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Do-It-Yourself Data Recovery

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

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Computer repair and data recovery go somewhat hand-in-hand. Data recovery methods mentioned here lie in the foreground of this article while troubleshooting leans more toward the back. However, this is not a comprehensive list of possible data recovery solutions, but more of a guide to point you in the right direction.

Whatever the case, when a computing device fails to power on—or crashes—the reaction tends to be panic or grief over the prospect of important files being unrecoverable. Computers can fail to power on, or crash for various reasons. However, there's hope despite what appears to be a loss of valuable data. With a little courage, the DIYer can succeed in some methods of data recovery.

Desktop Computers

If using a desktop computer, common issues should be ruled out. When pressing the power button—to make it power on—and nothing appears on screen, it could be due to a loose monitor cable, accidental unplugging, or accidental deactivation of the power stripe. Check said components. If the device appears to be starting up but does not fully boot, following my computer startup troubleshooting guide will help.

If it's determined that the internal storage device (hard drive) is faulty, attempting data recovery on it should be carefully considered. If the data stored on the device is recoverable, unsuccessful recovery attempts could make 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 or damage and reduce chances of successful recovery.

If the repair is successful following the guide, then congratulations on getting your data back! Whatever the case, if repairing a desktop computer is not a feasible option, removing the drive and connecting it to another desktop computer can work to retrieve files—there are adapters available for hooking it up to other computers if installing directly into another desktop computer is not an option.

Sometimes, however, accidental deletion is the culprit, and downloading and installing a data recovery program can prove useful. Paid versions of the software tend to be more user-friendly, although for a regular DIYer, some free versions could suffice. The reason these programs are effective is that when accidental deletion of files occurs, only the file "index" shown on the screen is deleted while the actual data—located in a separate space on the hard drive—remains intact.

Laptops

With some exceptions, the same troubleshooting methods above can be applied to laptops. However, the LCD monitor of laptops is connected to the computer via a thin cable that is inaccessible from outside the laptop.

If checking the monitor functionality on a laptop, one method is to connect the optional video port on the laptop to a desktop computer monitor—using the toggle key on the laptop keyboard to switch the output to the desktop monitor. If the laptop can be used via the external monitor, then copying files off the laptop to an external drive will work until the laptop can be fixed or replaced.

Assuming the battery and charger are working correctly, and the battery has sufficient charge, accidentally unplugging the laptop from a wall won't cause a problem. Troubleshooting laptop chargers and batteries are outside the scope of this article, but 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—using an inexpensive voltmeter can also be used to test a laptop charger, although the procedure is not described in this article.

If you plug the charger in and the battery doesn't charge, chances are the battery is bad, although it's not unheard of that both the charger and battery can be faulty, simultaneously. In some cases, however, the motherboard charging facilities or power jack is to blame for a non-charging battery.

The goal here is to see if basic power issues can be resolved to power up the laptop—implying that your data will be accessible again. Whatever happens, you've made considerable troubleshooting progress without professional help, and you've got yourself a reliable charger to use as a backup, for future laptops.

Laptop computers also come with removable drives. If that's the case with your laptop and repairing it is not feasible, removing the drive and connecting it to another computer via an adapter, or directly into another laptop, will generally allow access to the files within. Some laptops, however, come with a storage chip that is built into the motherboard and not removable—if that's the case, you'll need to consult a data recovery expert unless your DIY skills are of the well-informed sort.

If the laptop is working but data loss is due to accidental deletion, software can be used for recovery. It can be purchased from physical stores although downloading it is the most common method.

Tablets and Smartphones

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

  • All parts, and increasingly, batteries, are integrated except for the LCD screen—and are not easily swapped out as in desktop and laptop computers. Optional storage expansion is common in the form of removable SD cards, however, so if mission-critical data is primarily stored on those, then that is a bonus when recovering data. Simply remove the memory card and your data is recovered.
  • Perhaps the easiest type of data recovery on a tablet or smartphone is by installing software onto the phone and running a scan to detect accidentally deleted files. Installing recovery software onto a desktop or laptop computer and connecting the phone or tablet to the computer for scanning, can also be done.

    There are several free and paid programs for this that can be downloaded. After the files are deleted, take care to not install anything onto the phone—the deleted files can potentially be overwritten with new software—as said above, only the file index is erased when files are "deleted" and the actual files remain.

  • A common occurrence with smartphones is cracked screens. Sometimes the screens are cracked so bad that the touch function does not work. Data recovery could be accomplished by replacing the screen since it would allow normal functions to resume on the phone, although this can be more of an advanced task depending on the model of the phone, as they are not all made equally. Simply type the make/model of the LCD into an internet search engine and look for purchase, as well as available procedure options.
  • Sometimes a smartphone or tablet will not boot when the power button is pressed, and hardware issues must be ruled out. One way of accomplishing this is by attempting to boot into safe mode or recovery mode—a slimmed-down version of the operating system (e.g., Android or iOS) that does not load most, if any, apps. Android and Apple iOS have button combinations that can be used for entering the modes—consult the manufacturer's documentation for information on procedures specific to the model.
  • If you are able to enter into safe mode or recovery mode, then problematic hardware is ruled out and attempts at data recovery are possible via software interfaces (in some cases by connecting the device to a laptop or desktop computer). The procedure for each device will vary between manufacturers. Documents, pictures, music, and various other types of user data can be copied off through these modes, either to an inserted SD card or to another computer, depending on the setup.
  • Tablet and smartphone boot loops are another common problem that can inhibit access to your data. Since the hardware and software between manufacturers vary so widely, and the causes can be several, there is not a universal solution to addressing boot loops. Whatever the case, a boot loop is not a death sentence on the device and in many cases it is fixable.

    Manufacturers sometimes have guides that can be followed to fix the issues, and tech-savvy hobbyists often post what they have done to address the issues—do an internet search for the make/model of the phone, combined with "boot loop."

    Oftentimes, however, removing the battery for 20-30 seconds and reinstalling it can bring the devices out of boot loops—there are ways to remove "non-removable" batteries—the process is just a lot more involved, and requires some special tools and tinkering. Removing SIM cards and SD cards, and reinserting them, have been known to resolve the problem as well.

  • 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 with your phone, the only practical hope for data recovery is to hire an expert. They will remove the circuit board from inside the device and attempt advanced data recovery methods by direct access to the computer storage chip.

    The cost can be up to hundreds of dollars depending on the scope and parts required for the recovery. Search for data recovery experts in your area.

Create a Data Recovery Plan

As you can see, data recovery is a broad subject depending on what type of computer is being used and what is broken on the device. Whatever the case, hope is certainly not lost at the outset of what looks like data loss. Part of a data recovery plan should be kicking complacency to the curb and keeping backup copies of your mission-critical files—that way, when a device breaks down you won't have to worry even a little bit about data recovery.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2021 Dan Martino

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