Preventing a hard drive disaster

An IBM HDD head resting on a disk platter

Hard drive. Image via Wikipedia

If you’ve ever had a hard drive failure and lost irreplaceable photos and other data, you’ve already learned the hard way. Make no mistake, a hard drive definitely won’t last for ever so if you don’t backup your data, you need to start now to prevent a disaster.

Problem is, backing up your hard drive isn’t an easy process for the beginner or average user. Terms like cloning, imaging, incremental and differential backup are more familiar to geeks and advanced users than beginners, so many just wing it until disaster strikes.

Warning signs of hard drive failure

In some cases, you will start to see signs of a problem before the hard drive fails. Early warning signs include:

  1. Computer freezes often. When it happens, the mouse cursor is unmovable and keyboard input is ignored. Nothing works and a restart is required to recover the computer./li>
  2. Files mysteriously disappearing.
  3. Frequent lock-up during booting. I say “frequent” because all computers will freeze every now and then and it doesn’t necessarily mean the drive is failing. You’re looking for a pattern here.
  4. File access mysteriously slows to a turtle’s pace. Saving files or open files simply takes forever.

(from Hard Drive Failure: Warnings and Solutions; PC Mech)

In addition, you may get error messages during booting or the dreaded clicking sound or strange metallic noises indicating imminent drive failure.

I’m going to try and outline a reasonably straightforward backup strategy where you will always have a bootable backup hard drive with all your data should, or rather when, disaster strikes. We’ll divide it into four parts: (1) purchase a backup hard drive and external enclosure; (2) clone your hard drive; (3) backup your data and (4) recovery after a hard drive failure.

Purchase a backup hard drive and enclosure

I know this seems like overkill but it’s a great help if you get a backup USB external hard drive when you purchase your desktop PC or laptop.Iomega external hard drive We’ll see why shortly. Get a disk that matches the one already in your PC or laptop or one with larger capacity. If you’re not sure of the make and model, in Windows XP, you can find out what hard drive you have by double clicking on the My Computer icon on your desktop, highlight Local Disk C , then select File, choose Properties, then the Hardware tab. That should give the drive make and model. Or use a free system information program like SIW or PC Wizard to get the drive information. The enclosure will have a data cable and power connector to connect one end to the backup hard drive and the other end to a USB port on your PC or laptop.

Clone your hard drive

Assuming you have bought your external drive with your new PC, once you have installed Windows on your new system and your essential application software (applications) like word processor, email client, etc., remove any junk or unnecessary programs using PC Decrapifier. Once everything is set up just the way you want it and the PC is running fine, now is the time to clone or image the drive. You’ve probably heard the terms cloning and imaging and very often they are used interchangeably. I’m going to make a slight distinction which some people make.

  • Cloning is making an exact, uncompressed copy of your hard drive; just a mirror image.
  • Imaging is making a compressed copy of your drive as a file which can be restored or uncompressed back to your hard drive.

I thing cloning is more straightforward for the beginner/intermediate user, at least until you become familiar with the process.

At this point, I’m going to refer you to two excellent articles which will guide you through the cloning process:

Acronis True Image Acronis True Image is an excellent package and well worth investing in for both cloning and imaging.

So now we have a bootable backup hard drive in the external enclosure, with our Windows operating system, and our essential apps. We’re now going to regularly backup our data to this drive so that if disaster strikes we can be up and running again in less that half an hour.

Backup your data

There are different ways to do this from running a batch file which automatically copies your data across to the backup drive to using a backup or syncing program like the free Microsoft SyncToy, Allway Sync or SyncBack. These are probably the best options for the beginner. The important thing is to make sure you have backed up your Documents and Settings folder, including your browser bookmarks. Assuming you’re not using internet email like Gmail, find out where your email boxes are and be sure to back them up too and also any other important data not stored in the Documents and Settings folder. Use Explore to check down through all your folders and ensure that you are backing up all the data that’s important to you including your photos.

Make sure to backup regularly. Twice a week is sufficient for me. I use a batch file and just copy over files that have changed in my important data directories. Probably not a great solution for a beginner but here’s some info anyway.

Here’s a copy of a few lines from my batch file:

@echo off

echo pause

xcopy c:\”documents and settings”\user name”My Documents”\*.* F:\”documents and settings”\user name\”My Documents” /s /e /h /i /r /y /d

xcopy c:\”documents and settings”\user name\”Favorites”\*.* F:\”documents and settings”\user name\”Favorites” /s /e /h /i /r /y /d

echo backup complete

You can add extra lines for each main data directory you want to copy. Just change ‘user name’ to whatever your user name is, and you may have to change the drive letter for your external hard drive letter. You’ll be able to see that in Windows Explore. The xcopy command and the switches at the end of each line are explained here.

Another important point. Disconnect the backup drive when not in use to minimize the chance of any malware getting on it.

It’s even worth disconnecting your PC’s hard drive and plugging in the back up drive before disaster strikes to make sure it’s bootable and you’re backing up all your important data. Follow the procedure in the next section.


Recovery after a hard drive failure

If your hard drive fails, no need to rush out and buy a new drive and restore an image to it. No time lost there so this is a great solution if you don’t have a secondary backup PC and you rely on your PC for work. The beauty of this procedure is that all you have to do to get your PC running again is: unplug and open your PC, disconnect the data cable and power cable from the original dead hard drive and remove it, remove the backup hard drive from your external enclosure and connect up this bootable backup. Your operating system, essential applications, settings and data (up to your last backup) will all be there but you’ll probably have to install some programs which you put on between buying your PC and the disk failure. But this is a good chance to assess just what you were and were not using and be more selective in what apps you reinstall. The other big plus is that your registry is now virtually back to as it was when you first bought your PC and the machine will probably boot noticeably faster.

If you’re not happy about changing over the hard drives or if it’s a laptop and difficult to do, bring it to a reputable repair shop. It shouldn’t cost much to do. Get an estimate first from several shops if you like. Ask your friends if they have used a repair shop and can recommend one in your area. Or perhaps ask a geek friend to do it for you.

One last thing. Don’t forget to purchase a new (bigger) backup drive to go into your now empty external drive housing, and then repeat the cloning process before disaster strikes again. And keep backing up your data regularly.

Hope this has been of some help. Any suggestions to make it all easier? Anything I’ve missed? Drop a comment please and I’ll try and update it.

3 Responses

  1. Zashkaser Says:

    Thanks for the review! I want to say – thank you for this!

  2. techandlife Says:

    Thanks. Glad you found it useful.

  3. dimagromovfoto Says:

    Just wanted to say HI. I found your blog a few days ago on Technorati and have been reading it over the past few days.

Leave a Comment

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment. Please do not use keywords in the Name field. Comments must relate to the post topic. This website is here to help people, not for advertising purposes.

Please complete puzzle and then submit your comment *
Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

` `