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Serviceman's Log

Ever had that sinking feeling when a hard disk drives fails and you haven't backed up critical data? Or have you accidentally deleted one or more important files? Retrieving your data depends on the nature of the problem and the experience of the person doing the recovery.

by the Serviceman

Items Covered This Month

• Recovering data from a hard disk drive

• DAB+ Tuner Fault

• Onix DVD-681 DVD player

*Dave Thompson, runs PC Anytime in Christchurch, NZ.

One of the unforeseen side-effects of the quakes here in Christchurch has been a sharp increase in the number of failing computer hard drives turning up at my workshop. Losing a hard drive to the data gods is bad enough in its own right but having one fail on top of everything else that’s been happening here lately can be a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

There’s nothing new in this. I’ve been harping on in my client news­letters for years now about the importance of backing stuff up. However, the sad fact is that many people don’t do this, either because they don’t know how or because they think that catastrophic data loss only happens to other people. In fact, some PC users aren’t even aware that their drives can fail and blithely go on assuming that the hardware lasts forever.

My advice to such people is very simple. If you’d be in deep water if your hard drive failed right now and you don’t know how to back up, then you should ask a computer professional for advice – and soon. The truth is, backing up needn’t be complicated nor expensive.

So what exactly is a hard drive? Some people mistakenly call everything that’s inside their computer’s case “the hard drive”, as in: “should I bring in just the hard drive or do you want the keyboard as well?”

In practice, of course, a hard drive is a fixed storage disk. Inside the sealed metal case of the drive, a precisely-controlled head skims just above the surface of one or more highly-polished spinning disks (platters), reading and writing binary data in the form of magnetically-encoded 1s and 0s.

Think of an old record player but substitute a small steel disk for the plastic record and replace the tone arm with the read/write head and you’ll get the basic idea. In fact, it’s worth hitting YouTube to watch one running with the covers off.

The wonder is that hard drives last as long as they do, given the amount of work they do. However, the laws of physics do catch up eventually. All moving parts gradually wear out and hard drives are no different. I put the average life of a desktop drive at about three years, with laptop units a little less. The mileage varies greatly though; I’ve seen drives fail within days while others last more than 10 years

But regardless of averages, it’s really a matter of “when” rather than “if” when it comes to drive failure – or at least, that’s my philosophy. And when it does, if your data isn’t backed up, then some form of data recovery will be necessary if you really must retrieve critical files.

The problem is, data recovery isn’t always guaranteed to work, or it may be only partially successful. Data recovery is a complex and all-too-often fruitless process, where success seems to be inversely proportional to the importance of the data to be recovered.

Indeed “Murphy’s Law of Backing Up” dictates that when a drive fails, nothing wanted from it has been backed up (or it was going to be backed up tomorrow) and only junk or easily-replaceable files will be recoverable. Improbable depictions of data recovery in TV shows, brothers-in-
law who “know all about computers” and thousands of ill-informed Internet forum posts on the subject mean client expectations are often unrealistic, with many believing recovery to be a simple process. The reality is somewhat different.

Hard disks fail in different ways and how a repair agent deals with these different failures is what separates the men from the cowboys. Anyone can download data recovery software from the net and set themselves up in the data recovery business but merely possessing such software tools doesn’t make someone an expert.

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