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Data Storage Hardware

Can a Regular Person Repair a Damaged Hard Drive? 504

MrSeb writes "There's a lot of FUD when it comes to self-repairing a broken hard drive. Does sticking it in the freezer help? The oven? Hitting it with a hammer? Does replacing the PCB actually work? Can you take the platters out and put them in another drive? And failing all that, if you have to send the dead drive off to a professional data recovery company, how much does it cost — and what's their chance of success, anyway? They're notoriously bad at obfuscating their prices, until you contact them directly. This article tries to answer these questions and strip away the FUD." What has been your experience with trying to fix broken drives?
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Can a Regular Person Repair a Damaged Hard Drive?

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  • Freezer "fix" (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Georules ( 655379 ) on Saturday July 28, 2012 @11:43AM (#40801623)
    Don't ask me how, but I had a failing drive that couldn't even manage to be on for 30 seconds before being unreadable. Since I was curious, as a control, I first let the drive sit at room temperature for an hour. Afterwards, again, only 30 seconds of read time. I then put it in the freezer for an hour, and was able to read for 10 minutes, just enough time for the data I needed. I have no idea what actually happened, and am still skeptical to attribute the success to the freezer, but I did get what I wanted.
  • by txoof ( 553270 ) on Saturday July 28, 2012 @11:48AM (#40801671) Homepage

    I've tried the freezer trick to help what sounded like an ailing bearing , but with limited success. No amount of freezing seemed to help. To make things worse, when I took the drive out of the freezer, moisture started condensing immediately on the cold PCB. I tried to place it on a sponge to help sop up the water, but I can't imagine this helped the drive at all.

    I have some friends that swear by this, but I am extremely doubtful especially because of the condensation problem. I feel like this is an a apocryphal bit of "knowledge" that has been passed down from a time when drivers were larger, slower and had less precise bearings. I can imagine that on a big old drive freezing the drive *may* have helped. But then again, perhaps it's something like throwing a pinch of spilled salt over your shoulder or touching wood--something your grandma told you to do, but doesn't actually do anything.

  • Re:One word (Score:4, Interesting)

    by CastrTroy ( 595695 ) on Saturday July 28, 2012 @11:58AM (#40801749) Homepage
    I repaired a drive once by overwriting the entire drive with zeroes, and overwrote the whole thing from /dev/random. After that I repartioned it and it worked fine for another 4-5 years. Before I "fixed" it, it was reporting bad sectors all over the place, and constantly had read and write errors. I salvaged what I could, but wasn't able to recover much. I never really trusted it with important data after that point, but it also never failed me after that. I eventually just stopped using it when I purchased a new hard drive, it realized the old one didn't have enough space to be useful. It was only 12 GB. Most USB sticks are bigger than that these days.
  • Yes, maybe. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Fished ( 574624 ) <> on Saturday July 28, 2012 @12:03PM (#40801785)

    My first job in "the industry" was in a PC repair shop in 1991. Back in those days, we had a huge crop of bad Seagate 40MB (yes, that's "mega" children) hard drives. The usual problem was that the spindle had frozen up, and if we took the circuit board off and gently tapped the spindle, you could often (about 75% of the time) get the drive to start spinning again long enough to get your data off.

    Hard drives have gotten a lot more reliable and a lot smaller since then. I don't know whether this would be a wise thing to do with a modern hard drive.

  • Re:One word (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ckedge ( 192996 ) on Saturday July 28, 2012 @12:26PM (#40801965) Journal

    Yes, this frequently works at making failing disks "work again" -- as the manufacturer test sequences and/or simply zeroing the drive gives the drive a chance to find and mark all the bad failed blocks as bad, and the remaining blocks are all the ones that didn't fail and so the disk keeps working for a few more years. I've used this a half dozen times at work.

    Of course, this is to make a failing disk "work again", it doesn't help with recovering existing data.

