Help-Key: Recovering from a tragic hard drive crash

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Computers are evil, vile machines. They’re smarter than they let on, and they like to mess with us lesser humans. That’s why they pick the absolute worst times to crash, and the hard drive is where they like to do it, making you panic.

But don’t be fooled: you own the computer, not the other way around. It’s a machine, a servant to humans, and though they throw tantrums from time to time, you can wrest control back from them and show them who’s really in charge.

Old hands will find a lot of this redundant, but it’s not for them. This is for the non-nerds, people who haven’t lived in their mom’s basement for, well, ever. They never did.

Read on, data warrior, and learn how to slay the data-thieving dragon within your computer.

The first thing you’ll want to do is make sure you’re actually having a problem. A hard drive crash is the computer’s equivalent of a heart attack: sometimes you get false symptoms, but sometimes they’re fatal. We’re going to check for the former first.

If you’re getting a boot error, turn the computer off and relax for a minute, maybe have a beer. Heat can be a real problem in machines, especially in dusty environments. Let it cool down, and try again.

If it’s still not coming up, try booting off an OS installation CD. These usually have tools to let you check the disk. If it boots from the CD or DVD, use the “repair” feature on a Windows install disk, or the “Disk Utility” on an OS X install disk. These have basic tools that will check for hardware and structure problems on your hard disk.

After it’s done its thing, it’ll come back with a report. It should basically tell you if there’s a hardware error or not, and if there is it should ask if you’d like it to try a fix.

Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it never hurts to try. If after the fix you still can’t get a boot screen, then it’s time for some detective work.

Restart the machine and listen. If you hear what sounds like a grinding noise, or perhaps the ticking of a clock, that’s trouble. That’s a hardware failure, and it’s time to get serious about fixing your disk.

Open the computer up, if you can, and remove the disk. Go to a friend’s house, put it in his or her computer, give them a beer, and boot. If you’ve got it set up as a secondary to his or her drive, it should mount as a second disk, giving you precious moments to offload all your valuable porn onto an external drive. This is a good thing, as you might not get another chance to access this data again.

Back it all up. All of it. You’ll want it later.

If you can’t get it to mount on his machine, and you’re sure you’ve got it set up right, then you’re going to have to practice a little Voodoo.

Put the drive in something moisture-proof, a ziplock bag or tupperware work good. Then put it in your freezer.

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Yes, it sounds silly, but trust us on this one, it works. Leave it there over night. Put it back into your machine in the morning and try a boot. Sometimes, but not always, this will work. When you’re up, back up your data onto your external drive. Please.

If this still isn’t working, and you really want your data, you’ve gotta go to the pros. Or at least Geek Squad. Call those guys, they can often do higher-level repairs than you might at first think. It’s worth a try.

If you’re still not having any luck, you’re going to have to spend the cash and mail it to specialists. They have clean rooms where they can take the disks, that might still be working, and Frankenstein them into new drive units. Sometimes they can repair your drive and reatain your data.

Of course, if you’d been making back-ups, like you should have been, this all would be a non-issue. But you’re human, and we human’s don’t make back-ups, so here we are. Once you get your stuff going, though, you’ll see what you have to go through. Then you start making back-ups.

Alcoholics call it a moment of clarity. We say it’s becoming a responsible computer user. Welcome to a bright new world of less stress. Cheers!

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