.

When to seek professional help

For severe hard drive problems, it may be best to seek professional assistance:

  • If DIY data recovery efforts are unsuccessful, drive recovery services can sometimes repair drives and recover data where consumers cannot.
  • If you do not feel comfortable installing a replacement drive yourself, computer repair shops can handle installation for you.
  • Consult IT professionals for integrating new drives into more complex storage setups like RAID arrays.

Seeking help can be expensive but is sometimes the only way to get your system fully restored.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why does my hard drive fail?

Some common reasons hard drives fail include:

  • Mechanical failure – Disk platters and moving parts wear out over time.
  • Corrupted firmware – Code that runs the drive gets damaged.
  • Electrical issue – Power surges or fluctuations.
  • Logical damage – Corrupted OS or file system structures.
  • Physical damage – Being dropped, banged around, etc.

Hard drives have many components that can fail and ultimately limit the drive’s lifespan.

How can I recover data from a clicking hard drive?

If the drive is clicking or making obvious mechanical sounds, physical components are likely damaged. Still try steps like:

  • Use recovery software to read sectors despite errors.
  • Access the drive in an external enclosure if possible.
  • Use a professional recovery service – they can sometimes repair minimally damaged drives by swapping platters and parts.

A clicking drive has physical issues so recovery can be very difficult, but skilled pros can sometimes repair drives enough to rescue data.

Is it worth getting data recovered from a hard drive?

It depends on the specific situation and value of your data:

  • For very important data like family photos or business documents, the high cost is often worth it.
  • If the lost data can be recreated or acquired again, costly recovery may not make sense.
  • Compare recovery costs to the value of lost sales, work time, etc. if the data is business related.

Weigh the monetary and sentimental value of your data against the cost of recovery. Vital or irreplaceable data is often worth the expense.

Can you recover data after formatting a hard drive?

Formatting a drive erases file system structures but leaves the actual underlying data intact until overwritten. As long as you avoid writing new data to the formatted drive, recovery software can often still restore much of the original data. The less you use the drive after formatting, the better.

How long does data recovery take?

It depends on factors like:

  • Type of data loss – Logical corruption is quicker than physical failure recovery.
  • Amount of data to recover – Large drives with lots of data take longer.
  • Recovery method used – Software is faster than hardware repairs.
  • Queue at the recovery lab – Wait times can vary.

Small personal drives may take only a day or two. Large enterprise drives with extensive damage could take over a week. Prioritize recovering your most important data first.

Can lost files be recovered after reinstalling Windows?

If you overwrote the drive by reinstalling Windows, the original files are likely gone for good. Your best chance is:

  • Recovering data from backups made before the reinstall.
  • Using file recovery software immediately after reinstall before you write much new data.
  • Asking a professional recovery service – they can sometimes find remnants of old files.

Prevention with backups is really the key. Once overwritten by a reinstall, permanent file loss is almost inevitable.

How do I recover deleted files from an SD card?

If files were just recently deleted from an SD card:

  • Use free data recovery software like Recuva or TestDisk to scan the card and restore deleted files.
  • Avoid writing new data to the card to prevent overwriting deleted files.
  • If needed, take the card to a professional recovery service for more advanced recovery methods.

As long as the deleted files haven’t been overwritten by new data, there is a good chance of recovering them from the SD card.


Recovering from a hard drive failure can be a complex process requiring data recovery, replacing the drive, reinstalling your OS, and restoring your files. Give yourself plenty of time and patience. Follow best practices like backups and drive monitoring to avoid a failure becoming a disaster in the future. With the right planning and procedures, you can get your system running again after even severe hard drive failures.