Soft landing for a hard-drive crash

You could run headfirst into a world of misery if you don't get smart about protecting your data.

By Wilson Rothman, Money Magazine contributing writer

(Money Magazine) -- Dave Gerardi, a magazine editor and freelance writer in the suburbs of New York City, was trying to catch up on some work at home. Suddenly his computer screen froze. Thinking the glitch was routine, he restarted the machine.

Then disaster.

"I got a message that said, 'Can't find hard drive,' " says Gerardi. "I started yelling, 'What do you mean? The hard drive is right here!' " In minutes, 10 years of creative-writing projects and photos were erased. "It's pretty much the worst thing ever," he says. "This was a virtual hurricane. I had stuff on there that I couldn't replace."

There are two kinds of people, according to the ancient geek adage: those who have lost data and those who will. When the Fates choose to visit you with a hard-drive crash, it may happen without warning, as Gerardi's did. Other times the disaster will, like the destruction of Pompeii or the sinking of the Titanic, announce itself with strange rumblings, scrapings and other ominous sounds.

The cause could be anything from a software defect to ordinary wear and tear. However the crash occurs, though, there is no easy (read "cheap") remedy for data loss. The only real cure is to keep it from happening in the first place.

Accident prevention

You've heard it before, as often as you've been told to look both ways when crossing the street: Back up your files. Then if your drive does crash, you can buy a new one but move on with your data intact.

Fortunately, you don't have to back up your applications and system data. As a home or small-business user, all you need worry about are your documents, music, video, photos, tax forms, spreadsheets and so on.

Simply keep the disks or the online license information for your computer and its applications in a safe place. Then you can reload them post-crash. Depending on your level of paranoia and the amount of stuff you've got, you can choose one or all of the following methods to protect your data:

Save outside the box. Whether you are worried about your computer melting down or a natural disaster threatening your home, an external hard drive can keep all your files backed up and ready to move. You can get 120GB for about $130, but you can get 500GB for under $250. (1GB holds about 65,000 pages in Microsoft Word.)

It's simple to install an external drive; you simply plug it into your computer's USB port. Ideally you'd copy your files to the drive every week or so, then put it in a safe or a briefcase. External drives can also handle any overflow if you run out of room on your computer or transfer data to a new computer when you buy one.

Unless your computer comes with a good backup program, you'll want to make sure that the external hard drive you buy has this software included. All but the cheapest do.

Stick in your thumb. A similar but more remarkable storage device is the USB flash drive, a paddle-shaped item about the size of a thumb. It typically has 1GB to 4GB of storage and costs about $15 to $25 a GB.

To transfer data, you simply plug the flash drive into your computer's USB port. It has no moving parts and is less vulnerable than an external drive to movement or sudden trauma. "Flash drives do wear out over time, but not like mechanical hard drives," says Rob Enderle, a consultant to many computer companies. "Put a flash drive through the wash, dry it off and it still works."

The major dangers are dropping it into a briefcase and forgetting where you put it or not having enough room for all your files.

Burn your data. If you need to save just a few important files, you can use a recordable CD (up to 700MB, for 25 to 30 each) or DVD (most commonly 4.7GB, for around 50 each). CD-Rs and DVD-Rs can last for decades, but big swings in temperature and humidity can be hazardous to them, so don't store recorded ones in an attic or a garage.

Send your data on location. If instead of a routine backup you need an industrial-size data dump - say, the past 15 years of your home-business records - then you can store your files, as businesses often do, in safe off-site locations.

The option is increasingly available to consumers: Western Digital's WD Anywhere Access software lets you store files on external computers. And Seagate's FreeAgent software now lets you have 500MB of online storage, free for six months. (The price after that is $2.95 a month or $29.95 a year.)

Internet services such as Yahoo and AOL offer lots of space for file storage online at no charge. ISPs do such a good job of backing up their own data, says Enderle; it's a good bet they'll take care of yours too.

That's not always the case with photo services, however. Many reserve the right to toss your pictures after a period of inactivity.

Use what you've got. Vista, Microsoft's new operating system (in all versions except Home Basic, the least expensive), incorporates a Backup and Restore tool. It asks you what folders or file types you would like to keep backed up, then lets you set a schedule of periodic backups.

Available in October, Apple's latest Mac OS edition, 10.5, otherwise known as Leopard, will offer Time Machine, which keeps track of files you may have deleted by mistake. If you use Time Machine with an external drive, it will back up all your files in case your main drive crashes or gets damaged.

When the accident happens

According to Matt Dworkin, an in-home tech-repair specialist on a Philadelphia Best Buy Geek Squad, you should always be on the lookout for indications that all is not well with your hard drive.

If you hear a new whining, whirring or clicking sound and it isn't caused by a CD or DVD left in one of the computer's drives, your hard drive could be headed for trouble.

Other warnings: Your programs take unusually long to load or you get an error message when trying to click on a file or folder. At that point, says Dworkin, you still might be able to burn your most important files to a CD or DVD before your drive hits the wall and obliterates everything. Or you could invest in an external hard drive and offload your precious cargo.

Time may run out, however. "If the damage to the hard drive is affecting Windows system files, you will have problems booting up," says Dworkin. "It may get to a point where the screen says Windows cannot boot. You might hear a beep beep and see a message that says 'No operating system found' or 'No hard disk found' or another similarly unpleasant error."

If you feel comfortable installing and running maintenance software or poking around your computer's system settings, there are a few recovery programs that you could try. Reviewers and consultants alike recommend SpinRite from Gibson Research Corp. for Windows PCs (; $89) and Alsoft's DiskWarrior for Macs (; $100).

These programs run from CDs, and they can take the hard drive out of service, give it a thorough exam, repair most problems, then get it back up and running.

Because such programs are good at diagnosing and fixing little problems before they grow into the big ones that can cause disk failure or data loss, you would be smart to have one on hand before you experience a crash.

If you're too abashed to tinker on your own, you should instead call the computer manufacturer's tech-support line. If your computer's hard drive is still under warranty, the company will either replace or repair it. If not, the manufacturer may refer you to a tech-help service.

Dell sent Gerardi to Kroll Ontrack, an Eden Prairie, Minn. computer-forensics and data-recovery service. Like many such companies, it charges a diagnosis fee, in this case $100. Gerardi shipped his hard drive off to Kroll Ontrack and waited for the verdict. Gerardi could replace the drive for less than $100.

Recovering data, however, can run to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. His final bill totaled a painful $1,965 - comprising $1,665 for data recovery, $100 for the initial diagnosis and $200 for an external hard drive to which Ontrack could transfer the data.

"Just before this happened, I thought, 'I should really back up my stuff,' " says Gerardi. "That added insult to injury." Top of page