Desperate solutions for dead hard drives

I’m trying to rescue a dying hard drive today. It’s suffering from the Click of Death, which means it’s going down no matter what, but it’d be really, really nice if I could get at its data.

I regularly deal with laptop hard drives. 95% of the time they’re slowly dying, and once a Windows system file conks out, I get called. This almost always turns out fine: I quickly copy the still-intact data, slap it all onto a new hard drive, and run a repair install / restore disk. But just occasionally the drives go downhill fast. In today’s case Windows broke at the weekend, and by the time I got there on Tuesday the drive was clicking. Clicking is not good – it means the drive is physically failing to read the data. If it won’t spin up, I can’t do anything.

There’s a solution, but it’s not cheap: you can send the disk to a data recovery centre. They’ll open the drive in their cleanroom and (I assume) transfer the data platters to something which reads them directly. Assuming the platters aren’t physically damaged, this will probably work well. But it’s very expensive – quotes this morning suggested ~£300 for a 40gb drive – and I don’t know anybody who’s actually done it. Because, with laptops, the lost data are usually sentimental rather than critical. It’s not worth that expense, but people are still sad to lose it. This sucks.

I hate it when I can’t recover data. Obviously, everyone should have backups etc., but saying so is all well and good – in practice, most people don’t1. And it’s still heartbreaking to lose, say, years of photographs. But there is one last, desperate trick you can try before paying a fortune / giving up. Put the drive in the freezer.

Honest. It contracts the metal, and has been known to bring drives back from the dead. Until they warm back up…but I only need 15mins for a drive image. I’m trying this today.

The drive in question refused to stop clicking, so I shoved it in the freezer for an hour. I then quickly slapped it into an external usb caddy, hit the power and…I’m pretty sure it span up. Laptop drives are very quiet, but if I tilted it there was a definite force, so something was happening. Windows said “I’ve found a drive!”. And then sat there. And sat there. I reset the enclosure to try and kick things back into life, and this set it clicking again. Damn.

As I said, this is a last-ditch strategy. I’m really hoping that a bit longer in the freezer will do the trick – some say they’ve had drives fail after 4h but work after 24h. I’ll give it another few hours and try again. If that doesn’t work, I’ll try it overnight. I’d really like to get this one.

Update after another 2hrs: still nothing. It spins up, then starts clicking. Can’t think there’s much hope, to be honest, except there was that all-too-brief ‘disk drive found’ message from Windows…

Update 2: Sadly, this didn’t work. After an overnight freeze it refused to do anything for a minute, then just clicked as ever. I guess this type of click wasn’t the freezer-solvable one. Damn.

  1. backing up is still far too irritating for the average user, if you ask me. Norton Ghost is the most user-friendly system I know, but it’s confusing to set up. This should hopefully change as broadband speeds increase, as far simpler online backups will be able to handle music / photos []