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Data Recovery Guide for Consumers

Dan earned his CompTIA (CIOS) certification in 2010 and worked in the computer repair/networking industry for several years.


Computer repair and data recovery go somewhat hand-in-hand. A repaired device generally means access to data is restored, although this is not always the case.

Data recovery methods mentioned in this article lie in the foreground while repair leans toward the back. Moreover, this is not a comprehensive list of data recovery solutions. It is more of a guide to point you in the right direction.

When a device fails to power on, or it crashes, the reaction tends to be panic or grief due to the prospect of mission-critical files being unrecoverable. Computers can fail to power on or crash for various reasons. There’s hope despite what appears to be a certain loss of valuable data, however.

Desktop Computers

First, rule out common issues. When pressing the power button on a desktop computer and nothing appears on the screen, it could be due to a loose monitor cable, accidental unplugging, or accidental deactivation of the power stripe. Check said components. If the computer appears to be starting up but does not succeed, use a troubleshooting guide.


Broke Hard Drive

If it’s determined the internal storage device (or hard drive) is malfunctioning, attempting data recovery on it — without sufficient knowledge — should be carefully weighed. If the data stored on the device is recoverable, unsuccessful recovery attempts could render each subsequent recovery attempt (by knowledgeable professionals) less likely to succeed.

In fact, if the lost files are mission-critical, it’s generally recommended to not power on the computer at all. Merely applying power to a faulty device could advance the wear and reduce the chances of successful recovery.

If repair is successful following the guide in the above link, then congratulations on data recovery!

Migrating the Drive

If repair is not a feasible option, removing the drive and connecting it to another computer will work to retrieve files. There are adapters available for connecting drives to computers if installing directly into another desktop computer is not an option.

Accidental Deletion

Sometimes, accidental deletion is the culprit for lost data. Downloading and installing a data recovery program can prove useful. Paid versions of the software tend to be more user-friendly, although free versions can suffice.

The reason these programs are effective is that, when the deletion of files occurs, only the file index shown on the screen is deleted. The actual data — located in a separate space on the hard drive — remains intact.

Install the software onto a separate computer and attach the drive (with missing files) to it, before scanning. When files are deleted, the operating system thinks the space is available for other programs (including data recovery software) and can permanently write over deleted files. Don’t install the recovery software onto the same drive where the files are stored, if possible.


With some exceptions, the same troubleshooting methods above can be applied to laptop computers.

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Nothing Appears on the Screen

For troubleshooting a laptop’s monitor, one method is to connect its optional video port to a desktop computer monitor — use the toggle key on the laptop keyboard to switch the video output to the desktop monitor. If the laptop can be used via the external monitor, copying files off the laptop to an external drive will work until the laptop monitor can be fixed.

Power Problems

Comprehensive troubleshooting of laptop chargers and batteries is not included in this article, although I provide some leads. If purchasing a new charger is not a financial obstacle, buying a universal charger that fits multiple makes/models of laptops is a good place to start.

If the charger fails to charge the battery, chances are the battery is bad. It’s not unheard of that the charger and battery are faulty simultaneously, however. Moreover, the laptop motherboard charging facilities or failing power jack can be to blame for a non-charging battery — necessitating motherboard replacement or power-jack repair.

The goal here is to see if basic power issues can be resolved to power on the laptop — implying data will be accessible again. Whatever happens, by this point, troubleshooting progress has been made without professional help. You’ve also got a reliable charger to use as a backup with future laptops.

Removing the Hard Drive

Laptop computers can come with removable drives. If that’s the case and repairing the laptop is not feasible, removing the drive and connecting it to another computer via an adapter will allow access to the files within.

Some laptops, however, come with a storage chip built into the motherboard as opposed to a separate, removable hard drive. If that’s the case, a data recovery expert will need to be consulted unless your technology skills are of the well-informed sort.

Recovery Software

The same concept and procedure noted earlier can be applied here. If the laptop is working but data loss is due to accidental deletion, a program can be used for recovery. It can be purchased from physical stores although downloading it is most common.

Tablets and Smartphones

The scope of troubleshooting changes much when tinkering with these compact gadgets. Moreover, there are similarities to troubleshooting charger/battery issues with smart devices when compared with laptops — the scope is broader and not covered in this article, however.


Removable SD Cards

Within the smart device paradigm, parts, and increasingly, batteries, are inseparable — except for the LCD screen. In general, parts aren’t made to be easily swapped out as in desktop and laptop computers.

Optional storage expansion is common in the form of removable SD cards. Therefore, if mission-critical data is primarily stored on those, data recovery is made easy. Simply remove the memory card and data is recovered.

Recovery Software

For accidentally deleted data, use the method described for desktop and laptop computers. Smart devices can be connected to other computers. Install recovery software onto a working computer and scan the smart device from the working computer.

Screen Replacement

A common occurrence with smart gadgets is cracked screens. Sometimes the damage is extensive and the screen touch function does not work. Data recovery can be accomplished by replacing the screen since it would allow the normal function of the phone to resume.

This can be more of an advanced task depending on the model of the phone — they are not all made equally. Simply type the make/model of the LCD into an internet search engine and look for a replacement, as well as procedure options.

Correcting Boot Problems

Sometimes, smart devices will not complete the startup process when powered on. Hardware issues must be ruled out. One way of accomplishing this is by booting the device into safe mode or recovery mode — a slimmed-down version of the operating system (e.g., Android or iOS). Most apps and many operating system features are not loaded in these modes.

Android and Apple iOS have button combinations that can be used for entering the modes. Consult manufacturers' documentation for information on procedures specific to models. If able to enter one of these modes, then problematic hardware is ruled out and data recovery should be relatively simple.

The procedure for each device will vary between manufacturers. Documents, pictures, music, and various other types of files can be copied off to an inserted SD card or another computer, depending on the setup.

Fixing Boot Loops

Boot loops occur when devices continuously restart. Since the hardware and software combinations between manufacturers (and causes) widely vary, there is not a universal solution to address boot loops. Whatever the case, a boot loop is not a death sentence and in many cases it is fixable.

Manufacturers sometimes have guides that can be followed to fix the problem. Furthermore, tech-savvy hobbyists often post what they have done to address it. Do an internet search for the make/model of the problematic phone combined with “boot loop.”

Oftentimes, however, removing the battery for 20–30 seconds and reinstalling it can help. There are ways to remove “non-removable” batteries as well — the process is just more involved and requires some special tools and tinkering. Removing SIM cards and SD cards, and reinserting them have been known to resolve boot loops.

Bricked Devices

A common occurrence with tablets and smartphones is when they become bricked. This is when they can’t power on or function in any way. If this is the case, the only practical hope for data recovery is to hire an expert.

They will remove the circuit board from inside the device to access the storage chip. Then, use advanced data recovery methods. The cost can be up to hundreds of dollars depending on the scope and parts required. Search for data recovery experts in your area.

Data Recovery Plan

Data recovery is a broad subject, depending on the type of computer being used and what is broken. There’s hope for what is apparently lost data, whatever the case may be.

Included in a data recovery plan should be kicking complacency to the curb. Keeping backup copies of mission-critical files saves trouble. It also minimizes worry.

Knowing where to find help can certainly be helpful itself. A great resource for various devices is iFixit.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Dan Martino

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