External hard drives are very popular devices used to extend the storage capacity of a Mac or MacBook. If you back up your machine locally with a tool like Time Machine, you need an external drive to store the backup files. External drives are also very useful for sharing data with other users or transferring information between machines.
Why Would I Need to Perform External Hard Drive Recovery?
The possibility of unexpected data loss affects all types of digital storage devices including external hard drives. Data loss can occur for multiple reasons, some of which you can influence and some that are beyond your control.
- 😲 Human error. The most common cause of data loss is human error. It’s very easy to delete the wrong file or accidentally format an important drive or partition. You can minimize the risks of this type of data loss by labeling external drives to make it easier to quickly identify their contents. Another worthwhile technique to adopt is taking a little extra time before performing any activity that deletes data. A few seconds spent now can save hours down the road.
- 👾 Malware or virus infection. Malware and viruses can be extremely damaging and result in unexpected data loss. Running anti-virus software on your Mac will help protect an external hard drive. Problems with malware may arise when an external drive is connected to multiple computers.
- ⚠️ System crash. If your Mac crashes while connected to an external hard drive, it may lead to data loss. There’s not much you can do to prevent this problem except to keep your Mac’s operating system and applications updated.
- ❗ Physical damage. Physical damage caused by dropping an external drive or subjecting it to extreme environmental conditions will often result in data loss. Too much moisture or heat can damage the device. Over time, mechanical parts may wear out and make it hard to access data on an external drive. Keeping the device in a cool, dry place will go a long way toward protecting its data. Never leave any digital storage device in direct sunlight.
- 😈 Theft. An additional risk associated with external hard drives is theft. Modern external hard drives are very compact and can easily fit into a pocket or purse. We don’t have any magical techniques capable of recovering the data from a stolen external drive. Keep your external devices secure or risk losing everything on them.
How to Recover External Hard Drive Data on a Mac
Multiple techniques can be used to recover files from external hard drives. We are going to look at all of the methods of performing data recovery on an external hard drive with the hope that one works for your situation.
Recover from the Trash
The Trash is a special folder that macOS uses to temporarily store deleted files and folders. If you delete an item from a connected external hard drive, the file will be visible in the Trash until it has been manually emptied or rolled off due to how you have it configured.
Your Mac’s main Trash folder displays the contents of the hidden Trash folder that resides on the external drive when it’s connected to your computer. When you eject the device, you cannot see the files in the Trash. Reconnecting the drive makes them easily recoverable using the following procedure.
- Connect the external hard drive to your Mac.
- Open the Trash by clicking on its icon.
- Locate the item you want to recover.
- Right-click on the item and select Put Back.
- The file will be recovered to the external drive.
Recover deleted files with the Undo command
If you act quickly you might be able to recover a deleted file by using the macOS Undo keystroke combination. Command-Z undoes the previous command and can reverse a file deletion if done promptly. Of course, the external drive needs to remain connected to the computer for this operating system trick to work.
External hard drive data recovery from a Time Machine Backup
If you are in the habit of backing up your external drive using Time Machine, the following procedure will enable you to recover data from backup media. This method will only work if the specific files you want to recover have previously been backed up.
- Connect the storage device that contains the Time Machine backup files to your computer.
- Attach the external hard drive that contained the files you want to recover.
- Open a Finder window in the folder on the external drive that previously stored the data you want to recover.
- Click the Time Machine icon on the menu bar to start Time Machine.
- Search through the available backed up files using the timeline and arrows to locate the items you want to restore.
- Make your selections and click the Restore button to recover the items to their original location on the external drive.
Recover with other backup solutions
Other local and cloud-based backup solutions can also protect your data and make it recoverable in the event of unexpected data loss. Following are the basic steps for recovering from each type of backup, though some details will vary based on the specific tool you are using.
Local backups can be created with a wide variety of tools. Recovering from a local backup should follow this type of process:
- Connect the storage media that contains the backup to your Mac.
- Connect the external hard drive to your Mac.
- Search the media for the desired items.
- Copy the files from the backup media to your Mac or the original external hard drive.
These are the steps to use when recovering data from cloud backup options like iCloud:
- Establish an Internet connection so you can access the cloud storage that holds your backups.
- Connect the external drive to your Mac.
- Find the files you want to recover.
- Transfer them over the network from the cloud to your external hard drive.
Recover Deleted Files with Software
When deleted files are no longer in the Trash and have not been backed up, data recovery software can be used to recover files from an external hard drive. This is possible due to the way macOS handles file deletions on your computer.
