It appears to me that hard disks are more reliable than in former times. However, hard drives still crash. The best way to rescue the data from a damaged disk is to create a raw image on a second disk. The longer you mess with a damaged disk drive, the more likely it becomes that you lose even more data. Once you have a raw image of your data, you can check out what is valuable.
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Raw Copy is a portable Windows tool that copies data directly at the individual byte level instead of through the file system. This means less stress for the damaged disk and ensures that no more data will be destroyed while you try to rescue what is still readable. If important parts of the file system have been damaged, it can be the only way to access a disk.
Raw Copy doesn't have many options, but it has all the features such a tool needs. All you have to do is select the source disk and the target disk where the raw image will be created. Everything on this destination disk will be erased, so be careful to choose the correct one. The target disk can be a raw disk, that is - it doesn't have to be formatted. The size of the target disk should be at least equal to the size of the source drive. Raw Copy won't complain if the destination disk is smaller, but the drive will appear as unformatted after all bytes have been copied. If the target disk is at least as large as the source, you will get an exact clone of the source disk including the file system. I recommend rebooting after the cloning process.
You can also choose where you want Raw Copy to start, whether at the end of the disk or at the beginning. In most cases, it makes sense to start with the end because valuable data is more likely to be found there. If your disk finally dies during the copy process, then you have saved at least some of the data.
Raw Copy was originally designed for NT/XP/2000 but it also appears to work on Vista and Windows 7. I also tried Raw Copy 1.2 on Windows PE 3.0.