Painless Data Recovery

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by Mike Elliot

As luck would have it, the week before this column was due to be put (virtually) on our gracious editor’s desk, my computer died … right before the weekend when I like to get up early to write without interruption. Yes, I could’ve used the home computer, but I was busy mourning my loss.

Alright, maybe I’m being a little over-dramatic. My computer did indeed die-but my hard drive was fine. The vendor sent replacement parts the beginning of the following week and after replacing the laptop’s screen, motherboard, CPU, and keyboard I’m back in action. (In retrospect, we believe I had a heat problem caused by a faulty video chipset that over time affected the CPU chip causing increasingly frequent failures.

Last week it got so bad I couldn’t get past the boot screen.) I mention this because I wonder how many people have given up on their cherished digital photos and other data on a hard drive in a dead system.

As of two days ago, I’d have imagined everyone knows you can take a bare hard drive from any dead machine and find a suitable (and cheap) external enclosure to drop it into-even Best Buy sells them now. This is step 1 in hard drive recovery.

So why two days ago? Well, after seeing my kids so easily assimilate the computer into their lives and noting how they intuitively “just know” how to do basic things like move windows around, minimize windows, and understand that the “Enter key” isn’t one of the two buttons below the space bar on my laptop (“that’s a mouse button, dear”), I was reminded that not all have adapted so quickly. My generally very smart and always beautiful wife (and no, she doesn’t read my column. She prefers to read Dr. Reiser’s), needed help yesterday with an Internet problem on the family computer.

As I helped her over the phone from work, I made a few remarks like, “I need to know what it says in the column to the right of the one you just read. Resize the window so you can see more columns on the right,” only to realize after a few seconds of silence that she had absolutely no idea how to accomplish such a rudimentary task. “Nobody ever taught me that!” was her repeated retort.

So I can imagine if there are people who don’t know these things, then there’s got to be plenty who don’t know about the first steps in hard drive recovery. If your hard drive is still functional, you can get nearly immediate access to all the data it contains after plugging the external unit into a free USB port on any other computer (hopefully one that’s got updated virus protection and as noted in last month’s issue, a decent UPS for battery-backed power).

Note that I said data. You won’t necessarily be able to run any applications from it and you certainly can’t boot it from another machine (without some serious tricks anyway). Even if the data is corrupted and maybe even missing, it may be possible to get some or all of it back. If the drive itself is damaged, it’ll likely require the services of a professional data recovery firm (translated: very expensive). Even before getting there, depending on your level of comfort with such technical things, the diagnosis alone may require participation from the local NerdHerd or GeekSquad as mentioned in Part 1. But let’s not go there. I have a MUCH better alternative you need to consider.

You’ve almost surely heard someone pass along the very sage advice: “make sure you backup your data regularly.” But I’m afraid it nearly as often falls on deaf ears. If you’re in the camp of people who’ve put off performing some kind of backupĀ­-DON’T STOP READING-it can be as simple as buying a book from Amazon.com. And you won’t need to read any books to understand how to make it work. But before giving you the best USABLE computer advice you’ve heard in a while, let me first explain a few different methods for reducing the pain that’s part and parcel of data loss for most folks.

The tried-and-true method of manually copying files to external storage is cheap and effective for small numbers of files. The proliferation of low-cost “USB Flash Drives” makes it possible to carry around your most important data in your pocket. “Back in the day” (my first computer was an IBM PC with 2 floppy disk drives), I could cram a copy of all my WordStar documents and a backup of my SideKick TSR data on a single 360KB 5.25″ floppy disk. Just as a point of reference, the USB key on my pocket keychain can hold the equivalent of over 20,000 of those old floppy disks.

But these days, that’s not even enough to hold a week’s worth of vacation photographs.

The old and able method of running a backup program (including the one probably included with your operating system) to save data to tapes or external storage is also a viable alternative, but I’ve found that far too cumbersome to get into a maintainable routine.

I’ve settled on a combination of two methods that I feel provides close to the ideal level of protection for most data loss scenarios, disk imaging and an online backup service. Disk imaging involves taking a complete snapshot “image” of your disk drive in such a way that if you completely lose your hard drive, you can get up and running again after replacing the dead hard drive and restoring the image from remote storage.

I can’t begin to explain the exhilaration of booting up after a total loss to find that you’re right back where you started. The product I use is called Acronis True Image. It’s quite good. That’s how I quickly recovered from my loss a little over 6 months ago. But you don’t have to go that far to achieve adequate backups. I do only because to set up a new computer for my use takes a week of steady work. That’s not true for most users.

Since my drive loss and because imaging requires adherence to a routine, I’ve also been using an online service called Carbonite that performs automatic and unattended backups in real-time. That is, as I change a file, the new version is sent to the online service the next moment I’m connected to the Internet. I don’t need to do anything; it just works. When I lose a file or overwrite some changes I’d saved earlier, I can simply restore a previous version from the service using software that’s linked into my file manager. Granted, getting going initially took over two weeks to get my 80+ GB of data files to the service. But once there, only changes are sent, so I barely notice it running.

Mac OS-X users are fortunate to have a similar capability built right into their operating system, just as cool as the capability is the name they gave it-TimeMachine-just perfect, I think. It allows you to “go back in time” to get any previous version of a file or files desired. Its only major limitation is that it works by storing the version backups on your local hard drive, but can be configured to use a remote hard drive as well. I’m just as happy with Carbonite and like the fact that if I lose my laptop, I can always retrieve my data from the online service.

I honestly sleep more comfortably at night knowing that when (again, not “if”) I next experience a drive failure, that I’ll have much less pain to deal with than my friends who put it off for another day.

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