What To Do When Your Hard Drive Crashes

About 15 months ago now, the hard drive on my MacBook suddenly and inexplicably failed. This led to a couple of incredibly frustrating months, and since I don’t want others to have the same negative experience I had, I thought I would share a few tips that I learned the hard way:

(1) Back up your computer to an external hard drive. 

Of course, if you’re reading this after your drive has already failed, this isn’t a helpful tip, but if you’re reading this before you’ve had hard drive trouble, it is something that you should absolutely do. Especially now that you can get 500 GB external hard drives for under $100, this is a preventative measure that will save you a lot of money and headache. 

Apple has a built-in application called Time Machine which is simple to use and does a great job of backing up all of your data, and I’m sure that Windows has some (clunkier, less cool-looking) equivalent.

I have a 500 GB external drive on my desk at work, and I back up my computer at least once a week. It’s as easy as plugging the drive in and selecting “Back up now”—completely painless.

(2) Try the simple steps to re-boot your drive. 

These steps depend on what type of computer you have, but usually there are a few troubleshooting tips to follow—giving your system a “hard” restart, using the hard disk repair software that may have come with your computer, seeing if another computer can recognize your hard drive as a “target” disk, etc. If your hard drive failure isn’t too bad, then one of these steps might work and then you should immediately back up all of your data in case the problem reoccurs.

If these steps don’t work, then do not keep trying them over and over again. If you have a hard drive that has really failed data recovery services consistently claim that continuing to do so decreases the likelihood that they will be able to retrieve your lost files.

(3) Figure out exactly what data you have lost.

If you have backed up data already, then you just need to get a new drive, install it, and copy your old data onto your new drive.

But assuming you didn’t back up your data, you’re now stuck with a drive that doesn’t work but has all of your old data on it, and the next step is to figure out exactly which files you have lost. For me, my MacBook was my everyday computer, but I still had files stored all over the place—on my old iMac, on multiple flash drives, uploaded to the internet, and on a couple of the computers at the church building.

In my case, I basically realized that I was missing files only from the last year, with a few sermons, pictures, and other files randomly backed up on flash drives.

(4) Determine what your lost data is worth.

Once you have a pretty good idea of what files you are missing, the next step is to determine what that data is worth to you. 

Different people use their computers differently, which means lost data is more important to some people than to others:

Media Storage: Many people have a lot of music and video files on their computers which may be worth a lot of money. Of course, if you’ve purchased these files through a service like iTunes, you can usually just re-download them without much trouble. If you have a lot of files that cannot be replaced without spending money, you should factor that into how much your data is worth. In my case, all of my music files were backed up to my iMac, so this wasn’t a big problem. 

Clutter Files: This would include things like email attachments that you had downloaded but didn’t really need to save, or in my case, things like undergrad school projects that I would never conceivably need for anything again. In a sense, this is actually one of the only good things about having your hard drive fail—it destroys files that were cluttering up your computer that you had never taken the time to get rid of.

Work Projects: Obviously, work files vary a lot depending on what kind of work you do. In my case, I completely lost several sermons which I didn’t have backed up anywhere else. I still had the powerpoint presentations for those sermons on another computer, but the vast majority of the content was just gone. I also do a lot of graphic design work, and there were several projects that I lost. Finally, I completely lost access to a couple of web design projects that I had spent a lot of time on.

Work projects can often be replaced, but it can take a great deal of time to do so. And when it comes to things like crafting sermons or doing design work, there is an artistic element that can never quite be duplicated—I might be able to replace a sermon on Job with another sermon on Job, but it will never be the same sermon. For a person like myself with perfectionist and obsessive tendencies, that drives me nuts.

Determining whether or not you can replace your work projects or if you have the time to do so is an important step in assigning a value to your lost data.

Programs and Applications: Some people use only the basic programs that came with their computer, while others have hundreds and thousands of dollars of add-on applications that they use on a regular basis. If, for whatever reason, you don’t have the original install DVDs for lost programs that you need, then that also impacts the value of your lost data.

Irreplaceables: This would include things like family photos from the once-in-a-lifetime trip you went on last summer. Assuming that the photos are no longer on your digital camera and that you haven’t uploaded them to a web host like Flickr, then they’re gone and can never be replaced. Depending on how sentimental you are, lost photos might represent a great deal of value to you.

(5) After doing careful research, choose a data recovery service.

If you have followed the steps so far, by now you should have an approximate value in mind of what you would be willing to pay to recover your lost data. And honestly, if you’re not willing to pay at least several hundred dollars, then you should probably stop right now because data recovery is really expensive.

A simple internet search will yield a ton of results, but usually you have to actually call and speak to someone directly before you can get any sort of price quote. You’ll likely find a wide range of responses (from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars), but don’t automatically assume cheaper is better. In fact, before sending your drive to anyone, make sure to look for reviews from other customers who have used the company.

