My Hard Drive Crashed. I Lost All My Data! What Do I Do?

When your hard drive crashes, its pretty scary. Whether its the spinning beach ball followed by “The file could not be read or written”, the silent blue screen on startup or my favorite: the flashing folder with the question mark, its all the same cause – hard drive issues. You do have a backup, right?

Here’s what you can do to try recovering your data from a bad hard drive.

Before we get started, let’s use this as a lesson to remember how important it is to back up your files. I know that with the sheer size of pictures, movies and music, backing up to a CD or DVD is too time consuming. To back up some of the new 300GB drives, you’d need over 70 DVDs. File sizes aren’t getting any smaller either.

With 10.5 and Time Machine, backing up to an external drive is pretty simple. Spend the money on an external hard drive. Your data is priceless and drives are cheap. I personally recommend the My Passport Series by Western Digital, the Little Disk Series by Lacie or the FreeAgent Go Series by Seagate.

Note: You can choose either a FireWire or USB 2.0 Drive, both work with Time Machine. However, if you want to make your drive bootable, it must be FireWire.

Target mode file recovery:

The first step you should take is to put your Mac into Target Disk Mode. Here’s how:

1. Shut down the computer
2. Press the power button to start the computer and hold the ‘T’ key.
3. Continue to hold the ‘T’ key until you see either a gray (Intel) or purple (PPC) screen with the FireWire symbol floating about.

Now connect this computer to another working computer with a FireWire cable. This computer will show up on the desktop as a orange/yellow drive called “Macintosh HD” (unless you changed its name).

Note: Make sure you have enough room on the working computer. Control Click / Right Click on your User Folder and choose Get Info to see how much space you need.

Now, lets recover some data.

1. Open this drive up and head to the Users folder.

2. Open the folder with your username (repeat this process if there are other users)

3. Create a folder on the working computer to store your files in.

4. Copy the contents of the following folders to the working computer:

– Desktop
– Documents
– Movies
– Music
– Pictures
– Any other folders you may have created.
– Ignore Public and Sites unless you use these folders.

Note: Copy each folder separately. If there is any file corruption, it will stop the transfer. If this happens, you will have to copy each internal folder, one by one. When its the iTunes folder, copying each artists folder can get very tedious and may take a long time.

5. Create a folder inside your recovery folder on the working computer. Name it “Library”.

6. Open the Library folder on the bad drive and copy the following folders, if they exist:

– Application Support (Do not copy the Sync Services folder)
– Calendars
– Mail
– Preferences
– Safari
– Thunderbird
– Widgets

Note: When you restore your files, some of the files in the Library folder will already exist. Replace them if it lets you.

If they all copy, good for you – you are lucky. If not, try to make a note of the filenames or the sections where they were located. For example – Pictures folder, Music folder, etc.

Using a “Sled”:

If the broken Mac enters Target mode but when you hook the cables up to a working computer and nothing happens, you may have some connection issues inside the broken computer. Especially if you have the flashing folder with a question mark in it.

To get around this, the Macintosh itself needs to be taken out of the equation. You achieve this by using a “Sled”.

A “Sled” is merely an external attachment that hooks up to the hard drive itself and allows you to mount the drive on any computer. Basically, its an external hard drive enclosure. In order to use a Sled, the drive needs to be removed. On a MacBook, this is easy. On an iMac, iBook, PowerBook or MacBook Pro, this means you need to take the computer apart to get at the drive. Unless you know what you are doing, take the computer to a qualified repair center and ask them if they can help.

Once this is done, and if the drive mounts, follow the exact same recovery steps from the Target Mode procedure.

Data Rescue II:

Now, if neither of the previous steps work or you need to recover corrupted files, Prosoft’s Data Rescue II is well worth the price. Just boot from the CD and attach an external drive to recover onto. Then let Data Rescue II do it’s magic. Personally, this application has pulled off some miracles for me and I strongly recommend it.

Note: Do a Quick Scan first and if that doesn’t work, move to the Thorough Scan but be forewarned, the Thorough Scan can take days if not weeks.

Also Note: If there is physical damage to the drive where it doesn’t turn on or the head doesn’t function, you are either out of luck or can follow the next, expensive option.

Spend a ton of money with DriveSavers:

In cases where there is damage to the drive and it will physically either not turn on or read the platters, you can ship the drive off to DriveSavers. If it can be recovered, they will do it. However, they also charge an enormous fee. Only do this if the material on your drive is worth the $10,000 or more that it might cost to recover it.

In my experience, this is more of an option for institutions, corporate or government data rather than your lost iTunes music.

4 thoughts on “My Hard Drive Crashed. I Lost All My Data! What Do I Do?

  1. hi there,

    i’m copying over the documents and folders as above, from my partner’s crashed macbook pro.

    we’re taking it into the shop tomorrow to hopefully try to recover working order without any data lost.

    if this doesn’t happen, could you explain or possibly direct me to another thread, about how to restore all this transferred data back onto the mac (with hard drive restored/wiped) or onto a new mac?

    many thanks,


  2. Hi Tom,

    Once the drive is restored/fixed,
    Log into it and connect the computer/drive with the data up to it.
    Use Target Disk Mode if it’s on another computer.

    Then from the restored/fixed computer, copy the appropriate files/folders back on.

    If you get any permissions errors,
    Click on the external drive/computer’s icon and Get Info.
    (Apple I or File – Get Info from the Menu Bar)

    Scroll down and make sure the Ignore Ownership/Permissions on this Drive checkbox is checked.

    Good Luck,

  3. I bought a Maxtor 500Gb external drive.

    I was 3 days into copying all my data onto it when the computer crashed. All the data on the external drive was lost!

    What am I supposed to do to prevent this happening again?

  4. Hi Will,

    Sorry to hear about your data loss. Without knowing the circumstances behind your computer’s crash I can only assume that the loss occurred while you were transferring the files.

    In this case, (again, an assumption) it may be a particular file or files that became corrupted and unreadable, causing the transfer to get stuck.

    If this is the cause, I’d recommend transferring the files folder by folder (not all at once) – for example, just the desktop, then just the documents, etc.

    This way you begin the narrow down where the corruption is and you’ll have the completed transfers (and data) safely onto the external drive.

    Other scenarios that may cause problems is the computer and external drive going into sleep/spin-down mode. Check your Energy Saver preferences and uncheck the “Put the hard disks to sleep when possible” checkbox. Also make sure you are using your power adapter if it’s a laptop and keep the machine from sleeping during the transfers.

    Finally, if the drive became disconnected for any reason during the transfer, this may also cause problems.

    Good Luck,