Digital file storage is incredibly reliable these days, but that doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong from time to time. Perhaps you are just minding your own business trying to open or copy a file in Windows, when suddenly you get the error “Unable to read source file or disk”, like an unwanted Halloween joke.
It can be frustrating when it seems like your precious data is not available, but there are many fixes that stand between you and finally giving up on recovering your information!
Turn it off and on again
Yes, it’s a clichÃ©. However, the first thing you should try on a Windows computer that says it can’t read your data is to turn it off. Then take a deep breath, count to ten, and turn it back on.
In many cases, these errors are caused by software gremlins that are removed on new boot. It only takes a few seconds, so it’s worth a try.
Disk Format Incompatibility
Although two hard drives may look the same, the way their data is organized can be very different. Each operating system has its own way of dividing the physical space on a mechanical hard drive or solid state drive The only way to change this system is to format the drive, which means that all data on it will be deleted.
If the drive you are trying to copy to is FAT32, you should be aware that it cannot handle single files larger than 4GB. You will need to reformat the target drive to drive-and-memory-stick-with-ntfs/”>NTFS or zip the file and use the file splitting function of the compression program.
Try to use drive-and-memory-stick-with-ntfs/”>NTFS when possible on a modern Windows computer.
A bad sector is a portion of the storage device that refuses to write or read. The “logical” bad sectors are not physically defective, but have been damaged due to something like a power outage or faulty software that has written unwanted data to that part of the disk.
Bad sectors are a common cause of disk read errors, so it is recommended to always check them. Fortunately, Windows has a built-in utility known as Check Disk (CHKDSK). This will scan the medium in question and try to repair bad sectors, which can also recover lost data in some cases.
If a sector is truly unrecoverable, it will be flagged as bad and Windows will refrain from writing data to it in the future.
Mechanical hard drives have moving parts and incredibly precise tolerances. While most of them will last much longer than their estimated lifespan, the end will come sooner or later.
If the hard drive fails physically, you will receive disk read errors when trying to work with the contents of the disk. In computer technician circles, one of the telltale signs that a bad hard drive is causing disk read errors is the so-called “click of death”.
If you listen carefully, you will hear the actuator making a rhythmic clicking sound. This is a really bad sign. If this disk will still read any files, we recommend that you back them up as soon as possible. If the drive doesn’t want to get your files back, there are data recovery specialists who can save and restore the drive for you, but it’s incredibly expensive.
Therefore, if the information is not both valuable and irreplaceable, the click of death is a sign to let it go.
Optical disc damage and dirty lenses
Few people still use optical discs on Windows computers, but if you are one of the few who need to retrieve information from a CD, DVD, or BluRay disc, it might be worth examining the disc surface for damage.
Sometimes, simply wiping the disc with the same cloth you used to clean your camera lenses or glasses can remove fingerprints and other debris.
If the outer layer of the disc is scratched, you can use disc buffer or disc repair fluid to try and fix it. If the scratch is deep enough to damage the layer of the disk that actually stores the data, it’s the end of the line.
In some cases, the problem is not with the drive, but with the drive itself. If you have another drive to test the disc, do so first to rule out the drive as the culprit. Sometimes the problem can be fixed with a drive lens cleaner, but any other problems usually require a drive replacement.
Disk drives of any type communicate with your computer through some kind of connection. For external drives these days, it’s almost always USB. This means that the USB cable or USB ports on the computer or disk may be defective.
Try using an alternate cable or port on your computer to rule it out as the source of the problem. Attempting to use the external drive on a different computer will also determine if the problem is really with the drive or computer.
The same is true for internal storage. Try using alternative SATA cables for your internal SATA drives. You can also change the SATA port that a particular drive is using to check if the port itself is faulty.
Some external USB drives require more power than a single standard USB port can provide. They usually come with a dual USB-A cable.
One carries power and data, while the other carries only power. If you try to use a single-pin cable and a standard USB port that does not provide the power of the above specifications, the drive will either not boot or work reliably.
Recheck the manufacturer’s power requirements and make sure the external storage has enough power to function properly.
Unsupported file names
What’s in a name? Sometimes Windows just doesn’t understand the filename used for a particular file.
If the source disk uses a file name format that conflicts with Windows file naming rules, you will need to rename the file to something else.
File ownership deviates
File ownership is something most users don’t need to worry about, but sometimes Windows won’t take ownership of a drive or certain files, making it impossible for you to work with them.
The good news is that you can manually check and change the owner of files in Windows 10. It’s simple, but a little verbose. Luckily, this excellent guide walks you through the process quickly.
Reading is essential
Sometimes you just need to admit that your data has gone off disk and will never come back. So, even trying all of these potential solutions might not get rid of your bacon. This is why the only real solution to fix disk read error is with good backup strategies.
With cheap storage technology, cloud-based backup solutions, and fast internet connections, there really is no reason to lose your information forever. Just make sure you have regular backups of unique, irreplaceable files.
Distribute copies to services such as DropBox or OneDrive, and consider purchasing an external SSD instead of the more fault-prone external mechanical drives. The old adage about “an ounce of prevention” is more relevant than ever.