There was no warning. No “brace for impact” alert. There was nothing—literally.

The failure rate of computer hard disks is about 1% per year. And last week, while the whole country was about to give thanks, my computer’s hard drive decided to call in sick—permanently—making me one of the 1%.

There was no blue screen of death, like the old days, but rather a whole lot of nothing, a blank screen, and endless spinning, spinning, spinning of the hard drive.

“Paul,” I told myself (among a few other choice words), “this is one dead computer.”

Did I panic? Panic is perhaps too a strong word.

Did my stress level bump up a few notches? Most certainly . . . and more than just a few.

  • Were all my data and important files lost?
  • What about my email and other contacts?
  • What about my Web site favorites and saved passwords?
  • Worst yet, what about my music, games, and other media?
  • And just how much down time was I looking at? How was this going to affect my business, communication with others, and—dare I think it—my gaming time?
  • Lastly, why’d I pony up for an expensive, supposedly higher quality machine, only to have it die on me in two years?

There’s nothing like a full-blown computer crash to make you feel stuck, alone, isolated. What was my next step? What was I supposed to do? Where were my “in case of emergency, break glass” instructions?

First, I found some relief in knowing that I had back-ups of my most important data somewhere, out there on the cloud. Apparently, it does pay to plan. I knew my worst-case scenario of losing everything was not in play. I might miss a few things, but for the most part the important stuff was safe and secure, awaiting my “restore” command.

Once I calmed myself with a big, deep breath in and a walk around the block, I realized my biggest challenge was going to be the downtime and the technological disconnect. Luckily, I still had my iPhone and iPad to keep me from suffering withdrawal too badly. I could stay connected by email as needed, but my productivity would be taking a hit, big time.

My first order of business was to determine if my trusty computer companion of two years could be fixed—and if so, how much of its onboard operating system and applications could be recovered?

That’s one thing about replacing an old computer with a new one. Invariably, the old one, even with all its quirks and shortcomings, is like an old friend. You know everything about it; you know how it’s going to respond in most situations. It’s predictable, comfortable. You’ve spent years customizing it with everything from folder structures and file locations, to shortcuts and custom toolbars. Simply loading the same operating system or programs onto a new or repaired machine is not the same. They will be in their “default” states. It’ll be just like starting your friendship from scratch. Say goodbye to productivity (at least for a while).

Sure, I could have looked into Disk Mirroring and Disk Cloning as ways to store full copies of the entire contents of my hard drive, making for easy replication in the event of a failure (at least in theory), but who has time for all that? I’m not trying to run a server farm here—just a small business PC with (ahem) occasional gaming applications.

I took my PC to a local tech shop. Their diagnosis? Dead hard drive . . . which was no big surprise. The rest of the computer got passing grades, though, so the “patient” wasn’t entirely dead, just in need of an organ transplant and some TLC.

Some of you may be wondering, couldn’t the defective hard drive be somehow resurrected? After all, don’t they do that all the time on various forensic-based TV shows, accessing data from smashed and burned up hard drives that are surely worse for wear than mine? The answer, of course, is a resounding “maybe.”

TV shows are one thing, and while the FBI and forensic labs have some might impressive recovery tools, don’t hold your breath. Recovering data from a toasty hard drive is iffy at best, and not cheap. The best way to recover data is to have a backup plan in place . . . and to adhere to that plan strictly, just in case you become one of the 1%.

Full backups are where you copy of all data files from your computer either to an external hard drive or to rewritable CDs or DVDs on a weekly basis. This kind of back-up is recommended for average to below average volume users as the data (and DVDs, CDs) tend to pile up fast if you’re anything more. Plus, relying on this kind of manual back-up for higher volume users can get pretty labor intensive, leading to missed back-ups and inevitable data loss.

People who work from home or who want to back up computers used in their small businesses should consider using an external hard drive or a cloud-based (online) service so they can back-up their data on an incremental, real-time basis. In this scenario, you’d first make a full backup and then only backup files as they change over time. This kind of backup is usually done automatically, running in the background of your computer, and is my recommended approach. The cost of such services is relatively cheap at $50 +/- a year, plus I figure should a worst case scenario happen, such as a fire in my office that destroys my computer and my external hard drive, I’m still “good to go” with my back up out on the cloud.

Some of the top services recommended for cloud-based (online) backup are MyPC Backup, Just Cloud,  BackupGenie, IBackup, Zip Cloud, SugarSync, Mozy, Crash Plan, and Carbonite.

I’m now about a week removed from that most dreaded of days, slowly piecing together my data files while reloading software and re-customizing. Who knows, I may even make some productivity improvements.

I find it somewhat ironic that my crash and subsequent recovery took place around the Thanksgiving holiday. Guess I can add one more thing to the list of things for which I am grateful—the ability to transform potential catastrophe into mere inconvenience with a little preparation.

What has your experience with computer crashes and recovery been like?

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