I had that moment happen to me this past week… I knew it was coming but, like so many of you I said to myself “I probably have a few more months before it’s an issue”… Yep, my hard drive software warned me of impending doom on one of my data drives. I ignored it. Then a few days ago I heard that short squealing whine of death and Windows then informed me that my hard drive had no partitions and was empty of data…

That’s a bad day… especially when you realize that you may have some important documents and pictures of one of your children shortly after they were born (that aren’t kept anywhere else) that are now gone forever…

But are they gone forever? In this case, the drive in question was a “not all that old” 2 TB “spinning rust” 7200 RPM SATA drive. If this were a newer SSD drive then perhaps the situation would be more dire, but on old magnetic disks those shiny spinning platters (typically) still hold all of your precious data, it’s just hard to get to.

So first order of business was to use a Princess Bride reference and ask… Is it “mostly dead” or “all dead?” Because with mostly dead… well that means the drive is still slightly alive, and that means you might be able to take a visit to Miracle Max, in this case a free (as in free) application called TestDisk.

There are a mix of other tools out there which can recover data from a dead drive with varying degrees of success. However they all cost money and I would guess that very few are any more effective than (if even “as effective as”) TestDisk. So my 2-cents, avoid DMDE, EaseUS, and all other “shareware/trial” tools which will tempt you once installed by showing you that they can see your files and then prompt you to pony up $20 – $60 before allowing you to restore your data. TestDisk is slightly more intimidating to use, granted, but it is still all menu driven and with a little patience works just fine.

So with that intro out of the way, I am going to quickly go through the steps to recover data (that I had to muddle my way through due to some confusing mix of information on the internet). You can also just skip the rest of my article and read the documentation (which would have saved me a lot of time had I just done this in the first place) here: https://www.cgsecurity.org/wiki/TestDisk_Step_By_Step

  1. Download the TestDisk/PhotoRec archive from here. In my case I got the Windows 64-bit package. https://www.cgsecurity.org/wiki/TestDisk_Download
  2. Unpack the ZIP file to a new folder on the DESTINATION HARD DRIVE WHERE YOU ARE GOING TO RESTORE DATA TO. This makes things easier…
  3. Open up the folder where you unpacked the application and create a subfolder called “Recovery”
  4. Double-click to run the testdisk_win.exe application (don’t use Photorec_xxx, this is where I wasted some time initially)
  5. A new window will open with some options, choose “create” and click enter to create a new log file
  6. Next you will get a list of physical hard drives in your system, if you are lucky (and your drive is only mostly dead but not all dead) your failed drive will be on the list, highlight it using the arrow keys and click “enter”
  7. On the next page are a bunch of options for partition types, if you are on a windows PC, just click enter to select “Intel/PC partition”… this should apply to the majority of the people reading this.
  8. On the next screen you will get some options about what you want to do. If your partition is completely missing you can use the “analyze” function and Testdisk may be able to find it. In my case, I went straight to “advanced – FileSystem Utils” and tapped “enter” to proceed
  9. On the next screen you have options along the bottom, I selected [LIST] and clicked enter… then waited… and all of my folders appeared on the screen… now we are getting to the good part…
  10. Use your arrow keys and highlight the folder you want to recover first… You can use the right/left arrow keys to drill into sub-folders but for simplicity I am going to just talk about recovering a root level folder. So up/down arrow keys to select the folder I wanted and then I tapped “shift+C” to indicate this is what I want to recover.
  11. This takes me to the final screen before recovery happens. I need to select a place to recover my files to. It starts in the root of the test-disk directory. So I use my up/down arrow keys to highlight the “recovery” folder I created earlier and then “Shift+C” to start the recovery to that folder.

After many hours, my folder was restored with all of the files and file-names intact. Repeat to restore other root folders.

If your hard drive was more dead than mine was, then I would encourage you to reference the TestDisk “Step_by_Step” link above which talks about other things you can do to repair/recover a dead drive. Different things can happen which can cause “drive death.” Your mileage my vary but what is nice is that either way you didn’t just drop $40 on recovery software right off the bat that may or may not have been successful.

Cheers and good luck!

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