If you're in a hurry, go directly to Part 2 for the bullet pointed guide.
It's what every PS3 owner dreads. The system freezes and when you reboot you get this horrific message "The hard disk's file system is corrupted and will be restored." "All is not lost," you may think, sometimes all it really takes is to just restore the file system. However, this time it's a hard drive failure. This is when you try to remember the last time you did a system backup, try to remember the passwords for your accounts, wish you were a PS+ member so you could use cloud saves, wonder when you last sync'ed trophies, and think about the hours of lost gameplay. Even now, all may not truly be lost though. In this article I will attempt to guide you through this valley of the shadow of death. There's no guarantee that it will work, but if you're worried about your data, it might be worth a try.
I recently experienced a hard drive failure on my PS3. There I was, getting ready to play some Battlefield 3 but the system froze. I did a reboot and was greeted with the above message. My heart literally skipped a beat, but I thought, "Maybe it'll restore." Several hours later I was faced with the fact that it wasn't going to happen. It would appear to be restoring, but it would get stuck around 40%, then, after an hour or two, would reboot and say the same thing. To some, this wouldn't be that big of a deal, but to me, a self described "Trophy Whore" and White Knight Chronicles player who was just about to move onto WKC 2, this was a travesty. Sure, I had my trophies sync'ed, but my last back up was nearly a year old and even my secondary WKC save backup was months old. I would've lost over a hundred hours of gameplay in WKC alone, probably double that in games that I was attempting to platinum but haven't completed yet.
Of course, I wasn't satisfied all was lost. I scoured the internet attempting to find some solution that could save my data but all I found were shattered hopes. Though I did stumble across something that got my mind reeling. I found a four year old forum post (Link withheld due to the site discussing homebrew on PS3s, which is something I will not endorse, regardless of my personal feelings about it.) talking about using 'dd' to create bit-by-bit backups of PS3 hard drives. So, I thought, assuming it was just a bad sector or two on the hard drive, the rest of the data should still be viable, however the PS3 views the whole disk as corrupted and will always fail when trying to restore the bad sectors. What would happen if I created a 'dd' backup of my drive, then restore that to a brand new drive?
First thing I did was attempt to create a backup of the drive using 'dd'. I had fears that the hard drive would be physically damaged, such as a head crash, where there would be no cheap way to read any data off the drive. Luckily, this wasn't the case. The backup completed successfully and my suspicions that it was just a bad sector or two seemed likely. The next step was getting a new hard drive.
This may or may not cause an issue. Common sense would dictate that you would want to get the same size drive as you started with, however, this may not be the case. I swear I've read of people trying to restore a 320 gigabyte drive image to another 320 gigabyte drive and having the operation fail because it would run out of space. I've tried searching for this a few times since then and have found nothing so maybe I'm just crazy, but I decided to go one size up, just in case. For me, this had the effect of causing my PS3 to see the full size of the drive, but it's only reporting the same amount of free space as before. This should be easily rectifiable by using the system's built in Backup/Restore utility to... well, backup and restore the drive. I haven't tried this though, as the extra space isn't something I'm too worried about at this time.
Once I picked out a new drive, restoring from the image went off without a hitch. Then came the moment of truth. My hands were shaking as I slid the drive back into the PS3 and turned on the power. It seemed like forever, but, as expected, the system complained that the drive was corrupted. As it started the restoring process I tried not to get my hopes up as it would seem to work fine with the old disk, up until 40%. Then, sadness. It seemed as though it was stalling out around 40%, just like before. But then, joy. Where before it would stall out for hours, this time less than a minute later it was continuing the restore. A few minutes later the system was rebooting into the XMB and "all" of my data was there.
I say "all" because, naturally, due to the corrupted sectors that caused the issue in the first place, some data will be corrupted. What it is will depend on what was stored in those sectors. I lucked out and, to the best of my knowledge, only had a few corrupted themes. I haven't tried everything, but it appears that anything that contains corrupted data will show "Corrupted Data" in the XMB, as that's what showed in the themes. Maybe one of my installs or save files is corrupted and I won't know it unless I actually try them, but I doubt it.
When this happened to me I didn't have the extra cash to get a new hard drive right away but didn't want to go without my PS3. So, after I created the backup image, I restored my PS3 to default settings and reformatted the bad drive. This allowed me to use my PS3 somewhat but because I restored default settings, which wasn't really needed, it deleted all my saved account settings. If you don't do this all the system settings like account user names, passwords, and network settings will be retained, as they are stored in the system itself, not the hard drive.
Click for Part 2 where I list the steps I used to restore my drive.