How much will my data recovery cost? This a very common question asked of CBL. The quick answer is: it depends. It depends on your media, what has gone wrong with it, and what work is required in order to secure and retrieve the files you need.

Everyone gets worried about paying too much, and sometimes paying too little. At CBL we are confident enough in our processes, and comfortable enough with our pricing that we can openly share some insights with our customers. Insights that we have can gained since first offering data recovery as a service back in 1993.

While the range of recovery projects we work on is wide and varied, here are some examples of common problems our customers experience:

Over the past couple of years we have seen a high number of Seagate units with system area corruption caused by an extremely large amount of media errors on its disk surface. Customers may notice some kind of sluggishness, or slowing down of their computer leading up to the crash. Many times people think their operating system needs to get cleaned up, or maybe the computer needs more RAM. Once in a while though, it’s actually the hard drive. While this kind of issue is classified as a hardware problem, it is generally something that can be solved outside of our clean room environments. Pricing for a full turn-key data recovery solution on these units is normally $695 to $895. This is a straight-forward process with a proven technique, and one with a very high success rate. The typical recovery time is 3 days and your data can be returned back to you on the media of your choice. While certainly not DIY fix or even something IT support can normally handle, it is common place for us. Approximately one quarter of the cases seen by CBL will be this, or similar to, this issue. Some Western Digital and Toshiba 2.5” models will have occurrences of system area corruption as well.

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An external hard drive which has fallen off a desk, or a laptop which was inadvertently dropped, will cause some major physical issues to the functionality of the unit. But even similar failures can have various outcomes.

Most commonly, there will be impact damage to the read/write heads, the reading mechanism of a hard drive. They will twist or skew slightly from their original configuration, sometimes becoming completely twisted or disengaged entirely from the actuator arm. Most current model hard drives will have a ‘park ramp’ where the read/write heads live when the unit is not in-use. Impact while parked does not cause damage to the disk surfaces (the platters) directly but will damage the read/write heads well enough that once powered on the read/write heads will come in contact with the platters and immediately start scraping away the metal alloys which hold the electromagnetic signal, which in turn are your files.

Dropping a hard drive while in-use will almost invariably result in an immediate head crash as the read/write heads are on the disk surface and will come into instant contact upon impact. As hard drive platters spin very quickly even a momentary contact can have huge repercussions.

A drop can also cause issues with the spindle motor assembly, the component that turns the disks at such high speeds. It is also the component the platters are installed on. A spindle motor recovery is complex in its simplicity. In this case the platters will need to be removed and transplanted onto a new drive shaft. Hard drives with multiple platters need special care as the disks are aligned on X, Y & Z axes. Any disruption to this relationship, even the smallest, tiniest of miscues can cause permanent, irreversible data loss. It is a very delicate and time consuming procedure, one that only those with the most data recovery experience will handle. These kinds of problems with dropped hard drives can range from $1500 up to $3200 for those spindle motor recoveries mentioned above.

But not all dropped hard drives need to be so costly. Sometimes, when a hard drive has fallen, the read/write heads will impact the disk surfaces and magnetically stick to the platters. Similar to stiction related issues seen in the 1990’s, the cohesive friction between the read/write heads and platters prevents the hard drive from spinning up. And in a case like this, that’s probably a good thing because you don’t want it spin up and generate a head crash. If the read/write heads are still in good shape, they can be manually moved back into the park zone, the surfaces cleaned up of debris and you could see pricing of $695 to $895 like which falls into example #1.

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This is far and away the most commonly reported symptom of a hard drive failure. The clicking noises are in fact the read/write heads inside the hard drive trying to read specific code from the disks, and not being able to do so correctly and are re-trying and re-trying and re-trying. What is preventing the read/write heads from picking up the necessary signal is the first question CBL’s recovery engineers will try to answer when evaluating a failed unit. There could be problems with the media surface; damage to the read/write head assembly; electrical or PCB board related problems where the hard drive is actually reading properly but that signal is not getting translated properly; and even sometime issues with the spindle motor assembly where it’s not spinning up to the required RPMs.

