Your computer won’t boot up, it’s making a chirping noise, and might display a message about an “Invalid System Disk. Replace disk and strike any key.” Well, things aren’t looking good and even if you get the computer to boot again, I would not rely on that hard disk for too much longer and not for anything very serious. But, there is a small glimmer of hope in the fact that you might be able to at least retrieve some data off the hard disk and reduce the brunt of the damage from hard drive crashes.
If you get a blue screen of death saying “Inaccessible boot device” you most likely have even better odds of retrieving your data. This means that part of the Windows boot process is on a corrupted part of the disk. You won’t want to run off of this disk for long, but you should be able to recover everything but the corrupted sector(s) on the drive.
I’ve encountered quite a few variants of hard drive crashes (either my own, relatives’, or freelance) and can usually recover something from them, if not everything.
External USB enclosure – One of the greatest tools and conveniences to have around in case of hard drive crashes is an external USB enclosure. This would allow you to plug a hard drive into the enclosure (your enclosure would need to be SATA or IDE depending on the drive) and then access the drive through a second machine. This gets around a lot of the problem areas because Windows doesn’t have to boot off of the drive, meaning the system files could be the corrupted area without a problem. The time it takes to get to the drive is also greatly reduced; should the problem be heat-related, you’ll be able to get more files quicker since you won’t have the boot time to wait.
Live CDs – Use a Windows XP (Bart PE) or Linux Live CD to get into your system and see if you can access your files that way and maybe copy them to a jump drive or second hard drive. If it’s just a corrupt system file or system sector, this might allow you to replace the bad file or repair the bad sector.
HDD Regenerator 1.51 – This software has worked a minor miracle for me in the past. Completely repairing a disk that was giving a “bad sector read” error message, so that I could clone it over, made one freelance job a lot easier. The scan can take a long time, depending on the number of errors, but somehow it works and has earned a permanent place among my utilities. If when trying to ghost from a drive you get a “read sector error,” try a disk check or this utility to get things accessible again.
Desperate times… Put your hard drive in a ziploc bag and place it in your freezer for a couple of hours. The drive will warm up quickly when in use, so the longer you have it in the freezer, the longer you’ll be able to get the data off of it if this does allow you access. I’ve only tried this method once and it didn’t help me, but I’ve read quite a few other sources claiming it works enough to get about a 45 minute window of copying data after 4 hours of freezing. I don’t know what it does for it to work; perhaps it cools and contracts some parts of the metal that were out of place or maybe it keeps it from over-heating too fast, purely speculating…
If you now have a working, but unreliable drive: I recommend using an imaging tool like Norton Ghost or one of the many others out there to perform a disk-for-disk clone and get all the info onto a brand-new drive. Storage is cheap. You can get 500 GB drives for ~$100.
How to minimize the impact of a hard drive crash in the future:
Of course you’ll start making routine backups now, so that you will be almost entirely unphased by a hard drive crash. Like a New Year’s resolution, that will last for a week or two. What can you do to prevent these hardware faults?
External drive – You can pick up external drives that are high capacity and portable for cheap these days. You should pick one up and copy particularly important documents to this drive which is going to be run a lot less than your system drive. This should give it a boost in longevity and the added convenience of being portable.
RAID setup – One of RAID’s greatest functions is to provide redundancy (the other is to increase bandwidth in reading/writing data). You can take advantage of this by setting up a RAID one configuration in your machine. RAID has historically been associated with higher-end machines or servers. When it comes down to it, does your data deserve protection too? A lot of motherboards support RAID natively, you can check out the manufacturer’s documentation for your model motherboard or check in the BIOS. It differs per model and configuration. If your motherboard doesn’t support it, you can simply get a RAID card that supports either IDE or SATA drives. A RAID 1 configuration should be sufficient for users concerned about preventing down time/loss from hard drive crashes. With two identical drives, you get the capacity of one of the drives but the reliability that two shouldn’t go down at the same time. If one does die, remove it from the system and replace it with a similar capacity drive or higher and the machine keeps chugging along.
Other solutions might include version tracking software like http://www.trackmyfiles.com/ where you can keep historical copies of documents and files at different stages/version. It would be similar to Subversion, Windows Shadow Copies, or Apples Time Machine, except you know, without the pretentious attitude.