Damaged Hard Drive | Data Recovery | Ontrack blog

Wednesday, December 9, 2020 by Tilly Holland

Can I recover my data from a physically damaged hard drive?

Has your hard drive ever fallen from your desk? Or have you ever accidentally dropped it? Scenarios like these could cause a hard drive to experience physical media damage (PMD) and as a result, lose data. 

But, believe it or not, your data may still be recoverable if your hard drive is suffering from physical damage. 

In this blog, we'll explore some of the technical terms used regarding physical damage in hard drives, as well as the different stages of data loss an whether the data is still (hopefully) recoverable. 

What is Physical Media Damage?

Physical media damage occurs when the magnetic coating on a hard drive platter experiences a disruption. It doesn't only occur in hard drives; it can actually occur in any storage device that has mechanical moving parts. 


What causes Physical Media Damage?

PMD most commonly occurs when the read/write heads come in to contact with the spinning platters on a hard drive. This could be a result of the hard drive being dropped while in operation, or overheating and over-use. 

Platters can also experience damage if the internal chamber becomes contaminated. Any substance that infiltrates the hard drive case can potentially cause a 'crash' if it settles between the heads and the platter.

How to identify physical damage to a hard drive?


There are warning signs that can help you identify physical damage. These may include:

  • The computer fails to start-up or is not operating correctly - sluggish when opening files; displaying data access errors or locking up the system with errors
  • The drive makes a clicking noise when you access it. A common pattern is click-pause-click-pause-click, followed by the drive stopping and the sound of it spinning again
  • The drive remains silent (no spin-up sound, no movement/vibration felt) when powered up

Is my data recoverable after a hard drive head crash? 

We get asked this question a lot! The answer is "it depends on the make of the drive, and the severity of the crash." The best way to look at it is to try and understand the different types of crashes. At Ontrack, we split the severity of the damage into three main categories:

Crash Level 1 (C1)

Most of the time, these are minor crashes that you can barely see with the naked eye. However, if these crashes lie within the system area, then it may prevent the drive from coming ready and being accessible.

Data recovery is possible MOST OF THE TIME. 

Crash Level 2 (C2)

A C2 crash is immediately visible, and depending on the drive, it can be unrecoverable. However, it is still possible to image* drives even when the damage is extensive.*The imaging process involves the work of experienced lab engineers who will "image" the drive sector by sector, reconstruct the operating system file structure rebuilding the links to the file data and perform an extraction of data to external storage.

Data recovery is possible IN SOME INSTANCES. 

Crash Level 3 (C3)

A C3-level is the end of the road as far as data recovery is concerned. A C3-level crash means all the platters magnetic coating has been scratched off. Hence, there is no more data present for a recovery to take place. 

Data recovery is NOT POSSIBLE. 

What to do next?

If you suspect your media has suffered physical damage, turn it off immediately to avoid further damage to the platters, which could result in irreversible data loss.

Do not try this at home!

In a lot of instances, many people open their hard drives before they send them to us. You should not open the drive yourself; even the slightest scratch or small dent in the platter can cause more problems. Unknowingly, people are destroying their chances to recover their data!

Our advice is to never open the drives (or indeed any media) before sending it to an expert data recovery company. Unfortunately, with physical data losses, there is no option for a DIY - a sterile environment and professional help are necessary to try to get your data safely back to you.