We will discuss seven recovery tools later in this article. The following procedure shows how to use data recovery software as an HDD recovery tool.
- Download and install the recovery software on your Mac.
- Connect the external hard drive that experienced data loss to your computer.
- Launch the program and choose the external drive from the list of available disks.
- Scan the external drive for recoverable data.
- Preview the found files and select the ones you want to recover.
- Select a safe location in which to store the recovered data. Don’t save it to the external disk to avoid overwriting or corrupting files during the recovery.
- Complete the recovery process using the tool’s interface.
Use a data recovery service
In cases of physical damage to your external drive, a reliable data recovery service may be your only chance of getting your data back. Technicians at a recovery center have advanced software and hardware techniques available with which to attempt to save your data.
Here’s how to engage a data recovery service.
- Contact the data recovery service to get an initial consultation and find out how to ship your device.
- Ship the storage device to the recovery center. The technical team at the center can then evaluate the device and provide an estimate of the cost for its recovery.
- Technicians will open the drive and try to recover its data.
- The recovered data will be shipped to you on new media, and the original external drive will be destroyed.
Best External Hard Drive recovery software: Summary of our picks
Here’s a quick summary of the tools we reviewed.
- 💎 Best paid file recovery tool for general users – Disk Drill for Mac
- 💸 Best free file recovery tool – PhotoRec
- 🗂️ Best partition recovery tool – TestDisk
- 💡 Best additional features – Disk Drill for Mac’s data protection tools
- 📚 Best for RAID recovery – Ontrack EasyRecovery
How to choose external hard drive recovery software for Mac
Several factors should go into your decision when selecting an external hard drive recovery solution for your Mac or MacBook.
- ⚙️ macOS compatibility. The first criterion that has to be addressed is operating system compatibility. Not all data recovery solutions are compatible with the version of macOS you are currently running. Make sure the solution you select supports your macOS version.
- 🔍 Recovery capability. The tool you select needs to be able to recover the types of files you have lost from the kind of storage device on which they were stored. Choose a tool that supports all the file formats and device types you use. You also want a solution that gives you the most information possible about recovered data. Some tools may recover files with generic names, making them harder to use.
Some tools are restricted to recovering complete partitions and are not suitable for getting individual files back. Make sure the solution you choose can handle the data loss situation you need to resolve.
- 🤗 Ease of use. It can be very stressful for the average user to deal with a data loss scenario. Using an HDD recovery tool with a complicated, command-line interface is not recommended in these situations. Look for a tool with a nice user interface that makes it easy to recover your data.
- 💲 Pricing. Solutions are available at different price points from freeware to expensive commercial products. Freeware recovery products don’t usually provide the functionality and user experience of a paid recovery tool.
- 💬 User reviews. User reviews can sometimes provide reliable information about a software tool. While not all online reviews are believable, you may get a sense of a product’s friendliness and usefulness by reading reviews on different sites.
Seven External Hard Drive Recovery Software Solutions for Mac
Following are seven software solutions that can be used to recover files from an external hard drive. We run you through their features and let you know how much they cost. Hopefully, you’ll find one that works for your data loss situation.
Disk Drill is a comprehensive data recovery and protection tool that can handle a wide variety of data loss situations. It features a user-friendly interface that allows users of all levels of experience to easily recover their deleted data from an external hard drive with just a few clicks.
Disk Drill supports recovering image, video, document, audio, and archive files in over 400 formats. It allows users to recover data from any disk-based storage device such as external hard drives, SD cards, thumb drives, and internal hard drives.
Quick and deep scanning modes interrogate your hard drive on the sector level to identify and recover long-lost files. Free data protection tools are provided that enable users to create byte-level backups and configure one-click recovery for important files and folders.
- Supports a wide variety of file formats
and storage devices
- Reliable recovery results
- Scan results can be mounted as a volume
- Intuitive and user-friendly interface
- Includes free data protection tools
- The free version only identifies recoverable files
- No phone support
- General users looking for a versatile data recovery tool.
- Free trial to preview files
- Pro upgrade for $89
- Enterprise version $499
TestDisk is a freeware solution that is designed primarily to recover deleted partitions and repair corrupted ones. Its features include the ability to fix partition tables, rebuild boot sectors, fix FAT tables, and recover a boot sector from its backup.
TestDisk runs under multiple operating systems including DOS, Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and FreeBSD. The tool supports all of the filesystems found on partitions running under these operating systems. This recovery solution is most suited to users with technical experience who are comfortable operating with a command-line interface.
