Data Recovery – The Easy, Hard and Send It Away Way

When your hard drive fails or your laptop breaks, how do you recover lost data? Sure, having a backup is great.. But what if you don’t? Or what if your backup isn’t so recent?

Just because a hard drive fails or your dropped laptop breaks, doesn’t mean your data is totally gone. In most cases it can be retrieved depending on the damage.

You’re going to have to do a process called Data Recovery. And there’s three different ways, each increasing in cost and difficulty.

The Easy Way:

The easy way to recover data happens when the drive still physically works, meaning it turns on, activates and may or may not mount. This usually happens when a drive is damaged due to vibration / shock and it’s caught early enough before other areas of the drive fail.

Of course, the first step you should take is to review your backup (if you have one). That way, you know what you need to recover and what you can skip. It makes no sense to spend hours recovering a file or folder thats sitting on a DVD or external drive somewhere.

After you’ve reviewed your backup, you’ll need to mount the drive and copy your data from the bad drive to a new place. The following are easy, fast methods to do this:

To easily recover data (Cheapest to most expensive)

- If your laptop still works, attach an external drive and copy the files.
- Boot from a Recovery DVD or External Drive and copy the files.
- Remove the drive from the laptop, read the drive from a different laptop using an external interface such as the Thermaltake USB Hard Drive Docking Station.

If your system won’t “see” the drive but you can hear it turning on and spinning up, you can also start up from a recovery DVD such as the Mac OS X Install DVD and using Disk Utility’s repair function or Windows utilities such as The Ultimate Boot CD or Hiren’s Boot CD.

Alternatively, you can start up Apple OS X into Single User Mode (hold down S at startup) and run the following command:

fsck -fy

With Windows, use the Windows Installation DVD or Ultimate Boot CD, and get to a command prompt. (Select “Repair this Computer” on the Windows DVD) When at the command prompt, type:

chkdsk C: /r

My drive is making funny noises..

If for any reason your drive makes clicks, scrapes and other horrible strange sounding noises – shut it off immediately. These noises happen when the read/write head is damaged and its crashing into the platter – further destroying your data. When this happens, you’re not getting data back through any method other than sending it away to a professional data recovery service. Since that’s super expensive.. I recommend you backup your data regularly!

What is this “the file could not be read or written error”?

This error is common with failed and failing hard drives. It means that file is unreadable. If its super important, make a note and you’ll have to use some of the methods the next section. If its something trivial, don’t worry about it.

Why an external drive and not DVDs?

External Drives are always recommended for data recovery because its faster, easier and less hassle than burning roughly 50 DVDs to recover a 250GB drive. There’s an additional concern though. When burning a DVD, timing is everything. Once the DVD creation process begins, it can not stop. 15 or so years ago, you needed a super fast interface like SCSI to keep up with the process or your disc failed with a “buffer underrun error”. That doesn’t happen much now but, if a file you’re burning to dvd is corrupt / unreadable – the “the file can not be read or written” error will cause the entire DVD burn to halt. If you need an external drive, I recommend the Western Digital My Passport 1 TB USB Portable External Hard Drive

Why not run an automated backup?

Time Machine / Windows Backup are great ways to quickly backup data, which in essence is what you’re doing. However, in this case you don’t want the automated utilities doing the work for you for the following reasons:

- Unless told, they backup everything. You don’t need to waste time on system files.
- Corrupt / Unreadable sections of the drive will cause the process to error out or worse, get stuck.
- You may not get any indication of a problem, or what files didn’t copy.
- They may not alert you to which files are corrupt / unreadable.

I don’t have an install DVD, it’s a “Recovery Partition”

The new trend in laptops these days is to ship the laptop without an Install DVD. Now it’s all on a “Recovery Partition” that you access by holding down a key at boot and reinstalling or “recovering” from that partition.

This is all happy and dandy until the hard drive containing your data AND the recovery partition fails.

What it now leaves you with, is a dead drive and no way to recover other than getting a new drive and a new copy of Windows, or bringing the laptop in for service from an authorized repair center. Either way, they don’t usually do data recovery for you unless you pay for it. And it’s not cheap.