In my case, an internet search led me to Fields Data Recovery, who claimed to have cheaper prices and also to provide a free inspection and price estimate. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after I had sent my drive in and hadn’t heard anything for several weeks that I became alarmed and performed a second web search where I found multiple websites which revealed that Fields, at best, engaged in some bad business practices and, at worst, was basically a scam operation. It wasn’t until after my awesome sister intervened with the threat of legal action that my drive (still damaged) was finally returned to me. 

Another (more diligent) search led me to Eco Data Recovery, who had my drive for a few weeks before determining that it was so damaged that almost none of my files could be recovered. To this day I am unsure if the original failure was so severe that it completely destroyed the drive, or if the unscrupulous characters at Fields damaged my drive to the extent that the people at Eco couldn’t do anything about it. The people at Eco were friendly and easy to work with though, and also competitively priced, so if I ever find myself in this situation again, they are the ones who I am likely to call first.

Conclusion—Lessons learned

All in all, the process of having my hard drive fail turned out to be very frustrating, as I went weeks without a computer, lost money in postage and evaluation fees, had to deal with some unsavory semi-criminals on the phone, and ultimately, didn’t get my information back. However, the whole experience did teach (or re-teach) me three valuable lessons:

(1) Always back up your data. I should’ve known this before, but now it has been driven home. I back up my laptop regularly in hopes that I never have to deal with this issue again.
(2) Be careful about who you trust on the internet. Even kids are taught this today, but if you’re not careful, it is easy to get suckered by someone on the World Wide Web who isn’t quite what they seem. Spending a little more time in research can save a lot of money and heartache later on.
(3) A lot of things that seem so important really aren’t. I felt completely at a loss with all of my files gone, but now, over a year later, I can see that it wasn’t really a big deal. A lot of the files I was able to cobble back together or replace. Those others which I haven’t been able to replace may annoy me from time to time, but ultimately, haven’t changed my life.

So there you have it—my tips on what to do if your hard drive crashes. Hopefully you can use my (bad) experience to prevent an annoying occurrence from becoming a big deal.


Noiln 3/20/12, 5:11 AM  

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Luke 3/20/12, 1:54 PM  

Hey Noiln,

While your company may be “aimed at to give wings to” my business, I’m doing fine without wings at this point.

I’m also fine without spam comments on my blog—please refrain from posting them in the future.

Ruby 3/31/12, 11:34 AM  

A hard drive crash is probably the worst thing that could ever happen. This is the reason why backups are important! My friend uses his PC's backup feature, saves on an external hard disk, and online. He does it all the time to be certain that his files will never get lost in case his hard drive crashes. Well, that would use up time, but it's efficient at the same.
Ruby Badcoe

New Energy 4/3/12, 4:18 AM  

Hi Luke,
I have to say that the image of the broken hard disk at the top of your post really broke my heart, because I can imagine how someone feels in such an event…
However, regardless of how bad it can be, it’s not the end of the world, and there a few things to do to make sure everything works as before and it is “business as usual”.
It doesn’t help to cry over spilt milk and it certainly doesn’t help to hand your damaged hard disk to any dubious Internet companies claiming to have the solution for any of your computer-related problems and part with your money, until you realize it’s too late.
As you said, in case you don’t have a back-up copy saved somewhere, the first thing to do is to evaluate the situation and check what data were lost and how important they were to you. The next thing is to search in your email folders, other computers you might use, USB sticks, DVDs, CDs, even the old floppy disks, where you may have any saved information and recover it from there in your new hard disk.

Luke 4/3/12, 6:44 PM  

New Energy,

Thanks for the comment—I certainly felt heart-broken when it happened, but as you said, it's not the end of the world.

I am diligent to back up my data now though.

Benita Bolland 9/25/12, 3:49 PM  

Lost or corrupted data from your PC can cost you a lot. Aside from the time you will need to retrieve the files, it can also hamper your work and delay your computer-related activities. That is why it would be best to have some backup on the side. Saving your files on an external memory can save you from the hassle of retrieving the lost files. Always keep a spare memory in the event of a computer crash or data loss.

Shania Simpsons 11/27/12, 7:48 AM  

The saying, “Prevention is cure” is very much applicable to hard drive crashes. Yes, you can avail data recovery services, but it can take time and cost significantly more than backing up your files. Hence, if your company or business has a lot of files for safekeeping, creating a backup is more important than ever.

Lakisha Rubert 12/20/12, 6:11 AM  

I particularly like tip number 4. In the event that your hard drive crashes, it’s important to contemplate whether the files are crucial or not. If it’s the former, then you would most definitely require a data recovery sentence. If it’s the latter, then I think it would be better to let those files go. Thanks for sharing your insights, Luke!

Luke Dockery 12/21/12, 3:47 PM  


Thanks for the comment! Determining the value of my missing files was definitely a big part of the process for me. Data Recovery services are expensive, so it's important to make sure that it is worth it to you.

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