It may seem like your files are secure and safe for now, but they’re actually on borrowed time. A hard drive will eventually fail days, months, or years from now, and often without warning. If you don’t have a plan, you could lose all your precious memories forever! But all hope is not lost. Depending on the severity of the issue, there’s a good chance you can recover your family photos and videos. Here are some troubleshooting steps we recommend.

Connection issues

Before bringing out the heavy guns, make sure that it’s not a connectivity problem. First, swap USB cables and ports to rule them out. Still no dice? Now, check if it’s a problem with the external drive’s enclosure itself. Eject the external USB drive from your computer, and if an adapter powers it, unplug it from the wall outlet. It’s highly recommended that you ground yourself with an anti-static wristband before attempting this to avoid injuring yourself or damaging your drive further. Next, crack its case open and check the physical cables connecting the hard drive to your USB output. Note: The connections can either be IDE (wider connectors) or SATA (small connectors). Check for any loose cables and make sure that they’re firmly connected. If it’s not an internal connection issue, try extracting the whole hard drive from the external enclosure, connect it to your computer as a secondary drive, or better yet, via an IDE/SATA to USB adapter. Your external drive will then mount as usual. If you can see that all your files are intact and readable, then congratulations, disaster has been averted!

Software issues

If your computer is still recognizing your drive and your problem is more of a software issue like accidental deletion, a reformatted partition, or data corruption, the main thing you need to be aware of is that you should stop using that drive immediately! If you continue writing files to your external drive, the greater the chance that the space occupied by the “deleted” data will be overwritten, killing your chances of recovering them. Disconnect the external drive in the meantime while you download and install the data recovery software you will need. Remember that scanning a hard drive and recovering its lost data can be a long and painstakingly long process. Additionally, if your recovery software doesn’t see enough of the bits that make up a file, it may be lost forever. Now let’s take a look at some solutions.

1. PhotoRec

One free recovery program you can try is PhotoRec. This free file data recovery software is designed to recover lost files, including video, documents, archives from hard disks, CD-ROMs, and lost pictures from removable media. To download the program, click the download link in the upper left corner of its page and click on the large green button labeled “TestDisk 7.2 Free download.” Note: PhotoRec is paired with a program called TestDisk that recovers lost partitions and makes non-booting disks bootable again. To use TestDisk, you can learn how with the step-by-step instructions here. When the download is finished, extract the files from the zipped folder. After extracting the files, open the folder and locate the PhotoRec_Win application. Before you continue, you should create a new folder on your desktop to hold the files that PhotoRec recovers. Label it something easy to identify, like “PhotoRec recovered files.” When you run PhotoRec for the first time, don’t despair. I know that this stripped-down program looks scary, but you can recover the files you need without mishap if you follow the step-by-step instructions. You will need to use the arrow keys and the enter button to navigate the program once it’s open. The first screen will show the available drives for scanning. This will also include USB and connected external drives if they are plugged in. Select the drive you want to scan using the arrow keys and hit the Enter button to select. It’s faster to scan a partition of the storage device instead of the entire thing. After the drive to be scanned has been selected, like your camera storage card, PhotoRec needs to know the file system type it will be searching. It will default to the “Other” selection. I recommend using the default selection unless you know that your system is a different type. When you reach the screen that says “Please choose if all space needs to be analyzed,” select the “Free” option to scan only the NTFS unallocated space. This means that PhotoRec will be searching the recently vacated spaces for the photos or documents that were just lost due to accidental deletion. The next screen will ask you to select a drive for the recovered files to be sent. Use the arrow keys to scroll up and down the list, and tap the left arrow key to go back to your main hard drive – labeled C: – to access any folder. You should navigate back to your C: drive and go to Documents and Settings > Desktop to find the folder you created on your Desktop before you started PhotoRec. When the correct file is identified, press C on the keyboard to make your selection. PhotoRec will start scanning the selected drive right away. There are usually many files to scan, so it can take upwards of 15 to 30 minutes. This is normal. Let PhotoRec perform the scan without interference. But if the scan is projecting to take longer than a couple of hours, you may have accidentally selected to scan your entire computer drive or an unpartitioned drive on your computer. In that case, press Enter to stop the PhotoRec process and go back to the main screen.

2. Disk Drill

Another free data recovery tool you can try is Disk Drill. This tool has a few different recovery tools, like Quick Scan, Deep Scan and Undelete Protected Data. But, we recommend just clicking the “Recover” button. That will direct the program to run through all of its data recovery options to get your lost data back. Once you click the button, Disk Drill gets to work. It will scan your drive and show which files can be recovered. Scans can take a little while, so you must be patient. You can pause a scan and resume later if it’s taking too long. Disk Drill will show you the available drives you can scan. Click the “Recover” button next to the drive to prompt the program to reassemble lost data. You can also use the arrow next to the Recover button to run specific functions like a Quick Scan or a Deep Scan.

What if the disk is still unreadable?

Now, if you already swapped the enclosure and cables, connected it to a computer and ran recovery software without any luck, you should start thinking about how important those family video files are to you. At this point, it’s likely a mechanical problem and sending it to a third-party data-recovery specialist may be your only option. However, these professional services can get very expensive. Even worse, there is no guarantee that they can recover your files successfully. If your drive is severely damaged or degraded, your files may be gone forever. Different companies have different rates for hard drive recovery. Depending on the drive type, it can range from a dollar per gigabyte to thousands of dollars per drive! These companies charge service fees on top of that, too. Simply having your drive examined for diagnosis may incur a fee. Watch out and ask about these charges beforehand. Depending on the severity of the problem, your hard drive may be sent to a “clean room” facility where it is taken apart and its components (including the platters) are physically examined. These specialized laboratories are kept completely dust-free, critical for delicate electronics.

3. Avoid this problem! Here’s the best solution

As you may have gathered, having a hard drive fail on you can be one of the most nerve-racking events in your tech life. It may not happen that often, but when it does, you’ll be confronted with some of the most challenging and expensive decisions you’ll have to make. Don’t let it get to this point. The best preemptive solution? Have a secure and reliable backup of all your files all the time. There is no replacement for having a great backup. And for your backup needs, don’t just copy your files over to another external hard drive, that will eventually fail too, and you’ll be back at square one. The best solution is to back up your files off-site, preferably with a well-known and trusted cloud service. And for all your backup needs, we recommend our sponsor, IDrive. For one, IDrive offers the most protection for the lowest price, which makes the product’s value incredible. There’s no shortage of options when it comes to backup services. But, when you compare these services, the best solution becomes clear.  Additionally, with smartphones and tablets in the mix, multi gadget households are now the norm. You can get 5 TB of cloud backup with a single IDrive account. With one account, you can backup all of your computers, tablets, phones, and Facebook or Instagram accounts in your household – enough for the whole family! Another advantage that sets IDrive apart is a service called IDrive Express. On other backup services, initial backups can only be done over the internet and depending on your upload speeds, this can take forever. While many other services clog your bandwidth, IDrive Express jump-starts your initial backup using a shipped drive method. Love that! One of the key reasons IDrive stands out is because it offers a wide scope of features. Whether you’re an individual who needs to back up a single computer or a small business with servers full of customer data and financial records, IDrive is ultimately the best solution at an affordable price. So what are you waiting for? Protect your memories! Sign up now at and use promo code Kim to receive 90% off your first year!