Originally authored by: Joshua Henry, March 12, 2015
It’s happened to almost all of us at one point, your computer or external hard drive fails and panic sets in. Perhaps your files haven’t been backed up yet or this drive is the only backup. One way or another, you made it to us and bought one of our docking stations. Now what do you do?
Because one of the most common reasons for buying a Plugable hard drive docking station is to recover data off of a SATA hard drive from another computer or external hard drive enclosure we wanted to talk about some issues our customers frequently experience. The following steps apply to our USBC-SATA-V, USB3-SATA-UASP1, USB3-SATA-U3, and our entire Plugable Storage System lineup. They also apply to hard disks that are installed inside your computer and potentially other docking stations/enclosures/adapters.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that data recovery is often best left to trained technicians and anything you do to recover data on your own could make recovering the data impossible, even for a data recovery specialist.
Internal Hard Drives
Our hard drive docking stations are quite useful for recovering data from a desktop or laptop computer because they support both 2.5" and 3.5" SATA hard disk drives (HDD) and solid state drives (SSD). If you’re able to remove the drive from the computer to insert into our dock, you’re on your way to accessing the data. With that being said there are always scenarios where this may not be true. There are many factors that can cause data to be inaccessible. Assuming for the moment that the hard drive in question hasn’t failed completely and is not part of a RAID array, chances are our dock should be able to help access data off the drive.
Here are some common trouble scenarios for recovering data from an internal drive in our dock:
- Complete drive failure. This is fairly self explanatory, the drive itself has mechanically or electronically failed causing the drive to not be detected by our dock.
- Pending drive failure. HDDs and SSDs often fail slowly, most commonly encountering what is known as bad sectors. This can lead to data corruption making data recovery extremely difficult or impossible. Other factors can also be present but are usually less likely such as intermittent electronics on the circuit board, failing drive bearings, etc.
- Partition / filesystem damage from improper shutdowns, viruses, etc.
- Incompatible filesystem(s) with the host data recovery computer. For example, Windows systems cannot natively access data from Mac or Linux/Unix formatted drives, we’ll touch more on this later.
- Drive is part of a RAID array like RAID0, RAID10, RAID5, or RAID6. A drive from a RAID1 array is the only kind of RAID drive our docking station can potentially recover data from.
- Whole disk software based encryption such as Microsoft BitLocker / EFS, TrueCrypt, and others.
- Specialized backup and partition software such as Norton GoBack and some versions of Acronis can cause issues and should be removed/disabled if possible prior to data recovery.
External Hard Drives
Hard drives extracted from external enclosures or drives used in other docking stations will have many of the same potential issues that we just talked about for internal drives but do introduce other new scenarios. A typical scenario is the power adapter or USB port on an external drive has failed. The hard drive inside the failed enclosure is removed and the ‘bare’ drive is inserted into our hard drive docking station to attempt recovery. Or sometimes a drive that was used in another dock is inserted into ours or vice versa.
Here are some common scenarios with for recovering data from an external drive in our dock:
- All of the above scenarios from our Internal Hard Drives list apply.
- Whole disk hardware level encryption. This can be in the form of a drive sold intentionally to protect against data theft or unintentionally where what consumers believe are standard hard drives from companies such as Western Digital (the most commonly found in our experience) are written to using a form of proprietary hardware encryption which prevents the drive from being read in any enclosure except for the one the drive shipped with.
- Sector emulation. See our Understanding Large SATA Drive Compatibility blog post for more details. “Some docks have a non-standard sector emulation feature that enables using capacities above 2TB on Windows XP 32 bit. But this requires that drives initialized and formatted in a special way, and NOT be used with other SATA controllers in desktop PC’s or other drive docking stations, unless those units also have a matching firmware version and support for this feature. Plugable USB SATA docks do not support sector emulation for XP. Rather, we’ve chosen to support 3TB+ Advanced Format drives in the standard way without any emulation.”
Determining if your Drive is Healthy or Failing
One of the first steps is finding out if the drive you are trying to recover data from is in good health. Often a drive appears to be working fine until you try to copy large amounts of data. Sometime common signs of a failing drive are during a transfer a file cannot be read and the data transfer may fail, often with a cryptic error such like “Cannot copy my.file: Data error (cycle redundancy check)”, files could transfer but be corrupted, transfer speed is much slower than expected, and/or the drive drops offline during transfers requiring the dock to be reset.
Usually the first course of action would be to check the S.M.A.R.T. status of the drive. This can indicate signs of failure in a drive like bad sectors or read/write errors. There are several free (or free trial) utilities available for Windows and Mac that can be found online. Here’s what we recommend:
- Windows – CrystalDiskInfo (free)
- Mac – SMARTReporter (free to try, $4.99 in the Mac App Store)
- Windows/Linux - smartmontools (free/open source)
If the drive appears healthy after checking with a SMART utility but is obviously showing signs of irregular behavior, we recommend to download and install the advanced diagnostic utility from your hard drive manufacturer. Unfortunately for Mac users this isn’t an option. Here are some common drive manufacturer diagnostic links for Windows:
- Hitachi – Windows Drive Fitness Test
- Seagate – Seatools
- Western Digital – Data Lifegard Diagnostic for Windows
Determining the Filesystem of the Drive
A common scenario we run into is a customer will take a hard drive out of another computer or device like a network attached storage (NAS) device and try to recover the data with our dock only to find that the host computer can see the drive but can’t actually read the data on it. For a Windows user this would be apparent when looking in the Device Manager and seeing the drive listed, but the drive not being mounted and accessible from Windows Explorer. A Mac user would similarly check in Disk Utility for the drive if it is not accessible from the Finder.
The first step is to identify where the drive came from prior to being used in our docking station. Was this drive from another Windows computer? Was it from a Mac, or perhaps a Linux computer? How about a NAS device or external hard drive? By knowing this information we can look for information about what type of filesystem is on the drive.
Next you’ll need to find out if your computer can support the filesystem of the drive in question. Here’s a basic list of what filesystems are supported by OS:
- Windows XP (with proper update installed) and higher can read and write to FAT(16), FAT32, ExFAT and NTFS.
- Mac OS X 10.6.5 and higher can read and write to FAT(16), FAT32, ExFAT, and HFS+ (Mac OS Extended Journaled or Case-sensitive, Journaled). Mac OS X 10.3 and later can only read but not write to NTFS (write can be enabled, but it is not recommended as it may be unstable).
- Linux (Ubuntu for example) can read and write to FAT(16), FAT32, ExFAT (with the proper package installed), NTFS, EXT2, EXT3, EXT4, JFS, and XFS. There other filesystems but they are far less common and not available for every Linux distro by default: BtrFS, ReiserFS, UFS (Unix), ZFS.
Knowing what filesystems are supported will help you decide how to proceed. If you’re a Windows user and find the hard drive you need to recover data off of is from a Mac, either you need to install some 3rd party software to read it, or simply recover the data on a Mac system. If you’re a Mac user, you should be able to read data off of a Windows computer drive without issue.
The hardest part is recovering data from a Linux formatted drive on a non-Linux computer. Whether you’re a Mac or Windows user, chances are if you’ve got any kind of NAS device in the home, it will be using a filesystem your computer cannot natively read. In our experience most consumer grade NAS units use EXT2/3/4 filesystems. For Windows users we recommend installing some 3rd party software. For Mac users, take a look at this blog post done by CNET.
If you have any questions at all, please comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re happy to help!