I have a hard drive that I suspect has had the master boot partition erased. I'd like to try recovering it, but first I'd like to make an exact copy of it so that I can experiment without worrying about losing all of my data forever. I bought another hard drive, which happens to be the exact same model. What's the best way to create an exact copy of the drive to be recovered on the new drive?
Cloning software is ideal for this. If you bought the drives from Seagate, download their Disk Wizard package from their website for free. It can make clone copies TO a Seagate drive from any source. If you bought from WD, their package is called Acronis True Image WD Edition. Each of these is a VERY good customized version of a 3rd party package, Acronis True Image. Make sure to get and read the manual, because these tools have lots of features you need to find and understand - cloning is only one of them. If you bought from some other maker, check their website for similar tools. They are usually used to help you migrate from an older drive to a new larger unit, and can make the clone so the new unit completely takes over as the C: drive you boot from.
Now here's an interesting possibility. You believe your MBR has been damaged. When you make the clone copy and it is made bootable (the normal default process), the clone MIGHT just have a fresh MBR and Partition Table created on it, rather than merely copying the possibly faulty old one. If that happens, just making the clone might solve your problem. So, once you have that clone onto the new HDD, remove the old HDD and mount the new one in its place and see if your machine just boots up OK.
I've used Acronis True Image Home to clone quite a few disks, and never had any problems. None had damaged MBRs though.
Hmmm, I thought there were utilities which could rebuild the MBR, but I'm up way past my usual bedtime and the fog has set in...
Thank you for the input! I'll give the Acronis software a try. I do plan on trying to repair/rebuild the MBR; I just wanted to do it on a copy in case I screwed something up. That will be nice, indeed, if simply making the copy repairs it for me.
I gave the Acronis software a try and it gave me an error message saying that an empty hard drive may not be selected as the source when cloning. I burned an Ubuntu Live CD and am looking into the dd command. How do I know which drive is source and which destination when they're identical drives both on USB?
I gather you cannot access the original HDD because of its problems. That is a distinction to use.
Disconnect the old troubled drive. Connect your NEW USB drive. I presume it is NOT visible in Windows My Computer because it has not been Partitioned and Formatted yet. If that is so, use Acronis to Create on it a Primary Partition of a size perhaps only half of the disk capacity, and Format it (Quick Format only). When done, shut down, reconnect the old drive, and reboot. Now you'll have one USB drive that does not seem to have anything useful on it, and another with the capacity you made and fully usable, but with no files in it. That may be enough to distinguish the two units when you start up the cloning process. NOTE that if this gets things clear, to actually proceed with the cloning you will have to tell it to Delete any Partition it finds on the DESTINATION (new) drive so that it has room to accept the clone copy. But that was a useless empty Partition you just created, anyway!