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I have an external HDD that is about to fail. I want to copy as much as I can to a new external HDD before it completely dies. I've been able to start copying files for a few minutes before the drive starts turning off and on repeatedly and clicking.

Is there a (preferably free) Mac application that can copy files off an about-to-fail hard drive, handle the drive suddenly disappearing, and continue where it left off when the drive is reconnected?

Or do you have any other tips that might help? I've heard rumours about putting a drive in the freezer. Do you think that might help, or is it more likely to kill the drive?

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    Regardless of software. and hopefully you should see some good answers, because this is an external device you have the option to manoeuvre it physically. I have rescued utterly dead drives by standing them on the end or sides before now, which just eases ability of the seek heads to move if they are about to fail. It's worth trying the drive in different positions whilst trying the software solutions to see what if any difference it may make. – stuffe Dec 2 '13 at 11:25
  • The only thing I have to add is that if the data on the drive is worth more than a few hundred dollars, don't try and recover it yourself because each click you hear is a drive head hitting a platter and permanently destroying a bit of data. Instead send it to a professional data recovery company. They have the tools and the clean room needed to safely disassemble the drive and transfer the platters to a replacement drive to read all the surviving data off it. The more you try to recover data on your own the less likely it is that they'll be able to salvage anything if you fail. – Dan Neely Dec 2 '13 at 15:06
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    Awesome, thanks @stuffe! Standing the drive on it's side allowed me to copy off all of my files using rsync, which I accepted as the answer. Thanks for saving my wedding photos and videos! (We had copies on DVDs etc, but they're in storage in another country.) Next step is to look into RAID, or an online backup solution. – ndbroadbent Dec 2 '13 at 18:40
  • P.S. @DanNeely, thanks for the advice. I've looked into data recovery shops in the past, but the ones I found were extremely expensive, on the order of thousands of dollars. If the drive was completely dead, that might have been my only option. But I'm very glad that standing it on it's side basically stopped it from failing. – ndbroadbent Dec 2 '13 at 18:51
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    I used the trick shown by Stuffe many times. If you know that the heads are stored on the right border of the disk, just put it on its left side. Gravity will help the magnets to fight against old grease. – dan Dec 2 '13 at 22:08
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I would try using rsync from the command line.

rsync -av --ignore-errors /Volumes/failingDrive/ /Volumes/brandNewDrive

should do the trick. Mind the trailing / at the end of the source. Rsync will not copy files it finds on the destination, so if you call it a second time it will continue where it left off.

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    Probably should add --ignore-errors as well to copy as much as possible and not stop at the first error. – nohillside Dec 2 '13 at 11:14
  • Thanks very much! rsync worked perfectly, and --ignore-errors was especially helpful. – ndbroadbent Dec 2 '13 at 18:46
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And oddly enough a possible solution that involves no software at all, just your freezer.

Double or triple bag your HD (to keep ALL moisture out) and put it in the freezer for a couple of hours.

Then plug it into your Mac and see if you get a longer useful life (15 min instead of 5 or 10) out of it.

Often times HD issues are exacerbated by heat. Keeping the drive as cold as possible will SOMETIMES delay the heat related failures and allow you to get the necessary data off the drive.

Just be careful to keep the drive DRY as moisture will kill the drive faster than heat. And kill it permanently. So watch for condensation on the newly "frozen" HD.

  • Bad Idea, This causes more damage in modern hard drives. Its more likely the PCB on the bottom is faulty. Change that – exussum Dec 2 '13 at 14:48
  • @user1281385 Nathan is reporting hearing clicking noises. The click of death is caused when the alignment between platters and read/write heads is messed up causing the heads to strike the platters. This is the one case where freezing a drive can help with data recovery (because differential shrinkage will slightly adjust the spacing). A completely dead drive would be a likely candidate for a dead PCB. – Dan Neely Dec 2 '13 at 15:01
  • The PCB is what tells the heads what to do. After recovering many drives there has only been 1 that I have seen where the head itself is damaged. The rest the signal from the PCB is damaged – exussum Dec 2 '13 at 15:38
  • Also you cant keep the drive dry, when it heats it gets condensation, Which is wet and can cause damage to the disk surface – exussum Dec 2 '13 at 15:39
  • I would endorse this on a 10 year old hard drive when they were prone to stiction and wouldn't spin up, but that's not really the case anymore and certainly not the case here where the drive mounts and is just marked as about to fail. Modern drives with self monitoring and predictive failure notices have altogether different failure patterns just get damaged when you whack them or cool them significantly. – bmike Dec 3 '13 at 2:37

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