I realize this is not one of your usual #AvGeek stories on AirlineReporter, but if you’re a traveler, writer, planespotter, and/or photographer (and I happen to be all of the above to some degree), then you know that photos, whether they are taken to tell a story or record a memory, are your treasure, the fruits that result from your hard labor.
My photos may not be valuable to others, but certainly they are valuable to me… some might even be priceless and irreplaceable. Given that, you’d think I’d be more careful about protecting them. Heck, I tell others how to protect their data all the time (just ask my wife). Yet somehow, I never did… maybe it was procrastination, or naivete thinking a relatively new laptop wouldn’t fail, but in any case I had the majority of my photos in one place… on my laptop’s hard drive. I will be the first to admit that what I did was stupid.
So imagine that pit in my stomach that occurred when I hit the power button on my laptop and a simple text system notification appeared on my screen: “Bootable device not found…”
My Hard Drive Died… Now What?
So what happens when your hard drive completely dies and your computer won’t boot up? (Quick Tech 101: The hard drive is the computer’s “brain,” and the computer can’t function without it.)
There are different levels of “data loss,” with the lesser types being accidentally deleting files or emptying the recycle bin, and there is software available to recover data in those cases. Here, we’re talking about fatal, physical failures of the hard drive itself, something software will not be able to help.
The very first thing you should do if you suspect a hard drive malfunction is SHUT IT DOWN; turn off your computer, pull out the plug, and do not try to restart. This is especially important if you happened to hear any scratching sounds; if this happens, force shut down your computer, heck, even just pull out the battery if you have to.
After a period of panicking, you pretty much have to skip straight to the step of looking for professional help (from a data recovery outfit, not necessarily for yourself). The fact is that there is no home remedy, DIY, self-help solution for a failed hard drive, and anything you do may even make the situation worse. Hard drives have to be disassembled in a clean room (free of dust, contaminants, and static charge) for the best chance at saving useful data. I’m one of those “let’s kick it”-types in fixing tech problems, and I know plenty enough to have built my own custom PCs before… but even I know hard drives are definitely something mere mortals should not mess around with.
There are several reputable companies that specialize in data recovery for all types of customers and systems, including home users. Some of the more well-known companies are DataMechanix, DriveSavers, and Kroll Ontrack.
I reached out to Kroll Ontrack, which specializes in data recovery from hard drives, memory cards, and other media, among other fun techy things (e-discovery, forensics… destroying data sounds fun), for some advice on how to best deal with the situation. The company makes it easy to request a free quote, and promises someone will call within 30 minutes during business hours, or the next business morning (and no, this is not a sponsored story, just a legitimate way to save your stuff). Or, you can call directly so you can describe your issue over the phone (especially if you followed the advice above in shutting down your computer). After a brief consultation and quote, the service advisor will send a service agreement via email, where confirmation is made, and instructions are given on how to ship your hard drive to a Kroll Ontrack facility.
I’m experienced enough to be able to pull out my own hard drive safely, but the task is not for everyone. If you have ANY doubt, don’t do it; bring it to a local computer repair place and have them pop it out for a few bucks (or, in a pinch, go one of those big box tech stores with their “Nerd Herds” or whatnot). The drive, once it’s out, needs to be in one of those silvery anti-static bags. You don’t want to accidentally fry your drive (again, perhaps) before it gets worked on. If you don’t know what any of these things mean, it’s a good sign that you shouldn’t do it yourself.
When shipping your drive, be sure to use a service that can track your package and has insurance (though it will be for the actual value of your physical drive, and does not include sentimental value). Clients have the option of either providing another hard drive where recovered data can be moved to, or Kroll Ontrack can include the price for one in the final invoice. I was lucky enough to live nearby my designated company facility, so I saved myself the shipping fees by driving and dropping it off myself.
Once the drive has been received and logged into their system, Kroll Ontrack provides online status so the process can be followed along. On the same evening I dropped the drive off, it was evaluated and confirmed that it would have to go into a clean room. None of the data recovery companies will guarantee that data will be recovered; the fees are for the service provided in attempting recovery, perfectly understandable since this is a specialized service that isn’t any lesser or easier if the data is irrecoverable.
On the following day, the drive had been disassembled and inspected. There was a file structure problem, so that was repaired so that the files themselves could be read. A note also appeared to give me the good news: data recovery was successful on all but 5 files, out of 172,634 in total, or about 300Gb worth. By the third day, the drive was boxed and shipped out, and I received it on the fourth day.
In the span of less than a week, my photos and other files were back in my possession, on my very own new external hard drive. Data recovery is not cheap, but may very well be worth it to have all the hard work, memories, and PLANE PHOTOS back.
How to Better Protect My Files and Data
As much as I loved Kroll Ontrack’s service and expediency and am thrilled with the results, I’m sure most of us (myself included) don’t even realize that we hope to live our lives without needing their services. So there are the steps I’m going take to avoid a future headache:
- First, when moving photos from memory card to computer, COPY and paste (or just sync) and don’t CUT and paste. I already do this, and when I can, always have a raw copy just to have. This ties into my next step;
- Buy more memory cards. SD cards are really cheap nowadays, so by having more cards, I can dedicate them to specific events or uses, and don’t have to clear the files out as often.
- Activate cloud storage. I’m going to look at some popular services (e.g., Dropbox, Flickr, Google Photos) where my computer will quietly upload selected folders for storage. One thing to note though: photos will be in a compressed format, so if you take super-hi-def photos, you won’t be happy with the compression. But, if the worst happens to your computer, at least you have a lower-quality-but-still-acceptable copy.
- Use an external hard drive… or two. Backing up locally is the most ideal in terms of ease, just make sure you go with a high-quality drive and don’t skimp. (Author’s note: just to add to the pain, I actually HAD an external drive in my bag ready to back-up my data THE DAY my laptop became a paperweight… don’t delay!)
While none of these are foolproof (external drives crash too; memory cards will eventually decharge; cloud storage only works if files are actually uploaded, etc.), using them in concert with each other will minimize the chance of loss and mitigate losses. The key is to have the files in multiple places.
And if you’re into old school solutions, how about printing out a few of your favorites as hard copy photos?
An Object Lesson: Don’t Be Like Me
Let my experience be a lesson to you, so you don’t have to go through it yourself: Don’t take your photos, documents, files, and data for granted. I’m just lucky that my files were even recoverable, much less actually recovered. I could have saved myself the trouble just by following a few simple steps. Maybe just file this under “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Special thanks to Kroll Ontrack for their assistance in recovering my data. They were a life saver! For more information on their full range of services, visit them at KrollOntrack.com or call them at (800) 872-2599. You can also connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.