DriveSavers breathes life into a dead drive

DriveSavers breathes life into a dead drive

May. 12, 2008 (12:29 pm) By: 

In computer circles a well known statement when it comes to hard drives is that it’s not a matter of “if” a hard drive dies but “when”. Well, unfortunately for my brother-in-law that time came a couple of weeks ago for his external hard drive. He had stored all of his music and all of the photos that his family has taken of their two year old son on an external Maxtor. One day he turned it on, heard some musical tones and then a whirring sound, a clicking sound, and that was it. It wouldn’t show up on his computer and was presumed dead. Being the geek in the family, he asked if he could send it my way.

The first thing I did was plug it into power to hear the noises for myself. Sure enough, I heard the music tones and then the whirring and clicking. Some Google searches turned up pretty much nothing about the sounds, but having had an external drive before, I knew what the sounds meant: dead drive.

The next thing I did was hook it up to my PC. It actually started to get recognized but then wouldn’t show up in My Computer. I then plugged it into another computer, just to be sure, and found that it was recognized but again, not showing up in My Computer. Then I went into Device Manager and saw it there … but I still couldn’t access it. Thinking there might still be hope, I contacted Seagate/Maxtor tech support. Unfortunately, it was now too late to call so I sent them an e-mail describing the problem instead.

The next day I had yet to receive a reply, so I dialed them up. I spoke with a tech (who still couldn’t tell me what the musical tones meant), and then after seeing that I couldn’t browse to the drive he declared it dead. Since it was out of warranty he basically said that I was out of luck. Strangely enough, after I got off that call I received a response to my e-mail where the tech suggested I download Seagate’s SeaTools and test the drive. I did as instructed and he drive failed every test and in some cases wouldn’t even run the test.

Still not believing that it was time to throw in the towel, I remembered a company that specializes in recovering dead hard drives: DriveSavers. I dialed them up and after answering a series of questions, I was quoted a range with an estimated recovery price of $1500 and a turnaround time of 5-7 days. Once I agreed to the price I was e-mailed a PDF with instructions on how to get the drive to them. I overnighted the drive, wrapped in bubble wrap and extra cushioning to avoid any additional damage (they recommended a ziploc or anti-static bag). I also e-mailed customer service a description of the drive contents and what I believed might be the directory structure. They requested this information as it would serve as an indicator of whether or not they recovered the drive.

The next day I received an e-mail letting me know that the drive had been received and that the recovery process had begun.

Here’s a detailed account of the recovery techniques DriveSavers used to try to bring back the dead drive:

DriveSavers initiated the recovery process by taking my external drive to their Certified Class 100 cleanroom (think ER for hard drives). Here, the engineers wearing specialized, certified cleanroom garments (see pictures below) carefully perform surgery on dead drives.



My drive in particular suffered electro-mechanical failure resulting in severe media damage to the platter surface and logical corruption to the file system. In other words, the drive failed in about every way you can imagine. Using an extensive supply of hard drive components, the cleanroom engineers utilized proprietary techniques to create a bit-for-bit image of the drive and placed the image onto a clean target drive.

“We did a combination of things to get the image,” said Michael Hall, Director of PC Engineering. “We had to replace the actuator assembly and components on the printed circuit board. By performing these actions, we were able to image about 25 percent of the drive.”

Unfortunately, the data I needed back was not on the image that they first acquired. At this point, they performed a full platter swap and were able to image all readable sectors that did not have physical media damage.

Next, the drive went to their Windows software engineering team to manually extract the critical files requested.

According to Michael Hall, “Although there was severe media corruption on this drive, DriveSavers engineers were able to successfully recover the majority of the critical data by utilizing our proprietary software and methodology.”

Again, my drive failed in about every way you can imagine. It had electro-mechanical failure resulting in severe media damage. Seagate considered it dead, but I didn’t give up. It’s actually pretty amazing that they were able to recover nearly all of the data. Of course, they had to do some rebuilding, but that’s what you expect when you send it to the ER for hard drive recovery.

So, how much did it end up costing? Pricing is determined by the drive capacity, complexity and completeness of the data recovery. The cost for recovering data from a drive with severe media damage, like mine, is about $1900. An average single drive data recovery costs about $1500.

In my case they restored approximately 80 percent of the drive and put it on a new external hard drive. Depending on the size of the data, it either goes to an external (you can supply one if you want) or DVDs. In addition to hard drives they can restore removable media, digital cameras, tape, and even iPods and MP3 players.

Not everyone can afford to spend that amount on recovering data but it’s all about what the data means to you. In the case of this drive, it holds memories that would have been gone forever. So, it was a small price to pay.

Read more about them at Be sure to check out their Museum of Disk Disasters, too.

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