From your questions content, I would say we can move right to trying to recover your lost backups. Take it to a pro. Please see my disclaimer at the end of my answer for the reasons why Im starting with these suggestions. A company like Ontrack can take your broken drive and pull the old backups off the drive. They will then give them back to you on some kind of media that you can later transfer to your replacement device. Here is another option, call the Geek Squad and have the whole system checked out. It will cost money but if you must have your backups back then these are possible fixes.
If I had the drive and your computer in my hands, my first step would be to see if your computer can detect the external backup drive. Can it see what files are there? After assessing how much connectivity is present between your computer and the external drive, I would then open the drive casing and determine if the buttons are defective or if the actual drive is defective (if during the connectivity testing I could not get your computer to even find the drive, it is most likely that the actual drive is damaged but to double check this I would hook up a known to be good external drive to your computer. If that failed I would began to trouble shoot your computer.). I would do this by looking for mechanical damage. Perhaps I would find that one of the buttons is locked down, effectively jamming the system and thereby causing the failure. I would then examine the actual hard drive for signs of failed connections and any signs of damage. Then I would write down all the information from inside the assembly, such as the info from the label on the actual hard drive, model number, bar code numbers and any other information I could find.
Even if I found nothing to fix, I would then reassemble the device and try and reinstall it. During the reinstall I would be checking all connections, testing power, and making sure its software was intact by reinstalling it. I have sometimes found after my initial inspection, that the device Im trying to fix has become functional after I have reinstalled it.
If the device did start working again, I would then began a series of use tests, basically trying out every function to make sure the device is truly working. This gives the device a chance to fail while Im watching it.
Whether or not the device became functional again, I would do a series of web searches on the info I gained by opening the device as well as all the info I had from the outside of the device. For example I would type into a search engine the info from the actual hard drive (what I found on the label that was affixed to the internal drive). I would be looking to see if others had a similar problem and read their postings on their answers and solutions, perhaps the hard drive has been recalled. Sometimes it is just more frugal to trash the device and move on so I would also check prices on a replacement for the whole external backup drive. I would also visit the manufacturers website looking for a way to login or seek a Frequently Asked Question page that instructed me on how to obtain a return authorization and/or service help. I would be looking also for info on updates on its software and if there might be incompatibilities that might cause the device to fail to function. Maybe some new device has been added to the computer and it is the culprit. Sometimes updates to the operating system and even just a driver update can cause other devices to stop working. Firewall programs are notorious for causing devices to go unrecognized. All of these issues would be targets of my searches.
As you can see there are layers of systems that can cause devices to stop working. Let us look at some of these layers for just some ideas of what might be wrong that we need to find so that a fix can be made. 1) The computer itself has layers of systems that could be at fault. Its USB connector maybe bad. Some software driver that allows the computer to work through its USB connection system maybe corrupted or missing. A power management function maybe shutting down a communication system to conserve power. Perhaps a firewall program has blocked access to the external drive. Sometimes a new device installation may cause problems. Sometimes updates to the operating system or even just a driver update can cause other devices to stop working. 2) The cabling from the external hard drive to the computer is another system that may have failed. Just swapping out the USB or Firewire cable may solve the problem. 3) The external hard drives power supply maybe failing. Inside that power supply a lose or broken wire maybe at fault. 4) Within the external hard drive the button system may have failed, the drive itself may have failed, or the firmware program that works the button system may have gotten corrupted. Now that we have looked at some of the layers of systems that maybe at fault, let us look at your suggested answer If I get another external hard drive, could I open this one, and transfer data to the new external one from the old?.
This actually would be an approach I would use. I have done this in the past with other devices and it has proven to be a way to determine the system that is at fault. Its what I call a shade tree mechanic fix. I would modify the approach some. I would install a new backup external drive of the same make and model and see if it worked on your computer. If the new external drive does work then the fault is in your old external drive. If it doesnt work then the fault is in your computer and you need to change gears and trouble shoot your computer. For later reference we will call this CASE 1.
Pressing on, let us assume you do this approach and that the new external drive works, proving the old external drive has a defective system and that there is nothing wrong with your computer. The next step would be opening the old external hard drive case and seeing if the actual hard drive can be easily removed/swapped out. So we can press on, it is assumed that the actual drive is replaceable (If the actual hard drive is not replaceable then you have to give up). Next, place this old hard drive into the new working external drive case. This means that you void the new external hard drive's warranty by opening its case. The act of installing the old actual drive into it just makes it more so. Please note that at this point there is no turning back. Then you reassemble the new external drive and connect it to your computer and test it to see if it works. If it works you would have all your old backups back and know that some system of the failed external drive is defective other then the actual internal drive. For later reference we will call this CASE 2.
If the new external drive with the old actual hard drive in it does not work then the actual old hard drive is defective. You then reassemble the new external hard drive with its original working hard drive and then test it. If all goes well it will work again. For later reference we will call this CASE 3.
Let us now review each case. Case 1, the computer is now consider the problem. I would recommend either turning it over to a pro or call in a friend who is good with computers (I often find good support through the Cnet Forums). These kinds of computer problems can be very complicated and another person can be very supportive. As I indicated before The computer itself has layers of systems that could be at fault. Its USB connector maybe bad. Some software driver that allows the computer to work through its USB connection system maybe corrupted or missing. A power management function maybe shutting down a communication system to conserve power. Perhaps a firewall program has blocked access to the external drive. Sometimes a new device installation may cause problems. Case 2, the old external drive is bad which was proven by installing a new identical external drive and the old actual drive turns out to be dead. You end up with a new working external drive and the dilemma of do with this bad drive. Do you send it to a company like Ontrack as suggested before or just move on? This is a tough call to make and depends on how valuable your backup files are to you. Case 3, the old external drive is bad which was proven by installing a new identical external drive and the old actual drive (the drive from inside the bad external drive) turns out to be good. You now have your old backup files back , a new actual spare hard drive, and the old parts leftover from the defective external drive. If this is what happens, I would say, You have won, Congratulations.
The disclaimer (OUCH), almost all of the above has assumed fearlessness on your part when it comes to taking a device apart that you know little about, working with specialized tools, and just having great luck and more time than I do. Good luck in what ever path you choose.
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