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Your hard drive is about to fail, it might be next week, next month or next year.

Mine failed last week.

Summary of this article

This article tells you how to recover from a hard drive failure. It presents my particular issue as an illustration.

To smooth recovery when this happens to you I recommend you install a third party backup application like Acronis. Then verify that these are working,

  • Recovery media (aka a Rescue Disk or Rescue USB stick)
  • Daily backups to external media – our real backup
  • Optionally real-time backups to the same disk – for accidental deletions
  • The application’s boot-loader so you can boot into the recovery utility if the disk is not totally dead.

How I broke my computer

I suspected that my Dell studio 1558 laptop had video driver problems. Sometimes when disconnecting from a projector I would see the blue screen of death (BSOD). I decided to update the video drivers and downloaded the ATI catalyst application. I ran this and immediately got the black screen of death. At the time I did not know that this is a common result of using the ATI catalyst application.

  • Don’t install ATI Catlayst
  • If it is necessary to update your video drivers go to your manufacturer’s website and download them from there. Dell is particularly good in this respect because you can type in your Tag from the bottom of the machine and be given a list of drivers to download.

The laptop would still boot but after Windows had loaded and as soon as I logged in it would immediately turn off. This is the black screen of death common to ATI driver issues.

The remainder of this article discusses how to recover from a hard drive failure.

Can Safe Mode Fix your problems?

Very often a quick fix is possible (~ 1 hour) with no danger to data using Safe Mode.

If you are having problems and Windows asks you to boot into Safe Mode, say “yes” and then see if you can login to Windows and do an “System Restore”. This will fix many issues and will not affect your data. A similar option is to boot to “last known good configuration”.

To get offered the chance to boot into Safe Mode,

  • It might be automatic if Windows detects a problem
  • Press F8 (or F5) during boot
  • Shift-click on Shutdown when exiting Windows (assuming you can boot to it at all)

If a quick fix does not work we have to accept that we have an expensive problem. It is going to take several hours to fix the machine and we may need to purchase a replacement hard drive.

Set your recovery goals

We need to accept that we have got about 7 hours of work ahead of us. We have two goals, first, ensure that we don’t lose any data. Second, get the PC booting again.

Secure the data (2 – 8 hours)

Any attempt to repair a Windows boot disk can result in total data loss. We must copy off existing data.

To do this you will need an additional PC, a USB Drive Dock and storage capacity and about 1 hour for each 100 GB of data to be copied.

  1. Remove your hard drive from the PC
  2. Put it in the USB drive dock
  3. It will appear as an additional drive on the host PC (if not see below*)
  4. Ensure that you can see hidden folders in Windows Explorer (Windows Explorer> organise > folder and search options > view > show hidden files folders and drives). This is because things like bookmarks and Microsoft Office templates are stored in hidden directories.
  5. Copy off all the data to a safe location
  6. Eject the drive
  7. Job done! If the worst happens and you lose your disk your data is safe.

The safest option is to put the broken disk somewhere safe and do a recovery to a new disk – you can take this as an opportunity to get a larger or faster disk such as an SSD. If you don’t want the additional expense or are running a backup application that stores the backup set on the disk itself then you may choose to put the disk back into the PC and attempt a recovery to it.

* If your drive is not readable, there may still be data on it that can be recovered by a specialist (search “Data Recovery”). You should purchase a new hard drive and continue with a clean install to get your PC booting again.

Attempt a Recovery

There are several possibilities and in order of preference,

Use your back-up application (5 min + 1-10 hrs RESTORE)

(You do have a backup application don’t you.)
If you have a backup applications such as Acronis you should be able to recover relatively simply.

  • Run the application either,
    • Press the magic key (usually one of F11, F12, F5, F8) after turning on the PC and you should be prompted to run the recovery application (if you installed its bootloader). OR
    • Use the recovery media that you created when you installed the application

Follow the instructions. You may have an option like “fix drivers” or fix boot, if not simply restore the most recent backup. It should work – after all that is what you are paying for. A typical restore takes about 1 hr for each 100 GB in the backup set.

Use your built-in recovery system (1 Hour+)

Many PCs come with a built in recovery application. Press the magic key, usually F8 or F5 during boot and you may get a prompt such as “Run Dell Recovery Manager”. Follow the instructions carefully noting whether the system promises to restore drivers (which may keep you data intact) or restore to factory condition, which will delete all your drivers and data.

An alternative is to use the recovery media that you created when you purchased the system.

Use Windows RepaiR (1 hour+)

Insert the Operating System disk* that came with your computer and turn the computer on. Press F12 (Boot Options) and choose “boot from CD”. The program will take about 2 mins to load and then prompt you to install or repair windows.

Choose repair

  • Warning, this can take several hours and cannot be cancelled. If you turn off the power you can damage your disk. I did turn the power off and afterwards the PC would not even turn on.
  • There is no consensus on the net about how long this should take. One professional says that if it has not worked within an hour you should purchase a new drive and do a clean install.

* If you don’t have a CD drive get a friend to create a bootable USB drive and to copy the Windows installation files to it.

Reinstall Windows (8 hours+)

Do a clean install of Windows from CD or a bootable USB stick. You will lose all your data. You will then have to turn on Windows Update and leave it running/rebooting for one or two days until you have got an up to date version of Windows. You can now reinstall your programs and copy on your data from your backups.

In Conclusion

My existing backup solution was buggy and could not restore an image. I had to do a clean Windows install to a new hard drive. I had copied all the data off my old hard drive and had multiple backup sets so I did not lose any data. It took me about 50 hours work to get back to where I started.

I have now purchased Acronis software and hope that when this happens again the recovery is much smoother.