    The first thing I'll try with a failing disk is to setup a file by file mirroring program (robocopy is one cli program I use a lot) and set it's "retries" to a moderately high number, like 5 or 10 or 20. Even though you are getting read errors, there are a class of problems where occasionally the read will work, and so each time you try and "rsync" the disk, you get more and more of what's there, till you have a mostly complete copy of the data. This is the same method that some enthusiast utilities use (like grc's disk recovery program, iirc).

    I've personally used the freezer trick once. Because of the possibility of condensation, I used the fridge first. I don't recall if I had to use the freezer, but I know I would not have left it in the freezer long (metal transfers heat fast, so it doesn't need to be deep freezed, just a bit colder than the fridge), maybe 5 minutes max, and I recall thinking that I'd end up putting it inside an anti static bag or something with an elastic closing the bag on the cables ... so that the amount of condensation would be limited, either that or run the dehumidifier and/or AC really hard first so that my apt was at low humidity. Definitely would not try it in the middle of a humid summer. Better to wait till winter and turn up your heating system and open your windows so the humidity drops really really low. That's always another option (for those of us that live far enough north), take the system into the chilly cold arid garage so the freezer trick doesn't result in lots of condensation.

    Of 5 drives that were failing, 3 I recovered by "retry reads over and over", and 1 I recovered using the freezer trick.

    I have one more left that I need to try a "platter swap" with an identical working model number using the "bathroom cleanroom technique". But I'm not looking forward to that, getting the platters out without scratching them on the heads is going to be a massive bitch. I think I'll practice on a few old 9GB drives before I try it with my failed 120GB drive. (I've had it sitting around for forever waiting for me to find the time to do it, I don't actually still use drives that old.)

  • by InitZero ( 14837 ) on Saturday July 28, 2012 @12:43PM (#40802089) Homepage

    In preparation for Y2K, we had to turn off our text archive server (at a newspaper) for the first time in, literally, years. The machine itself has been in production for six years, the last two or so of which without a reboot.

    It was an IBM AIX machine with an array of 4.5GB SCSI drives. After sitting with its power off for a couple hours, we turned it back on and Nothing Happened. No drives were spinning. Crap.

    Called IBM tech support. Got the run-around. Finally got to a guy who said something along the lines of "you're going to think this is crazy but do what I say in this order" followed by...

    * turn machine off
    * remove drives
    * turn the machine on
    * bang the drives on their edge a few times on the floor - don't go crazy but harder than you think is a good idea
    * spin the drives flat on the ground as though they were tops
    * immediately, put the drives in the enclosure
    * reboot the machine but do not power it off

    Damn if the guy wasn't right.

    His guess was that the drives had been powered for eight or so years and the lubricant had either broken down or the heads were simply stuck to the platters. The thumping dislodged the heads and the spin gave the grease a fighting chance. {shrug}

    In any case, we dared not turn it off for another year and a half until at such time it was replaced. We thought about buying replacement drives but IBM wanted something along the lines of $600 for a 4.5GB drive. Even on eBay, they were three times what we felt was reasonable.


  • by neurocutie ( 677249 ) on Saturday July 28, 2012 @01:24PM (#40802381)
    My boss handed me the hard drive from his laptop. He said it was totally fried. It had ALL his work on it, no backups.

    What had happened was that he had some minor NTFS corruption problem, so he went to our IT dept. Some IT monkey removed the laptop drive and tried to hook it up to a SATA - IDE converter. However he managed to wire up the power backwards. That fried the drive, but actually all it really did was burn/short the power polarity protection diode.

    So with magnifying glass and soldering iron, I simply removed the shorted diode, and voila (not wahlah or viola), the drive was working again. I was then able to easily clean up the NTFS problem. Boy was he happy to get all his stuff back.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 28, 2012 @01:42PM (#40802499)

    Please put dates on your war-story recovery experiences. If you don't remember, give the drive's size.

    Please don't be pointlessly coy about naming the recovery vendor who could or couldn't recover your data, the price they quoted, the price you finally paid them. Don't say nothing. Don't say "a certain major vendor, har har." Just tell us who they are. You don't have long before these sketchy tradies see the article and flood the comments with self-serving FUD.

