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Why the “Freezer Trick” for Hard Drives Doesn’t Work

frozen hard drive

Freezers. Apparently, some folks think they’re not just for ice cream and Bagel Bites. In fact, freezing your hard drive to recover data was once considered best practice. That’s right, all you had to do was put the drive in a waterproof plastic bag, move the Eggos out of the way and put your hard drive in the freezer. After an hour or so, you removed the hard drive and accessed your magically available information.

If only all tech problems were so easy to solve…

If you’ve ever subjected, or considered subjecting, a hard drive to this frigid abuse, you aren’t alone. In fact, many noted tech reference sites, from PC World to Lifehacker actually endorsed and encouraged freezing a hard drive… more than 10 years ago.

But technology has advanced quite a bit since then, and there are now far better alternatives for restoring lost data. If you want the best chance of not losing your data forever—and who doesn’t—read on to learn why freezing your hard drive to recover data doesn’t work and how you can keep your information safe.

Old trick, new tech

You may be wondering, how does freezing a hard drive work? Where did this idea even come from? Well, as crazy as it sounds, long ago there was actually a little bit of logic to this theory.

But first, how does a hard drive work, anyway? Hard drives are comprised of a series of magnetized platters where your information is stored. To retrieve data, spindles spin the platters so read-write heads can find the information you want. If the spindles fail, you can’t get to what’s stored on the drive.

Spindle malfunctions occur for several reasons, one of them being lubrication failure. In this case, first the spindles can’t spin, then the platters can’t rotate, and finally, the read-write heads can’t access the data. Theoretically, freezing a hard drive could shrink the hard drive components and bring them back into alignment. Makes sense, right?

This trick was so widely used that some hardware companies even designed their machines to run in extremely cold environments, increasing the chances of hard drive revival, should a lockup occur.

Before you freeze, stop!

But before you stick your hard drive in the freezer, there are a few things you should know. Today hard drives are far more advanced, so freezing has a much bigger impact. Hard drives are now built using incredibly precise measurements. Even the smallest shift in placement—the entire point of the freezer trick—can negatively affect the read-write heads’ ability to read your hard drive.

Also, lubrication issues are mostly a thing of the past, because the system that provides the lubrication has been vastly improved. And even if a lubrication issue does occur, the drive usually stores data off the platter, so the information isn’t compromised, anyway.

Bottom line, modern hard drives aren’t vulnerable to the lubrication issues that are resolvable by freezing. You’ll find that most of the time a hard drive fails because of a logical rather than a hardware issue. So freezing a hard drive does nothing but potentially destroy the hard drive permanently.  

Specific hardware, spotty results

If you’re researching this topic in a bid to save a hard drive, you’ll probably find examples of cases where freezing is successful. Yes, there are examples out there of a few hard drives that might respond positively to being put in the freezer. But the danger of destroying your hardware, even in these rare situations, is real.

Specifically, hard drives with a storage capacity of 10 GB or less may allow you to retrieve your data after freezing. That’s because these drives are known for having issues in very high temperatures. If a spindle locks up, freezing the hard drive will possibly minimize the friction so the spindles can function properly once again.

You can usually tell if your drive is suffering from a spindle issue when you hear a shuddering sound. In this situation, the drive is recognized by your device but drops out long before you can access your information.

If you notice your hard drive still has power and a disk spinning at optimal RPMs, it’s not suffering from a malfunctioning spindle. In which case, putting your hard drive it in the freezer will do nothing but waste your time… and potentially corrode the components.

How freezing damages drives

When you freeze your hard drive, any water vapor within the drive turns into ice crystals. When you take the hard drive out of the freezer, those ice crystals start melting. The water left behind can and often does damage the drive’s essential electronics.

What’s more, if the drive is used before being completely defrosted, the head may crash into the spinning hard disk platter and cause permanent data loss.

Either way, the risks of freezing your hard drive, considering the approach is no longer an effective way to revive your data, simply aren’t worth it.

Not a permanent solution

Even if you have a hard drive that responds to this treatment and even if you somehow avoid corroding the drive’s components with defrosted condensate, this is by no means a permanent solution.

There’s always an underlying cause for a spindle and lubrication issue. By freezing your hard drive, you’re addressing the symptom, not the cause. If—and this is a big if—you successfully revive your hard drive, your goal should be to pull your data off the device as soon as possible before your hard drive locks up again.

Start by removing the most important information first. That way, if you have another failure before you’re through, you can rest assured you got what’s most important to you. As you’re pulling data off the device, be sure to back it up to prevent this from being a big deal in the future.

Back up, back up, back up

Speaking of backing up, we’ll say it one more time for good measure: BACK UP. The first line of defense and really your best bet for saving your data is to back it up.

There are many ways to back up your information. Some computers actually have a backup feature built into the machine (Windows Backup and Apple’s Time Machine). Use this. Set a schedule, and have your computer do the heavy lifting for you.

You may also use a cloud-based backup service. There are many free cloud storage options, including the Google suite, but their free storage is limited. If you have a lot you need to back up, consider paying for additional storage so you save your information in its original, high-quality format.

There’s also the tried-and-true external hard drive. These are great, because they can be stored in a fire safe or safety deposit box. But, since they’re usually stashed away, they may not be updated as often as they should. They’re also vulnerable to fire and/or water damage, should catastrophe strike.

Everyone should make it a habit to back up their data. It’s truly the most reliable way to keep your information safe.

Consult a hard drive recovery specialist

Regardless of the cause, a hard drive data recovery engineer is your best bet when your drive stops working. Their job is to help you get your precious information off your hard drive—even when you think it’s hopeless.

Tools and techniques for data recovery are specialized for today’s hard drives. If you try to recover information yourself, you may find that your first attempt is your last attempt. And if you’ve only got one Eggo left in the freezer, you’re darn sure not to burn it. Why should your hard drive be any different?

Enlisting a hard drive recovery specialist ensures you get the best possible result when you experience a hard drive failure. So don’t put your hard drive out in the cold. Resist the urge to put your hard drive in the freezer, and get in touch with DriveSavers today to get your data back!

Mike Cobb, Director of Engineering and CISO
As Director of Engineering, Mike Cobb manages the day-to-day operations of the Engineering Department, including the physical and logical recoveries of rotational media, SSDs, smart devices and flash media. He also oversees the R&D efforts for past, present, and future storage technologies. Mike encourages growth and ensures that each of the departments and their engineers continues to gain knowledge in their field. Each DriveSavers engineer has been trained to ensure the successful and complete recovery of data is their top priority.

As Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), Mike oversees cybersecurity at DriveSavers, including maintaining and updating security certifications such as SOC 2 Type II compliance, coordinating company security policy, and employee cybersecurity education.

Mike joined DriveSavers in 1994 and has a B.S. degree in Computer Science from the University of California, Riverside.

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