Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Author Tech: Protecting and Restoring Your Files

When I was young I had an acquaintance who was a great mechanic. He enjoyed rebuilding old cars much like this author does today, but my friend was far more experienced and knowledgeable. In fact, it was a matter of some pride to him that he could tear down and rebuild an engine in less than six hours. One day, when I was admiring his hot rod, he admonished me never to tell anyone he was a mechanic.

"Why?" I asked. "Don't you want people to know how good you are at this?"
His response: "Hell, no! Every time someone finds out I can fix cars, I spend all my time fixing theirs!"

He had learned over time that even though any fool can master basic mechanics, the majority of people in this world are simply too lazy to take care of their own problems. Because of that, they view their less lazy counterparts as a resource, which rarely works out well for the mechanic because he ends up spending all of his personal time fixing other people's problems. Usually, this is expected of him and there is no form of compensation other than a friendly "thank you" and perhaps an invitation to dinner. At some point, this inevitably leads to hurt feelings.

These days I often joke that computer techs are the "mechanics" of the digital age. Vehicles have become so sophisticated that very few home mechanics exist anymore. On the other hand, lots of home-techies know how to build and upgrade PCs. I've been building computers since 1992. I also worked at Hewlett-Packard for a short time, building circuit boards. When people learn about this, they often come to me for help with a computer that's crashed, running slow, or infected with a virus. These days I usually just keep the computer at my house for a few days, until I find the spare time to work on it. So, in a way, I have turned out to be a lot like that mechanic. But I don't mind sharing my knowledge, and if you don't have a resource like me around, perhaps I can help you figure things out on your own.

I'm going to assume you understand the basics of what's inside your computer because I want to deal with the technical issues and workarounds. If you don't have a basic understanding of PC components and troubleshooting, try these links:

The topic of this post is about saving and restoring data. Obviously, we're all concerned with preserving important documents and records from our computers. A good way to do this is to buy an external hard drive to use as a backup. You can purchase these quite inexpensively and most will simply connect to your computer by USB. You can plug them in and start backing up important files immediately. Some have software that do this for you automatically. That way, when your PC does eventually crash, you already have the good stuff saved. These drives will most likely outlast the drive in your PC and when used correctly, are unlikely to fail in their first few years. Unfortunately, external hard drives aren't infallible. They can crash or be damaged by a virus in a worst-case scenario. So what then? Well, if you only saved your date to an external hard drive, you'll probably have to send it off to a data recovery center just like a regular hard drive. However, if you correctly used it as a backup, you should (hopefully) still have a copy of your important files on your PC. The general idea being that both won't usually crash at once.

Many writers and artists now use USB or other flash drives to back up important files. The advantages of these are plentiful. Flash drives are cheap and sturdy. They have no motors or complicated electronics to fail. They are also portable, going from one PC to another, or to a laptop, and right into your backpack, purse or pocket for travel. The odds of destroying your PC and flash drive in the same day are... well, improbable.

Finally, there is one nearly infallible way to manage your files that may have never even occurred to you. Periodically, through my first drafts and revisions, I send a copy of the document to myself via email. It's that simple. My email server (the internet provider) saves all of my documents, even after they're download. If I ever have a fatal crash, I can simply log into my email server and download my documents all over again. Granted, this does have its drawbacks. I often end up with several thousands messages stored on my server, and sorting through them takes time. Downloading them takes time as well. It's not perfect, but it's nearly foolproof.

So let's say you have a worst-case scenario. Your laptop has crashed with all of your important files, it's out of warranty, and you can't afford to take it to the pros. You're pretty sure the hard drive was working, but the motherboard or some other integral component is toast. What do you do? This one's easy. Go to Ebay and search "Laptop hard drive adapter." These guys cost $5-10 max with free shipping and they come in SATA or IDE versions.

It's usually one screw to remove a laptop hard drive (see your manufacturer's website or run a quick Google search if you can't find it). Most laptops have access panels on the bottom that allow you to replace the hard drive, memory, and other upgradable components. Assuming the hard drive is indeed good, you can remove it, plug in the adapter, and then connect it via cable to a desktop PC. If you don't have room to plug in the hard drive, you may be able to temporarily unplug your CD/DVD drive and use that cable. Alternatively, if you have a SATA drive and need to connect it to an IDE interface, Ebay sells those adapters as well. 

With the old hard drive connected to your desktop PC, fire it up. The BIOS should detect it automatically, but you may have to confirm the detection or manually go into the BIOS and tell it the hard drive is there. After you're done, you can clean out your personal information and sell the hard drive on Ebay, or you can store it for safe-keeping (probably a good idea if you have information that's very important on there.)

Another handy tool is data recovery software. This is what you need after a computer crash that leaves the hard drive functional, but data is lost. This might happen because of a virus, a Windows crash, or because you accidentally deleted something and now you want it back! Many types of software can recover lost and deleted files, and many of them are free. Some have limits on how many files you can restore, etc., before you must purchase the software. My advice is to head over to and try a few freebies. Features and prices vary, so its always best to test them before buying. Some programs require you to know file names, others will let you scan for file types or scan an entire hard drive for everything that's recoverable. If you're looking for one or two very special files, you can probably recover them without it costing a cent.

Okay, another worst-case scenario: The computer crashed because the hard-drive quit responding. It didn't make any weird noises, but it either no longer boots or it gives you strange error messages. Assuming the mechanics inside the drive are indeed functional, a replacement control board just might get you running again. Try this: search Ebay for the exact model of your hard drive. You can buy a used replacement drive or control board fairly cheaply, but you MUST make sure it's the exact same drive, model number, part number, etc. Even if it's one number off, you may irreparably damage your drive and lose that information forever. 

Once you have your replacement hard drive/ control board, you can remove the damaged control board and install the new one (usually this requires a torx-head screwdriver or bit).

For what it's worth, I've used all of these tricks over the years, and haven't had a catastrophic loss of data since 2000. Which, incidentally, is when I started learning all these tricks. 

*All images in this post are random fair use representations from around the net. The author makes no claim to ownership, nor does the author imply that these items will solve your problems. Any damage and/or expense that results from an attempt to repair your own system is the sole responsibility of the user. 

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