Broken Hard Drive: Simple Diagnosis and Repair

by Rod Dunne on December 14, 2010

in Articles, Data Recovery, Hardware

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There are some general ways to diagnose a broken hard drive. Here, we’ll look at some of the hardware and software checks that you make prior to calling upon the services of data recovery experts. Finally, the nuances of diagnosing a broken external hard drive or laptop hard drive finish off the post.

Hardware Faults

If you know for a fact that your broken hard drive is due to mechanical/component damage as the disk was dropped, flooded or suffered a power surge then your only resort is to use data recovery experts. These specialists in hard drive failure recovery have access to forensic software and disk reading tools for retrieving data from even fire or water damaged drives.

If you are less sure of the cause of your broken computer is then listen out for any strange noises from broken hard drives, as these often indicate what the issue is:

  • A grinding noise indicates that the disk reading head, spindle or bearings have begun to seize up.
  • A rattling noise indicates that some components have come loose.

With this sort of mechanical damage, it is best advised to leave the computer maintenance and repair to PC technicians/data recovery experts as any attempts to open the broken hard disk could cause further damage and reduce the chance of a full hard drive crash recovery.

However, if everything sounds fine then here are some checks that you can pursue:

  • Check the IDE ribbon and power cable are securely connected.
  • Check the condition of these cables for signs of heat damage. Replacing a burnt out cable could resolve the issue.
  • Check the input and output connector pins are all in good condition. They should not be pushed in, missing or misaligned.

Our article on external hard drive repair goes into the details of fixing faults specifically on external disks.

Software Faults

Your broken hard disk may simply be failing to be detected by the BIOS. Check the BIOS settings at boot up to establish if the disk is being detected. The manufacturer’s manual will have guidance on correct settings if they are wrong.

If the BIOS does appear to detect the broken hard disk then at the very least you can attempt PC repairs for yourself or use data recovery software to try and recover lost data.

  • Boot the computer in safe-mode (hit F8 as Windows is starting up) or try booting from the Windows Emergency Boot Disk. Doing this will reduce the number of applications/services running so may bypass the fault letting you start Windows and access your data. Our post on DLL repair approaches has more information about checks & updates you can try.
  • PC repair tools like XP Repair Pro can scan your file system for virus damage, operating system faults and registry corruption that could appear to cause a broken hard drive.
  • Data recovery software such as Remo Undelete are able to find files and documents on even a corrupted hard disk, so long as the BIOS was able to detect the disk in the first place.
  • Our article on HDD repair also details a way of using Windows own utilities to repair bad sectors.
  • Our article on hard disk crash data recovery methods also details one way of booting the PC from a LINUX live CD as a way to gain access to your files.

Our post on how to recover data from crashed hard drive partitions has 5 approaches for recovering lost files after a crash.

Laptop Hard Drive

A laptop hard drive is less likely to suffer cable disconnection issues due to the compact nature of its components.

However, broken hard drives due to water/liquid damage are increasingly likely due to spilt drinks. These should be allowed to dry at room temperature (or slightly above), should never be shaken to remove the liquid and never submitted to excessive heat. Run the laptop on battery power only when testing.

Broken External Hard Drive

A broken external hard drive is generally no different from working with internal hard disks.

Additional checks can be done on USB cables to establish they are not damaged and all connector pins are intact. Try using an alternate USB port (the port could be the problem) or using a different USB cable.

Open the Device Manager and analyze the USB properties for your broken hard drive. You might be able to do a hard drive rescue by checking that the drivers are not flagging any problems. Try getting the latest device driver for your hard disk. Remove and reinstall drivers for broken hard drives if in any doubt.

My article on external hard drive data recovery lists 5 common mistakes that can impact your chances of finding lost data from external disks.

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