    Please state what was wrong with the drive before you tried to recover it, ex:

      * didn't spin

      * didn't identify

      * latent sector errors (ex. "OS keept crashing")

    None of the upvoted comments have these details which is making the article useless for me.

    For my own experience,

    (a) I had full, easy success swapping the controller of an IBM 9GB SCSI drive, but the old controller had been visibly damaged. SMD gull-wing (?) pins were smashed. This is a rare failure case for me.

    (b) I'm often able to recover data from the third category of drive with 'dd if=/dev/olddrive of=/dev/newdrive bs=512 conv=noerror,sync'. (there is also dd_rescue, but I don't use it). This works on Linux or Mac, but on Solaris you must use GNU dd for it to work---the included one is just broken. Obviously you need to boot off a drive other than the one that's failing. The drive must be unmounted when you use dd. It takes several days to read a failing drive this way, and about a quarter-day to copy a fully-working drive this way, so the excessively slow/dumb retry cycles in the firmware and storage stack mean your drive is spinning long enough to get worse, if it's decaying (something to consider for self-service vs. pro recovery).

  • Re:One word (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 28, 2012 @03:06PM (#40803081)

    About two years ago I had a 1TB Hitachi drive go bad on me, and a few minutes with a multimeter told me the board was the culprit. The drive was still under warranty, but they would have replaced it with a new drive instead of trying to repair the old one and 1TB is a lot of data to lose. Fortunately I found the same model on eBay with a bad head for a few dollars.

    Simply swapping the boards didn't work for me, so I hunted down the location of the NVRAM and swapped those with a rework station I've owned for a while. After that it worked just fine, and I'm still using it today as a backup for the new drive I received from Hitachi after RMA'ing what was left of the other.

    In the end I saved my data and doubled my storage space for less than $25.

  • Re:One word (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Mathieu Lutfy ( 69 ) on Saturday July 28, 2012 @04:41PM (#40803525) Homepage

    As the GP, I once had a burnt component on a PCB of a hard disk. I changed it using the *exact* model of the disk, and it worked. The disk was 100$ for a 500GB off eBay, which is a bit expensive, but afterwards I had a brand new disk to keep (I put the PCB back on the new disk once I finished retrieving the data). The seller on eBay provided the complete serial number in order to make it easy to find the correct replacement disk.

    There are also companies in Hong Kong that specialize in selling replacement PCBs. It's much cheaper, but bigger delays.

  • Re:One word (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @02:33AM (#40806135)

    There is a firmware chip on the PCB that also needs to be transplanted, and this is tricky even with a Surface mount electronics soldering station

    Just to be clear, the HDD manufacturers didn't stick it on there just to make it harder for users to fix their own hard drives. It contains mappings of bad sectors which the drive swapped out with reserve sectors through the normal course of operation. Older drives had smaller capacity so proportionately fewer bad sectors and could get away with just mapping them out (reducing capacity) or storing the mapping on the drive itself. The high capacity of modern drives makes it a virtual certainty that it's going to develop multiple bad sectors through its usage life. So you need a more systematic and reliable method of dealing with them. The norm is to set aside some reserve space, and when the drive detects a sector going bad, map it out and replace it with a sector in the reserve space, and note the new mapping in the nonvolatile memory of the firmware chip.

  • Re:One word (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Cramer ( 69040 ) on Monday July 30, 2012 @05:00PM (#40822259) Homepage

    This is what we used to call a "low level format". It's next to impossible to do outside the factory these days. For one, because the firmware is stored on the platter(s) -- flash is expensive, so they save $0.03 by not putting any on the board. (the board has the tiniest ROM possible to hold a boot loader.) The FORMAT UNIT command just zero's the drive; it does not actually reformat the surface, which rewrites tracking information, parameter block(s), and padding not normally user accessable. ('tho there are vendor specific commands to get at that. similar to a floppy disk "full track read".)

    [I've had a few Maxtor drives (bulk) that weren't programmed. The boot rom has just enough brain to show up on the bus. Maxtor will not give you the necessary tool to fix this -- i.e. there is no firmware upgrade tool available outside the factory. Other manufacturers are not as lame.]

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