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Your Computer Data Might Not Be Lost: Recovery Guide

Dan received the CompTIA IT Operations Specialist (cert.) in 2010 and worked in the computer repair/networking industry for several years.

Get a data recovery plan.

Get a data recovery plan.

Folks usually panic when computers break down. And it's because of the belief that mission-critical files are unrecoverable. Computers break for different reasons but not all are death sentences for computer data. Whatever the case may be, there’s hope for recovery.

Computer repair and data rescue go somewhat hand-in-hand. A repaired device generally means access to computer files is restored, although this isn't always the case.

Recovery methods in this article are more emphasized than repair. Moreover, this isn't a comprehensive list of data recovery solutions. It's more like a guide to point you in the right direction.

Desktop Computers

First, rule out common issues. When pressing the power button on a desktop computer and nothing appears on the screen, check for the following: a loose monitor cable, accidental unplugging, faulty receptacle, tripped breaker, or accidental deactivation of a power stripe. After checking, if the computer does not start up, see my guide on troubleshooting startup problems which is applicable to laptop computers to an extent.

If repair is successful after following the guide, congratulations on recovering your data!

Standard desktop computer

Standard desktop computer

Broken Hard Drive

Perhaps you succeeded at troubleshooting the hard disk drive. But be aware that attempting data recovery should be done carefully.

Merely applying power to a faulty data-storage medium can advance the wear and reduce the chances of successful data recovery. If the info stored on the device is recoverable, then unsuccessful recovery attempts could render each subsequent recovery attempt (by knowledgeable professionals) less likely to succeed.

So, if the files are mission-critical, it might be better to consult a data recovery expert.

Migrating the Drive

If repairing the computer or hiring a tech aren't feasible options, removing the data-storage medium and connecting it to another computer can work to retrieve files. If there are no ports to facilitate the connection to a different computer, adapters will help accomplish the task.

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 work well.

The reason these programs are effective is because when file deletion occurs, only the file index (what you see 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. Attach the drive (with missing files) to the computer, before scanning. If possible, don’t install the recovery software onto the same drive where the files are stored. When files are deleted, the operating system (e.g., Microsoft Windows) thinks the space is available for other data (including data recovery software) and can permanently write over deleted files.

Laptops

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

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Standard laptop computer

Standard laptop computer

Blank Laptop Monitor

When the screen is empty after powering on a laptop, one method is to connect its optional video port to a desktop computer monitor. Use the toggle-function 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 (connected to the laptop) will work until the laptop is fixed.

Power Problems

Comprehensive advice for laptop chargers and batteries is not included in this article, although I provide some tips. If purchasing a new charger is feasible, a universal charger that fits multiple makes/models of laptops is a good place to start.

If the new charger fails to charge the battery, it's probable that the battery is worn out and will have to be replaced. It’s not unheard of, however, that the charger and battery are both faulty. In newly designed laptops, the battery is not as easily removed — you'll have to find a tutorial on the internet for removing and replacing it.

Moreover, the laptop motherboard charging facilities or failing power jack can be to blame for a non-charging battery or power issue — which means a motherboard replacement or a power-jack repair is needed. This might not be feasible for the average gadget tinkerer.

But the goal in this section is to see if simple 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. And, you’ll have a reliable charger to use as a backup with future laptops.

Removing the Hard Drive

Some laptops have 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. Generally, desktop and laptop computers will recognize the drive and the files within can be accessed.

Some laptops, however, come with storage chips (eMMc drives) built into the motherboard as opposed to a removable hard drive. If that’s the case, a data recovery expert will need to be consulted unless your tinkering skills are above average.

Recovery Software

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

Tablets and Smartphones

The scope of troubleshooting is different when tinkering with these compact gadgets. Smart devices are comprised of parts that are increasingly inseparable — except for the LCD screen. In general, the components aren’t made to be easily swapped out as in desktop/laptop computers.

Keep in mind also that there are similarities between fixing laptop and smart-device power problems although they're not discussed here.

Smartphones

Smartphones

Removable SD Cards

Optional storage expansion for smart gadgets is common in the form of removable SD cards. If mission-critical data is primarily stored on them, data recovery is made easy. Simply remove the card and data will be recovered. As a proactive approach to data recovery, it helps to make sure important files are stored on removable cards and not on the built-in memory chips. There are copy and paste methods for moving files from built-in memory to SD cards.

Recovery Software

For accidentally deleted data, use the method described for desktop/laptop computers. Smart devices can be connected to other computers. So, install recovery software onto a desktop/laptop computer, connect the smart device to it and begin scanning.

Screen Replacement

A common mishap with smart gadgets is cracked screens. Sometimes the damage is extensive and the screen touch function stops working. Data recovery can be accomplished by replacing the screen since it would allow resuming the normal operation of the device.

But that can be more of an advanced task depending on the model of the phone — smart devices aren't all made equal. Use Google to search for the make/model of the LCD screen — locate an affordable replacement as well as the repair procedure. Guides for specific models might not be available, but a generic guide could be used as a reference.

Boot Problems

Device Fails to Start

Occasionally, smart devices won't complete the startup process when they're powered on. Hardware issues should be ruled out. One way to do this is to boot the device into safe/recovery mode which is 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 devices have button combinations that can be used for entering the modes. Consult manufacturers' documentation for info on procedures for specific models.

If able to enter safe/recovery mode, problematic hardware will have been ruled out and data recovery is possible. Recovery mode typically gives a factory reset option, but keep the data preservation options below in mind:

  • Some devices allow doing factory resets without deleting files.
  • Some people might not realize they've enabled automatic internet backup (e.g. Google Drive) on their devices. If this is the case, restoring data from an online backup after a factory reset will work.
  • In some cases, programs/apps can be used to recover data after a factory reset.

Boot Loops

Boot loops occur when devices continually restart. Since the hardware and software combinations differ from model to model, there isn't a universal method to fix boot loops. The problem is fixable in some cases and not necessarily a death sentence on a device.

Smart-device makers sometimes have guides that can be followed to fix the problem. And hobbyists often post what they have done on certain models to address the malfunction. So 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 can require special tools. Removing and reinserting SIM/SD cards have also been known to resolve boot loops.

You also might be able to start the device in recovery mode and do a factory reset. If successful, follow the instructions above for data recovery.

Bricked Devices

A common occurrence with tablets and smartphones is when they become bricked. And the devices can’t power on or function in any way. If this occurs, the only practical hope for data recovery is to hire an expert. It can be expensive depending on the scope of the job and the parts required. Search for data recovery experts in your area.

Hope for Your Computer Data

Depending on the type of device that files must be recovered from, rescue can be complicated. Whatever the case may be, there’s hope for what initially seems like a permanent loss.

Being proactive should be part of data recovery. Keeping backup copies of mission-critical files saves trouble. It also generally minimizes worry.

Knowing where to find help can certainly be useful. A great resource for different gadgets 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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