Resuscitating dead data

If the components in your drive are still functioning, you can recover the data yourself. If there is mechanical damage, send it to the pros.
Date:31 December 2008 Tags:

That hard-drive crash didn’t destroy your fi les. Here’s how to get them back.

Let’s dispense with the I-toldyou- sos. If you find yourself facing a data recovery job, then you have probably forgotten the cardinal rule of computing: All hard drives eventually fail. And you didn’t back up your data, did you? We’ve been there – hey, everybody has to learn this lesson once. Now what? Panic!

Just kidding. Actually, the first thing to do is determine if it really is a hard-drive failure you’re confronting, and not one of the countless other equipment glitches that can cause a boot failure. If you have access to another computer, remove the failed hard drive from your sick PC, and hook it up as a secondary drive to the alternate computer. The easiest way to do this is through a USB universal drive adapter – it costs very little and is a good device to have around for all sorts of hard-drive diagnostics.

On a Mac, the process is a bit simpler. Use a FireWire cable to hook your nonworking Mac to a working Mac, then, “target boot” the non-working machine by holding down the “T” key as you power it on. With either method, it’s possible that your failed hard drive will show up on your healthy computer and reveal its files, in which case your hard drive is probably fine, but your operating system needs to be reinstalled. (Don’t forget to offload your files before you do that.)

If your files don’t show up on the secondary computer, then you are at one of those pivotal moments in life when you find out how much your hard work and treasured memories are really worth to you. Depending on how badly your drive is damaged, an attempt to salvage your data can cost anywhere from a few hundred rands to several thousand. What’s more, the process can take days – and there is no guarantee that the money and time you invest will produce any results whatsoever.

Now that we’ve gone through the depressing task of properly setting your expectations, here’s the good news: very often, the data on failed drives is recoverable. In fact, it’s surprising how resilient that information can be – just ask any corporate embezzler who thought he had deleted all the evidence from his PC, only to have it show up later in court. The comparison is apt, since the very same computer forensic tools that uncover digital misdeeds are the ones that can find your treasured family photos. (See “Cyber Sleuths”, October 2008.)

There are two ways that drives crash: logical failure and mechanical failure. In a logical failure, the drive’s components are physically undamaged, but because of either accidental formatting or a corrupt file system, the drive is not able to find and navigate its own data. However, unless it has been overwritten, that data still exists on your drive.

A mechanical failure means that your drive has broken parts that are preventing it from working – broken drives often make a telltale clicking sound as they futilely attempt to access their files. If you hear that, your data may still be there, but you’re not getting it back without calling in the experts (see “Worst-case scenario”). And those experts make good money. Data recovery services charge anything from R5 000 to R25 000 (and more) even to attempt to salvage data from either logical or mechanical disasters, depending on the severity of the situation. But if you are just dealing with a logical failure, you can get your files back on your own for far less.

We recently attempted a data recovery from the crashed drive of a Popular Mechanics colleague whose 120 GB MacBook drive had spontaneously given up the ghost. We removed the drive from her laptop, then used our USB drive adapter to hook it up to a desktop computer for diagnosis. We didn’t hear any sounds that indicated a truly dead drive, so our first step was to download the free demo diagnostic tool from Prosoft Engineering to check what might be salvageable. Many companies offer demos that will scan your drive and give you a pretty good idea of what’s recoverable before you lay down money to buy their software.

Once the assessment indicated we’d get good results, we used Prosoft’s Data Rescue II software (it costs under R1 000), which is tailored for the Mac OS and Mac-formatted drives. There are far more options for PC owners, including Prosoft’s Data Rescue PC (for about the same price), as well as Ontrack EasyRecovery DataRecovery (R1 950) and RecoverMyFiles (R590) from GetData.

Most of these products work in a similar way. Install the software, select the defective drive as your source and choose a destination folder to receive the data. (Make sure your recovery drive has enough space for the contents of your failed drive.) Then be prepared to wait, and wait. A full scan and recovery of our 120 GB drive took four days, and a larger drive could take considerably longer.

Recovering a hard drive is a bit like getting back a stolen car – you’ll be happy to have your files back, but the results could be messy. No data recovery program will return your files to you in exactly the condition you originally kept them. These programs are designed to essentially do a data dump from your problem drive to a new drive. Files will be organised by type (JPEG images will be in one folder, Word documents in some other folder, MPEG movies in another) and your songs and photos will be mixed with random sound and image files from your computer’s system folder.

Additionally, the names of all your files will have been changed to various alphanumeric sequences, such as IMG1039.jpg or MOV2010.mov. So be prepared to settle in for a long weekend of sifting through and renaming your files. Oh, and while you’re at it, now’s a good time to buy that backup drive.
 

  • Chris

    I have an old 40 gig HD. that has stopped working. I was told that the board on the drive has crashed. How and where can I get a similar board to fix and get my data off?
    Chris