DIY surviving a hard drive crash

Elling Lien sends you back in time to save your deleted data.

Have you ever flicked on your computer and had it casually ask you where your boot drive is? Do you know what a blue screen of death looks like? Do you know what a Mac with crosses for eyes looks like? Or, even worse, a flashing question mark?

I don’t claim to be much of a computer expert, but I’ve seen all of those things. And I’ve seen enough.

Last Monday I returned from a short Easter break and my hard drive had crashed. Completely. It was gone. I checked the connections to make sure it had failed. There was a brief moment of panic.
A few seconds later a calm washed over me, like a warm, salty ocean breeze.

Ahhh. Can you feel it?

Well, okay, maybe I didn’t have that feeling, but at least I didn’t shit my pants. I had automatic backups, and I had my system discs, so I knew it wouldn’t take too long to get everything back up and running. After a quick call to tech support to confirm everything was gone, and an attempt to squeeze a few final moments out of the drive by putting it in the freezer (no luck), I mosied on over to Avalon Software to get a replacement hard drive.

One afternoon later, and like that Robert Frost poem about the kid who saws off his hand and dies, I eventually turned back to my affairs.

Hard drives die. Some will die silently, some will die violently, some will die quickly, some will die slowly—but all of them will die. It’s a fact. The hard drive you are using now will eventually die. Likely, your hard drive will die much, much earlier than you will, and if that dead hard drive had something inside it you needed, you will be shit out of luck.

If you plan to rely on a tech person or software to pick your data from your mangled drive, I wish you luck, but, unfortunately, just like no one has ever proven to make contact with a spirit in the afterlife, it’s likely your data will just as far out of reach. And besides, like freezing your body for cryonics (starting at only $20,000 US!) data recovery is really expensive.

Thankfully, being prepared for a hard drive failure isn’t so hard.


Items you will need:
• A time machine.
• A beer or something.
• A pen.
• A sheet of paper.
• A spare hard drive (anything from a 1 terabyte motherload to a USB thumb drive.)
• Another USB thumb drive.
• A Ziploc bag
• Some automatic backup software.
• System software discs.

Okay. So your hard drive has crashed. It’s completely and utterly screwed.

The first, important step is not to panic. The reason you are not panicking is because you are prepared. Relax. Have the beer.
Set your time machine to one month ago. Hop in.

While you’re whizzing back in time, make two lists: one with the location of the files you can’t do without (like, say, your music, or your photos, or your homework folders), and the other with the programs you can’t do without.

Now imagine how much space you’ll need to back up all your files. If the majority of what you do is word processing, accounting, or the scattered music file, you might not have to buy a spare hard drive—who knows? You might even be able to plunk all your backup data on a $20 USB drive. But on the other hand, these days a 750GB internal hard drive will only set you back around 130 bucks. Get the space you need and multiply that by two.

Now it’s time to install the automatic backup software. I’m on a PC desktop, and I use SyncBack Free because, well, it’s free, easy to use, and it does exactly what I need it to. Instead of copying the whole drive every time, it only copies the new files and the files that have changed. For just 40 bucks you can pay for a version that does more, but for now give SyncBack Free a try.

I set mine up to back up the most important files nightly (right after work) and other files weekly (on the weekend). Setup is a piece of cake.

First for the automatic weekend backup, create a new profile called “Weekly” then select the directories you want to back up once a week. Then select the destination folder on your new drive or USB drive. Then, under the Misc tab, hit the Schedule button and pick a good day and time for the backup when you know your computer will be on and you won’t be using it too seriously. (You have to enter your Windows password for this, or it likely won’t work.)

Et voila! You’ve got your weekly automatic backup ready.

Repeat for daily, or monthly, or whatever, and for the first while, be sure to check the destination folders periodically to make sure the files are copying. It may require tweaking.

If you really want to get fancy, you can set things up to FTP your files to a remote server, or sync to a service like Dropbox ( but that’s a bit more complicated.

Now that your important files are safe, get your important programs together. Collect your installation discs from your cupboards and closets. Collect the installers for the free software you use and put that on the other USB drive. Now stick all of that in a plastic Ziploc bag with your system discs, label it DO NOT TOUCH, and put it in a safe place.

Now you’re ready to hop in your time machine and resurrect your data. Life after death!

Illustration by Tara Fleming


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  1. Ross · July 5, 2012

    Sometimes even if that hard drive is clicking like a tap dancer you can try for one last read.

    1)that hard drive you’ve put into a ziplock….put it in the freezer overnight

    2)slave it to another machine(ask your geek buddies if this is already getting too difficult)

    3) try for one last read. It doesn’t cost anything and there is a very slim chance you can at least salvage your Thesis before it bytes the bullet.

    With that said brother, Hard Drives die and backing up data is as easy as a cheap thumbdrive or an external drive. FTP is cool but for the quick and easy stick with something usb.

    Good article man!

  2. Ross · July 5, 2012

    Ah, just noticed your facebook post and that the freezer trick didn’t workfor you. It rarely does but A for effort Elling.

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