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How does a hard drive work?

A hard drive consists of fairly basic parts. Very simply the data is stored magnetically on one or more shiny silver platters revolving on a motor, there's an arm mechanism that moves the read-write head back and forth over the platters to record or store information and an electronic circuit board controls everything and acts as the 'brain'.

The platters are the most important parts of a hard drive and this is what we are most interested in for data recovery. If the platters are badly damaged it is going to be difficult to recover your data. As the name suggests, they are disks made from a hard material such as glass or aluminum, which is coated with a thin layer of metal that can be magnetized or demagnetized. Typically there will be only a single platter on a small hard drive, although both sides will be used to store data on a magnetic coating. Bigger drives have a series of platters stacked on a central spindle, with a small gap in between them. These platters can rotate at up to 15,000 revolutions per minute (rpm).

There are two read-write heads for each platter which glide on a a thin layer of air or fluid to minimize friction. One head is used to read the top surface and the other to read the bottom. Therefore if a hard drive has four platters it would require eight separate read-write heads. The read-write heads are mounted on an electrically controlled arm that moves from the center of the drive to the outer edge and back again.

The circuit board controls the movement of the actuator and rotation of the disk and writes on demand from the disk controller. Essentially the circuitry is considered the 'brain'. A common misconception is that a damaged printed circuit board (PCB) may be simply replaced during recovery procedures by an identical PCB from a healthy drive. While this may work in rare circumstances on hard drives manufactured before 2003, it will not work on newer hard drives. Electronics boards of modern drives usually contain drive-specific adaptation data required for accessing their system areas, so the related component needs to be either reprogrammed (if possible) or un-soldered and transferred between two electronics boards.