These are problems which can only be addressed by a recovery engineer. The disk surfaces and read/write heads will be examined, under microscope, for defects. The read/write heads and electronics will be tested to determine where the faults lie. More often than not, a clicking hard drive will be due to some damage on the disk surface caused by contact from the read/write heads.

These are projects which require intensive clean room based physical work, replacing damaged components, coaxing a unit to achieve a consistent read, capturing a low-level data stream of signal from the original unit and then re-doing this work until the entire disk is saved.

With today’s current selection of high capacity hard drives and condensed data sector mapping, if platter damage is visible under a microscope, it’s a major issue. If platter damage is visible to the naked eye, it’s almost a non-starter. For every visible ring on the disk surface there are dozens, if not hundreds, more visible under microscope. Costing for successful data recovery in these cases can range from $895 to $3200 factoring in the number of read/write heads affected; the number of disk surfaces in use; the procedures required for dismantling the hard drive; and if that particular hard drive model has tendency to crash during the recovery phase requiring the engineer to pause and begin the physical processes over again to stabilize the hard drive.

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These forms of NAND Flash memory are very common place. But USB thumbdrives should never be thought of as permanent storage. USB thumbdrives serve two purposes: A) as customer giveaways at conventions and trade shows and B) as temporary transportable storage.

Aside from the physical abuse thumbdrives take from getting bent connectors, going through the laundry, getting stepped on, run over or thrown around the office they are also susceptible to static discharge from handling and incorrectly removing the device from the USB port. Camera cards, much in the same vein, can receive static shocks which can short out and damage their electrical components.

Using NAND Flash memory also means these are consistently trying to update and error correct bad blocks on the fly. This can cause the overall capacity of the unit to suddenly decrease or, if the controller chip is faulty, become unrecognized. Most USB thumbdrives and camera cards will cost between $150 and $500 for recovery.

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This media type is trending upwards right now in terms of usage, and if the costs of flash memory decrease significantly in the coming years, SSD units could become the de facto. The primary benefit to computer users is speed. Faster boot-up times and faster access to files. SSDs are also more resilient to physical damage, and with the small form factor are becoming popular in laptops, but they are not infallible. Solid state drives, like USBs and SD cards, are more susceptible to electronic discharge than their hard drive cousins. With 4 or 5 times more memory chips, coupled with the AES-256 bit encryption security and a few other bells and whistles offered by SSD manufacturers the recovery processes is usually much more complicated than USB thumbdrives. We are currently seeing SSD recoveries ranging from $695 to $2600. While there is yet to be an unbiased published report clearly stating HDD vs. SSD MTBF, the hard drive world is generally around 1.5%/yr (with the exception of a lemon now and then). Solid state drive manufacturers will undoubtedly continually improve their products so they fall in line with this acceptable failure standard.

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Choosing a Data Recovery Provider

When choosing a data recovery provider, the cost question is always at the forefront. Our advice: have a professional recovery engineer and inspect and evaluate the media first. Find out exactly what the problems are with your unit, and have an effective solution put forth for the recovery.

Many recovery cases will have an underlying problem with their media which needs to be addressed first in order to provide a quality recovery service. Simply trying to “push through” media errors, or letting a commercial software scan slowly run for hours or days will cause more harm than good and also put your data at risk. The first attempt at data recovery will always yield the highest amount of success.

There are also secondary factors which can push the cost of a recovery slightly higher. Units which have been encrypted will require extra steps and time to decrypt and verify the file system. Hardware cases which have media damage in critical areas may also require extra steps after the physical work has been done in order to save the files. Custom recovery solutions can also be much more expensive for special cases where programming needs to be implemented or new software developed to address a rare or unseen issue.

As we have seen from these few examples above, situations seemingly similar in cause can be quite different in effect and require a different approach. A professional recovery engineer will be able to put together an effective plan to save your files, and what sets CBL apart from other providers and big-box stores is our understanding and capabilities of the issues with physically damaged hard drives. We simply have the best recovery engineers in the country.