How to Fix an Unreadable External Hard Drive/Flash Drive in Windows 10

By | April 18, 2022

A removable disk drive either a USB flash drive or an external hard drive should be easy to use. But in some cases, you can connect your drive to a Windows PC or other device with a USB port and find the hard drive not showing up.

This problem has several possible causes: partition problems on the external drive, using the wrong file system, a dead USB port, or driver problems in Windows. In the worst case scenario, the drive itself may die.

Let’s take a look at how to diagnose an external drive not detected in Windows.

Make Sure Your Drive is Power On

This is a first step, but one that needs to be checked. Almost all flash drives and many external hard drives do not require a separate power source they receive power via USB. However, some desktop external hard drives do have a dedicated power cord, or at least a physical power switch.

If this is the case for you and your external hard drive is not showing up, you could have a problem with the power cord. Try plugging it into a different outlet, or change the cable if possible. Check for flashing lights on the unit indicating activity before continuing.

Check Drive in Disk Management (Disk Management)
First, let’s check if Windows detects the drive when you plug it in. Plug your removable drive into your computer if you haven’t already.

Next, open the tool Disk Management. To do so, press Windows Key + X (or right-click the Start button) to open the Power User menu and select Disk Management from the list. You can also open a dialog Run with Windows + R and go to diskmgmt.msc to open this utility.

As the name suggests, Disk Management lets you view all the hard disks connected to your computer. You can review the size, partition, and other disk information.

You should see your external drive listed in the Disk Management window, likely under your primary and secondary disks. Even if it doesn’t appear in the window This PC since it doesn’t contain any partitions it should appear here as Removable.

If you see a drive here, skip to section four, “Create a New Volume and Assign a Drive.” There, you will partition and/or format it properly so Windows and other devices can access it.

If your external drive still doesn’t show up, continue. You must determine why your drive is not recognized. It’s possible that you have a hardware problem, driver issue, or a dead drive.

Try USB Ports and Other Computers
The problem may not be with your device, but the port you are using to connect it to your computer.

Unplug the drive from the current USB port and try connecting it to another port on your computer. If it works on one USB port but not on another, you may have a dead USB port.

If you are connecting the drive to a USB hub, try connecting it directly to the computer. Some USB hubs do not provide enough power for your external drive to function.

What if the drive doesn’t show up in Disk Management even after trying these two steps? It’s hard to know for sure if the hard disk is bad or your computer is having problems. If you have another computer nearby, try plugging the drive into it to check if it is detected.

If the drive doesn’t work on the computer you plugged it into, the drive itself may be dead and you’ll need to replace it. When you try another computer, be sure to check if it appears in the computer’s Disk Management window, not just This PC, as discussed above.

Troubleshooting Drivers
If the drive appears on another computer or you don’t have another computer to check Windows may have a driver issue with your device. You can check this using Device Manager.

You will find a shortcut to Device Manager under menu Windows + X the same as previously mentioned. You can also enter devmgmt.msc into the Run dialog to open it.

Expand category Disk drives and check each device with a yellow exclamation mark next to it. If you see this symbol, the device has a driver problem.

Right click the device with the problem, select Properties, and see the error message. This error message can help you fix the problem; You may want to do a Google search for any error messages you find.

Driver problems are often difficult to fix. If the problem just started, try run System Restore to roll back the changes.

If this doesn’t work, you can try the button Driver Updates for install updated drivers. However, it’s rare to find new drivers for generic devices like flash drives. Instead, you may want to check the manufacturer’s website for specific drivers for your external hard drive.

Menu Driver for your drive in Device Manager has several other options. Knob Rollback Driver will rollback any latest driver updates, which will probably have no effect if System Restore doesn’t work.

As a last resort, use the button Uninstall to remove the device from your system. Hopefully, after a reboot, Windows will reinstall the drivers and configure them properly when you reconnect the drive.

Create New Drive Volume
If your device shows up in Disk Management in the Initial Step or one of the troubleshooting steps above makes it appear, you’re ready to initialize the drive so it’s usable. In addition to displaying basic information, the Disk Management tool can repair partition and file system problems with your drive.

If your removable drive shows only available space Unallocated, you have to create a new partition on it. This allows Windows and other operating systems to use it. To do so, right-click anywhere on the space Unallocated, choose New Simple Volume, and go through the wizard to create a new partition.

If your drive is partitioned (meaning it doesn’t have Unallocated Allocations) and you still can’t see it, make sure it has a drive letter set. This should be done automatically, but if you have manually removed the drive letter, the drive may not be accessible in Windows.

To change the drive letter, right-click the removable drive partition and select Change Drive Letter and Paths. If the device doesn’t have mail yet, click Add and choose one. If yes, click Change and try another.

Something later in the alphabet, like G or J, is standard for removable drives and will work fine.

Format Drive

If the drive appears to be partitioned, but you still can’t access it, it’s probably partitioned with a different file system.

For example, you may have formatted the drive with the XFS file system from Linux or APFS on a Mac. Windows cannot read this file system. You should therefore reformat the drive with a newer NTFS or FAT32 file system so that Windows will be able to recognize it.

To reformat a partition in the Disk Management utility, right-click and select Format.

Note that formatting will delete all files on your drive, so you’ll need to copy any important files to another device before proceeding. If you’re formatting the drive on a Linux or Mac machine, take it to a computer running that OS and back up the files before you format it.

When you format, you can give the drive a new name if you want. Leave Allocation unit size as Default; leave Perform a quick format. More importantly, you have to choose file system. Which one you should choose depends on the type of drive and what you’re using it for.

If you have a small flash drive, it may come formatted as FAT32. In most cases, this is the best option. While FAT32 can’t store files over 4GB and only supports volumes up to 2 TB, it’s unlikely you’ll run into any of these issues using a flash drive. More importantly, FAT32 is compatible with all kinds of devices, such as cameras, media players, game consoles, and more.

NTFS is the modern standard for Windows, but there’s nothing to gain by using it on a flash drive. Many older devices are not compatible with NTFS. So, we recommend formatting as FAT32 for flash drives and SD cards, and NTFS for large external hard drives.

You have two other file system options. exFAT is a Microsoft file system that supports larger files that are FAT32, but is not widely compatible. We’ve compared FAT32 and exFAT if you’re interested. FAT is ancient, so you can ignore that one.

Your External Drive, Repaired and Remains Unreadable Anymore
Following this process when the external hard drive is not showing up should solve most of the disk recognition problems you will encounter. If you’ve tried the drive with multiple computers and it never appears in the Disk Management window after these steps, the drive may be dead.

In this case, check the best portable hard drive you can buy. Make sure you know important information about buying a hard drive.

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