So. If you have a recovery partition, not a DVD, download and create a recovery DVD of your own to help you with extracting the files.

Recommended recovery CD/DVDs are:

- Windows Ultimate Boot CD
- Hiren’s Boot CD
- Knoppix or the Ubuntu Live CD (If Linux is your thing)
- Any recent Mac OS X Install DVD (get one from a friend if you can)

And if you have a NetBook or a MacBook Air with no DVD drive, don’t worry. Each of the above utilities can be put onto a Bootable USB Drive. And for a price, you can purchase the Mac OS X Lion USB Install Drive from an Apple Store.

What files can you skip?

When you do data recovery, you don’t want to waste time recovering unnecessary data. This includes:

- Operating System Files (C:\Windows), (/System, and /Library in OS X)
- Applications – You’ll need to reinstall them anyway.
- Any other random files.

What you need to recover:

- Everything in your User folder (C:\Users\USERNAME), (/Users/USERNAME in OS X)
- Anything else that is your data, not in your user folder.
- If Applications store data or configurations inside their own folders, back them up too.

Just remember, it’s always better to copy more than you need rather than skip stuff and weeks later find out you missed something.

Note: You shouldn’t be saving user data in the root (C:\ or /Macintosh HD/) of the drive anyway. But if you did, backup all your stuff in there too.

The Hard Way:

The hard way to recover data begins when your hard drive powers on but may or may not read anything. I’d recommend trying CheckDisk on Windows or Repairing in Disk Utility (fsck -fy) as that might get the drive to work again. But, if you’re in this far, the drive may be damaged too much for the easy data recovery methods.

For these methods, you will need a different laptop to run the recovery from and an external enclosure to put the drive into.

What you’re going to be doing is removing the drive from the broken laptop, inserting it into the external drive enclosure and running special hard drive recovery software. This software is specially designed to read and recover data that the OS decides it can’t.

Note: These recommended recovery software utilities can work miracles. However, NOTHING can be guaranteed. Also, be mindful that the recovery could take a long time (Days, possibly weeks).

Recommended Hard Drive Recovery Software:

- Prosoft Engineering’s Data Rescue PC 3
- Prosoft Engineering’s Data Rescue 3 for Mac OS X
- The open source PhotoRec

The Last Resort – Send it away.

When your failed hard drive won’t power on, spin up or the read/write mechanism is dead, nothing you can do will help. You know this is the case when:

- The drive does nothing when you plug it into an external enclosure.
- The drive makes really bad noises such as clicks and scrapes.
- The drive is unrecognizable, even when using special recovery software.

IMPORTANT: If the drive makes clicks and scrapes and other bad noises, immediately shut it off. Those noises indicate the read/write mechanism is damaged and its crashing into the platter, further destroying your data.

Before you send your drive away for recovery:

Data recovery is expensive. Very expensive. Think over $1000 and up into the tens of thousands.

Take a moment and think about what you’ll need recovered. Is it really worth spending that much? Also, even with spending that much money, not all of your data is guaranteed to be recovered. It may take weeks for the recovery and when you get it back, it may just be a DVD full of randomly named files.

So, again.. Is it really worth spending thousands?

If so, the Data Recovery Service I recommend is Drive Savers. They’re not cheap but they get the job done.

A word about encryption:

Drive encryption is a wonderful way to secure your data from unauthorized access. However, if the encrypted file is corrupt, no amount of data recovery will bring it back.

When data is encrypted, it is turned into gibberish. What turns the gibberish back into usable data is the encryption key. When an encrypted file becomes corrupt, the data changes and the key becomes useless. Therefore, one of the fastest ways to safely “delete” an encrypted disk is to toss the encryption keys.

Note: Just tossing the keys is a fast way to wipe an encrypted drive. However, its more secure to zero out the data.

So if you’re using encryption whether its TrueCrypt or OS X encrypted containers, BitLocker, FileVault or Windows Encrypted Folders, Backup your data. Even professional data recovery services charging thousands can’t revive a corrupt encrypted file.

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