- Recovers lost and deleted partitions
- Extensive operating system and filesystem support
- The latest update was in July 2019
- Cannot recover individual files
- Uses a command-line interface
- Recovering complete partitions by experienced users.
- TestDisk is freeware with no cost to the user
EaseUs Data Recovery Wizard is a simple data recovery software tool that can be used to recover files from external hard drives and other disk-based storage devices. The software is an all-inclusive recovery solution that presents users with a streamlined method of retrieving lost data from all types of storage devices.
The tool is substantially more expensive than its competitors but has a long history of successful recoveries and has been on the market for close to 20 years. Its user-friendly interface and the ability to preview files before recovery are features that appeal to its user base.
- 30-day money-back guarantee
- Preview before recovery
- One-on-one remote recovery assistance
- User-friendly interface
- More expensive than other paid solutions
- General users looking for a comprehensive data recovery solution.
- Monthly – $89.95
- Yearly – $119.95
- Lifetime – $169.95
Ontrack is another paid recovery tool that uses a subscription model for licenses. It has four different versions which all provide the user with different levels of functionality and features. The tool supports recovering deleted files in hundreds of different formats and can recover deleted data from external hard drives and most other disk-based storage devices.
Ontrack can repair corrupted video and photo files in all popular formats. Users can save scan information for later use. It offers users a friendly interface that reduces the stress associated with data recovery.
- Recovers from disk-based storage devices and optical media
- Quick and deep scan options
- Advanced RAID recovery
- Free recovery of up to 1GB of data
- Uses a yearly subscription model for licenses
- More expensive than other paid tools
- Free recovery is limited to files less than 25 MB in size
- Recovering RAID implementations.
- $85 for the Home version
- $129 for the Professional version
- $159 for the Premium version
- $299 for the Technician version
All versions can be tried for free with limited functionality.
Recoverit Data Recovery for Mac lets you perform external hard drive recovery as well as recover data from many other types of storage media. Its intuitive interface makes it easy for any user to recover lost files without seeking professional help. It uses a three-step process to select the recovery target, scan for recoverable files, and recover them to a safe storage location.
The tool can recover deleted data in all major file formats and can also be used to repair some damaged videos. The company has been in business since 2003 and claims to have helped over five million users.
- An easy recovery process that just takes a few clicks
- 7-day money-back guarantee
- Supports recovery of over 1000 file types
- Recovers data from any disk-based storage device
- Can repair some damaged videos
- Lack of data protection tools
- General users looking for a reliable recovery tool.
- Monthly prices range from $75.95 to $105.95
- Yearly $79.95 to $119.95
- Lifetime from $119.95 to $159.95
Wise Data Recovery is a general data recovery tool that can recover deleted data from external hard drives and most other types of disk-based storage devices. It recovers videos, images, documents, and audio files in all major file formats.
The software uses a simple three-step process that asks the user for the file type to be recovered and then locates and recovers files of that type from the storage device. The company partners with Stellar and provides 24×5 technical support.
- Quick and deep scanning modes
- Preview files before recovery
- The free version recovers 1GB of data
- Free technical support
- Lack of data protection tools
- General users looking for a paid recovery tool.
- A free trial is available
- The Professional version costs $79.99
- The Premium version is $99.99
PhotoRec is a freeware tool that is a companion product to TestDisk. It’s an HDD recovery tool designed to recover individual files rather than complete partitions. The tool supports all major operating systems, device types, and file formats.
The main drawback of this tool is its command-line interface which requires multiple commands to be executed when recovering files. A degree of knowledge about disk internals is necessary to run the tool successfully. Results are returned with generic filenames, making it difficult and time-consuming to find recovered data.
- Recovers lost and deleted files
- Extensive operating system and file system support
- Requires users to navigate a command-line interface
- Complicated recovery procedure not suitable for inexperienced users
- Latest update was July 2019
- Experienced users who are looking for a free file recovery tool.
- PhotoRec is freeware with no cost to the user
One of the data recovery software solutions listed above should be able to get your lost data back. It’s important that you act quickly and don’t use the external device until you have completed the recovery to protect the recoverable data from being corrupted or overwritten.
While free tools may look appealing, they don’t offer the same functionality and user-friendly interface as commercial data recovery tools. Choose wisely, as you may only get one chance to recover your valuable data and you want to use the best tool possible. Good luck with your data recovery!