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Swapping PCBs on dead hard drives

Often a drive that is not spinning signifies a dead printed circuit board (PCB). Quite literally, the circuitry has blown and burn marks are often visible on components. The PCB is the 'brains' of the hard drive, but also supplies power. If the hard drive is not getting any power, it will not be spinning. Replacing PCBs is often thought to be a worthwhile exercise before engaging a data recovery expert, but beware because it can cause more damage - and certainly don't throw the original PCB away as this might be invaluable!

Older hard drives used generic PCBs and 'firmware' which meant that a replacement board would often rectify the problem. If you could find the same part number, firmware, date and site code there was a good chance that the drive would spin up and allow you to retrieve the data, providing there was no exaggerating factors. However there was still a danger of causing more damage and in some cases, drives would even catch fire!

Nowadays, a hard drive will relocate sectors with degrading read times, to extend the life. This automatic relocation of slow sectors alters the firmware. Firmware also controls the calibration and track information - meaning that the firmware is very likely unique to your drive. This is known as 'adaptive data' that is effectively a roadmap for your hard disk drive. Therefore simple replacement in modern hard drives has become redundant and instead, we must now consider a firmware chip exchange on a identical PCB. This procedure requires removing the firmware chip from the failed PCB and micro-soldering it onto the replacement - a time consuming and difficult task!

Depending on model of the hard disk drive, the firmware information may be embedded in the main micro controlling unit (MCU). Chip exchange in these circumstances is virtually impossible, hence it is much more convenient to simply read or 'reflash' the information from the chip and then write that information to a functioning matching PCB. To do this requires specialist tools.

Some hard drive such as Seagate models (except Barracuda V, 7200.7 and U7 models) still respond well to PCB swaps if you can match the firmware and configuration code exactly. Often this will be enough but sometimes incompatibilities in the ROM will require a matching ROM chip transplant. To find a compatible PCB on other Seagate models, you need to interrogate the data output by the hard drive during it's POST and match the ROM versions. To do this requires a specialist tools such as a EMAK.

Unless your data can be sacrificed, it is worth engaging a professional to safeguard your critical information. If you do intend a DIY recovery, be sure to hold onto the original PCB as the information this contains may be invaluable if you do ultimately require our services!