Disk Crash

Following the saga of building a computer, some updates and a rather scary experience.

Disk Crash

Not really a real (hardware) disk crash (happens rarely nowadays), but a bad experience nonetheless. After my new PC had been in use for several weeks, I decided to see if I could improve its performance. Not that it was slow or anything, but the faster the better, right?

A certain software tool which shall remain unnamed offers various ways to analyze and optimize your PC's performance. So, I ran this thing. One of its steps is to test hard drive performance. When I ran this, my PC emitted a loud, sickening, rattling noise which clearly originated in the hard drive.


Sure enough, it crashed, and rebooted itself. But not really. The reboot failed miserably, with some cryptic message about a corrupted boot sector.


So, power the machine down, and do a 'cold' reboot. That often fixes things. No joy, same scary error message. Time to panic now. Even though I had just backed up 2 GB of digital pictures, the rest of my data could be irretrievably lost. Time to think. I got the tools disc that came with the hard drive out of the box. I could actually boot from this disc. It went into DOS mode, and offered to diagnose the hard drive. Sure enough, it detected that something was terribly wrong with the boot sector. If I wanted to repair it, it asked. Sure, I responded.

Big mistake.

Don't know what exactly happened (maybe I did something wrong), but it wrote the boot sector back. In FAT32 format, unfortunately. My drive had originally been formatted as NTFS. Ugh.

Let's cut this story a little short. I went to my local electronics store, and bought a software tool that claimed that it could retrieve data from corrupted and wrongly formatted disks. Despite the claim that it could run from the CD drive, it turned out that it needed Windows to boot first. Unfortunately, that was part of the problem. I could not run Windows because of the corrupted disk.

Aarghh. Only one thing to do. My old computer actually has two hard drives, one exclusively used for data. I copied all the data to CDs. More than 7 GB in total, so that was quite an ordeal (no, it doesn't have a DVD burner, it's an old clunker). Once the data was backed up, I erased the drive, took it out of the old PC and put it in the new one. Installed Windows on the drive, and lo and behold, I could boot again. I could even install my newly bought rescue tool.

Next step: rescue the data on the corrupted hard disk. The rescue tool started analyzing the disk, and after 19 hours (!) it reported that it could not find any data on my corrupted disk. In other words, it was useless, and did nothing that it claimed it could do. So much for that.

I took this software back to the electronics store, and asked for a refund. I knew that (understandably) opened software cannot be returned under normal circumstances. I tried anyway, since the product was clearly defective. The store actually gave me my money back, and I didn't even have to argue all that much. Who says you can't get decent customer service anymore?

All this disk swapping, troubleshooting and everything had taken quite a bit of time and I was getting quite frustrated, and ready to give up. As a last resort, I started investigating the NTFS file format, in the hope that I could manually retrieve at least some of my files. That was a bit optimistic (it can be done, but it'll take until the end of time), however, I saw a link to another product. I downloaded it, and it actually worked! It took about 2 hours for it to show me a list of all my lost files.

This is where the slightly sneaky part came in. Finding the files and displaying a list all worked for free. However, actually copying them to another disk required a rather substantial payment. I guess it's what you want to pay to get your data back. In all fairness, at least this product worked as advertised.

So, I was able to retrieve what I really wanted to get back. More disk swapping required, of course. I bought another hard drive, to put the operating system on, while using the original drive to store data only. So, I have two hard drives now (the corrupted disk wasn't mechanically broken, just corrupted).

Now I have to complain about Windows a bit. When I tried to format the new hard drive to install Windows on, the Windows installer detected the fact that my old drive (with the data on it) was corrupted. Thanks, I knew that. Annoyingly, the Windows installer refused to proceed because of this, even though I didn't want to install on the corrupted disk. That's just stupid. I had to disconnect the bad drive in order to be able to install Windows on the (new) good drive.
In all fairness, after I had gone through this, I reconnected the bad drive (my data was rescued at this point in time), and Windows correctly recognized that the bad drive was indeed bad. It offered to reformat it, and this went without problems.

What have I learned from this? Make backups, make backups, and make backups :-). Also, when some kind of optimization tool warns you that you are doing things at your own risk, they apparently mean it. Oh well.

And, make backups.
Oh, and separate applications and data and put them on different physical disks. If the boot drive gets corrupted, you can at least reformat it without losing your data.

There were some interesting side effects as well. The machine was rebuilt from scratch, essentially. Funnily enough, a minor problem that I had
with the BIOS has now disappeared. This does not make any sense at all (the BIOS runs before the operating system is loaded), but I'm thankful for small miracles. And a problem I had with a multimedia application (the friggin' drivers would get corrupted after a disk defragmentation, forcing a driver reinstall) has also gone away by itself.

So, how am I doing in the backup department now? Better, but I still should do it more often. Some people will never learn..

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