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When is Do-It-Yourself Data Recovery a Good Idea?

What kind of advice on this topic might you expect from the owner of a data recovery firm? In fact, many of my clients do ask me about do it yourself data recovery options. If you thought it would be like asking your barber if you should cut your own hair, or your dentist how to fix a cavity, then the answer may surprise you.

When should you try to recover data on your own?

If you’ve accidently formatted your drive or deleted files you didn’t mean to, prematurely shut down your PC, or have taken on an especially pernicious virus, then you may be able to recover your own data using any of a number of data recovery software products.

Some programs work better than others with specific problems or software to be recovered; they are not all the same. Each software solution uses different recovery algorithms to reconstruct data, and no two programs will provide the same results. Do your homework online before purchasing.

If you attempt your own do it yourself data recovery, then remember this important rule: NEVER RECOVER DATA TO THE SAME DRIVE. The recovered data will overwrite the hidden files that you are attempting to recover; this will severely limit your options if the initial recovery attempt is not a complete success.

When should you seek the services of a data recovery firm?

The answer is simple: Whenever the hard drive appears to be failing.

Here is a short list of some conditions or symptoms that may indicate a failing drive:

  • The drive has been dropped or physically jarred (in this case, it is dangerous to repower the drive, which may increase the damage).

  • If you get a message from the computer saying that the hard drive is failing, and recommending that you back up your data.

  • If you receive a S.M.A.R.T. error (this is an early-warning message of impending failure, not active on all PCs).

  • The drive starts clicking or making abnormal sounds.

  • The computer has been getting slower, and you can hear more hard drive activity.

  • Your computer shows the BSOD (“Blue Screen of Death”) on a Windows PC, or a spinning ball or gray kernel panic screen on a Mac.

  • The hard drive does not appear to be spinning up, or you have experienced problems following a power surge or interruption.

There are technical reasons why you do not want to attempt a recovery if you experience any of the aforementioned conditions. The short answer is that you may make things much worse by trying, and reduce the possibility of a successful recovery, even if you take it to a pro later on.

The “long” explanation has to do with the way that hard drives work. For those who are interested in detail, here it is:

Drives that have been dropped or otherwise damaged may experience a head crash, with damage to the platters that hold your valuable data. The heads of a hard drive are designed to “fly” a microscopic distance above the platters on a cushion of air created by the rotation of the platters. When the drive experiences physical shock, the heads may crash into the platters, which ruins the heads and will likely damage the delicate media as well.

If you are an old-timer, you may remember what happened if you bumped into your phonograph while a record was playing – the needle would skip across the record, and leave a permanent scratch. This analogy works for hard drives, too.

If you continue to operate a hard drive with a damaged head, it may compound the problem and make the drive unrecoverable. The heads will continue scratching the platters and metallic particulate from the platter surfaces will contaminate the drive. We call this “cascading drive failure.”

We often open up drives where it appears someone has tried to recover their own data only to discover that the special coating on the platters that holds the magnetic information has been converted into a powder that clogs the drive’s air filter and contaminates everything else, making recovery impossible.

For drives that have not been dropped, but are in the process of failing, a built-in feature that is designed to make the hard drive more reliable actually ends up making things worse.

During “normal” operation, hard drives may develop bad areas – called sectors – on the fly. Special software on the drive (known as firmware) attempts to move the data to a safe area, and mark the errant sector as “bad”, so that it won’t be used again. This process is known as “sector reallocation.”

If a head is in the process of failing, it may mistake good sectors for bad ones, and start marking them out and moving the data in an almost continuous fashion. Sometimes the list that keeps track of where the good and bad sectors are becomes corrupted, and data recovery becomes more difficult.

Another sign that you have a failure in process is when it takes an unusually long time to copy files from the drive. By the same token, if your recovery program estimates a completion time of days instead of hours, or you receive a warning such as “the process has slowed due to hardware malfunction,” then it’s best to quit while you are still ahead.

Take an expert’s advice: Don’t leave your data in the hands of amateurs.

The Internet is full of “instructive” videos about data recovery. There is no quality control of the information, and you may get bad advice as well as good. Very few of the videos provide contact information in case you run into trouble or need additional information.

Avoid “folk wisdom” such as putting your hard drive into the freezer, knocking it a bit just to “get it going”, and never take the lid off to look or tinker inside. All of these “remedies” are more apt to make your data unrecoverable.

At Data Savers, LLC, we use special hardware and techniques that are designed to optimally copy the data from a failing drive, stressing it as little as possible and minimizing the risk of further damage. We also turn off the drive’s sector reallocation feature in the process, preventing recoverable data from being overwritten. We then perform the actual file recovery from the copy of your data that has been written to another good drive, and thus avoid trying to recover the files directly from the bad or failing drive.

We know that every file on your drive is potentially important, and we at Data Savers, LLC use state-of-the-art equipment and expertise gained from extensive experience to give them back to you.

Data Savers, LLC offers no-risk, free evaluation of your hard drive if you believe it is failing. For more information, you can contact us at 1-866-MY-DATA-4, or use the other resources on our website such as our Free Online Diagnosis tool to get an estimate.