As providers of data recovery software and services, we are frequently approached by customers whose problem cannot be solved by software alone. Most often we’ll just refer such customers to a reputable (and well-equipped) data recovery service in their area.
However, some customers are not happy to hand over access to their data to a third party, often preferring the information to die with the disk rather than have someone gain access to it. These customers often ask if we can recommend a data recovery box. While we certainly know a lot about these boxes (and use a few models internally), we also understand their limitations, and are hesitant to recommend them to our customers. In this article we’ll try to explain why.
- What Is a Data Recovery Box?
- What Data Recovery Boxes are Good For?
- Is a Data Recovery Box a Good Option for You?
- Software Still Needed (and Not Always Included).
What Is a Data Recovery Box?
Data recovery boxes are highly specialized hard drive enclosures that allow mounting a desktop or laptop hard drive (SATA, slim SATA and IDE are commonly supported) and connecting it to the computer via a USB or Ethernet interface.
Unlike your common $20 enclosure, data recovery boxes can easily cost ten to fifty times more because of the many additional features and components they host. Unlike your common hard drive enclosure featuring a nano-sized PCB board, these specialized devices include lots and lots of hardware designed to handle hard drives in various working states. As an example, these boxes typically include a dedicated power supply with multiple layers of protection (for handling hard drives with failed power circuitry) and with options for manual power override. Their power source is shielded in order to be able to withstand any overload condition including a short circuit. High-end models can feature a built-in oscilloscope for current monitoring, yet this is optional on more affordable boxes.
What Data Recovery Boxes are Good For?
The very purpose of a data recovery box is trying to transfer as much information from the connected hard drive as is still possible. You can use a box if your hard drive spins up but is not recognized by your computer’s BIOS, or if an attempt to read a file just freezes your computer. These boxes are ideal for such scenarios as they come with built-in low-level support for handling exactly these situations.
However, a good data recovery box can do much more than just that. If, for example, your hard drive has damaged firmware, or if its initial sector (containing configuration information and sector remapping tables) is damaged, some models of data recovery boxes provide access to the firmware area of compatible hard drive models. In some cases, they can recover firmware automatically, while manual firmware recovery can also be available. Accessing firmware recovery mode is dangerous and can easily brick your hard drive, making subsequent recovery attempts much more complicated.
All features of data recovery hardware are designed to make it possible to image damaged media. Where your computer will stall or abort on reading errors, a data recovery box may help you extract some data.
Another use for a data recovery box is bypassing ATA passwords. If you have a hard drive protected with an ATA password but not encrypted, a data recovery box may help you overcome this protection by either bypassing the password (and reading the data) or resetting it.
Is a Data Recovery Box a Good Option for You?
Reading how great and how easy to use some hardware-based data recovery solutions are, it is easy to get an illusion that simply buying a box will help you recover data you couldn’t save with software-based tools. While this can be true in some cases, some hard drives may be damaged to the point they cannot be read with a simple (or even advanced) recovery box. Only a qualified service technician working in a clean room and equipped with the correct bench will be able to revive your hard drive to the point it can be used to read information one last time.
A data recovery box can be expensive. In our lab, we have boxes ranging from about $500 to about $1700. Whether or not you are prepared to make such investment for what can be a one-time job is really up to you. Considering that a data recovery box may not solve the problem, this becomes an expensive lottery.
In order to use a drive imager, you’ll have to have at least basic understanding of how it all works. Without proper understanding of what you’re going to do, you have a much greater chance of bricking the disk then by using any software-based tool.
Software Still Needed (and Not Always Included)
If a data recovery box is able to successfully image the disk, you’ll receive a full binary image of the hard drive. With most boxes, you’ll get software allowing you to mount the image as one or more drive letters accessible via a special program or just available on your computer. However, since many files are likely to have damage, you’re better off using specialized data recovery software with support for file carving (signature search or content-aware analysis) such as Partition Recovery Software.