Tuesday, May 25, 2010

For Every Step Forward, Remember To Backup (at least) Twice

Okay, that title probably doesn't make much sense...unless you have a slightly geeky mind. That's right, once again I come to you with computer advice. And, of course, the best entertainment advice comes at the expense of others...mainly myself.

The Setup
  • a laptop with Windows XP -- 5 years old
  • 35 GB hard drive -- 4 years old
  • a USB splitter (2 ports become 5) -- 5 years old
  • a SimpleTech 160GB external hard drive -- 4 years old
    • which holds:
    • the majority of my Word Documents (including 116pg Senior Thesis)
    • all my Excel, Powerpoint, and Adobe Documents
    • all my Pictures
    • all my Music
    The Problem

    Now, flash back to last Wednesday, the 19th.

    There I was, listening to my music, surfing the net, goofing off, when I decide it's time to update my profile picture. I take the pic then unplug my printer to hook up my phone. I get the pic off alright, then start cropping it and resizing it. Once I finally get it how I want, I go to save...and I get an error message.

    E:/ is not accessible.
    The file or directory is corrupted and unreadable.

    E:/ is my external hard drive, where I keep all my larger files--pictures included.

    Now, as I have music playing, I'm thinking there must be a mistake. Maybe one of the USB ports has finally broken down. I close iTunes, unplug my hard drive from the splitter, as well as my phone cord, and try switching ports.
    I think I should also take this time to interject that you should always select the "Safely Remove Hardware" icon in the bottom bar when disconnecting important hardware. I usually ignore it in regards to my printer, but it's always a good idea to use the tools available to you.
    Once plugged in, the computer acknowledges that something is there, but when I go to access the drive, I once again get that pesky message:

    E:/ is not accessible.
    The file or directory is corrupted and unreadable.


    Now I'm getting worried.

    I rush back to my browser and start Googling my error message. I get some advice about reestablishing drivers, checking for driver updates, etc. I try it out...

    E:/ is not accessible.
    The file or directory is corrupted and unreadable.

    Okay... Let's try "free file recovery"? I get a lot of links. Phew.

    I download one and, lo and behold, it can read my E:/ drive! I tell it to start recovering my files...and it starts copying them onto my C:/ drive. Well...that's all well and good, I suppose, except for a couple things...
    1. I have right around 100GB of files on E:/ and only 11GB open on C:/...
    2. The free/demo version only copies files under 64KB in size... which doesn't include my aforementioned 116 page Senior Thesis
    The full version costs $40. Well, that was a bust. To the recycle bin with you.

    I think I downloaded 10 other programs that day:
    • 4 were "Recover DELETED Files" only (mine aren't deleted, just inaccessible)
    • 3 were "Demo" versions which let you see the files you wanted to save, but required you to purchase the product in order to save/copy them
    • 2 were "Free Download" then "Purchase the Product Code" before you even got to use the product (usually around $40 or $50)
    • 1 actually did what I wanted AND was free.
    Luckily, that's all it takes! Well, for me, at least.

    The Solution

    TestDisk, Data Recovery is an Opensource software - which means that it gets all its coding from volunteer programmers, and all the coding is viewable. If you're a DIY-tech person, always look for Opensource programs.

    Anyway, I'm not a tech-person, I just play one on TV my blog. If you're really interested in the specifics of the program, click that link up there and it'll take you through all the partition tables and Master Boot Records and that gobbledegook. If you're wanting my (possibly incorrect) spin on things, read on!

    What TestDisk allowed me to do was go in through DOS mode and access the E:/ drive. There I was able to try repairing the Master File Table...but I don't think it worked. See, how I understand things is...

    The hard drive works sorta like a tree.* There's a single point of origin, and then all the folders and files and such flow out from there. When the computer tries to access a specific file, it has to first check with the point of origin, in order to figure out what is there and how to get to it. Like a city map, or a library filing system.

    Now, this One Point is known as the Master File Table. If something goes wrong with this MFT, if it somehow gets corrupted or deleted...well, then the computer can't access that drive anymore. All the information is still there, all the files and folders, the tree just isn't there to tell you where the roots are. Or the map got ink spilled all over it. Or the library system is down for extended maintenance.

    *This may or may not only apply to NTFS file system. That's what I have, and that's what I know.

    Now, if we're done with all these analogies, I'll get back to what I was able to do.

    Though the 'repairing' of the MFT hasn't seemed to work, I was able to recover all my Adobe, Excel, Powerpoint, and Word Documents (including my Senior Thesis!!!) and save them on my C:/ drive. I also managed to fit all My Pictures in there (though, I really should start deleting some that are no longer relevant).

    The Plan

    Now, as for my 99GB of music sitting on there... There's nothing I can do at the moment. I don't have enough space to transfer everything onto my C:/ drive (I only have 10 GB still open). Even my sister's desktop only has 65GB open (Yeah...I definitely need to delete some of my music).

    So, next step is to purchase another hard drive.

    Okay, I know what you're thinking - WHAT? Pay out $65+ for ANOTHER hard drive that'll fail on you too?!

    I'll answer that in the next section. In the meantime, can I please continue with my plan?


    Next I'll purchase another hard drive, giving me the 35GB in my laptop, the 160GB that is having some issues, and a new one (probably 500GB, though I could go for 1000GB (1TB) for $10 more...but really, that's getting a bit ridiculous--I mean, why would I ever need that much space?! My video card isn't good enough for video games. Maybe some movies...nah.).


    I'll use TestDisk to copy everything (music and all) to the new hard drive. Then, sure that everything is safe in two places, I'll reformat my current one, then copy everything back over to it, giving me 3 copies of all my important documents and 2 copies of my less important ones...

    The Moral

    BACKUP YOUR FILES!!!

    Yes, the title finally makes sense! For every great document you create, be sure to make at least one, possibly two (or three or four) backups!

    Whether this means having 2 or 3 hard drives handy, saving your documents in e-mail attachments, or paying for an online backup service, don't take technology for granted. I've been told multiple times that it's a miracle my computer is still running. Okay, not a miracle, per say, but it's certainly impressive. That my external hard drive ran into some problems is not a surprise. When you're dealing with tiny computer chips and information that relies on 011010101 being in the right place...well, a lot can go wrong.

    I thought my little portable guy was my backup, but really I just used him as my main pack mule. And when that pack mule decided to get lost (lose his map), I thought I was bum outta luck. Thankfully, my problem isn't as serious. The mule got a sprained ankle, but after I unload him and give him some time to reboot (reformat), he'll be up and going again.

    But, backing out of the metaphors again, what if I had dropped it down the toilet? Or dropped a bowling ball on it? Or had it stolen out of my bag at the airport? Those documents would be lost forever.

    With two hard drives (well, 3 really), I'm reducing the chances of things being lost forever. I mean, unless you're dealing with Apollo 13, having a quadruple failure is less likely than, say, having a single failure (on that note, maybe it's best to stick with 12 instead of 13 backups? Or chip in that extra effort and go to 14).

    So, again, if you have important documents, pictures, music, anything that is irreplaceable, send it to yourself in an e-mail. Save it to a few dozen zip drives. Copy it to a CD or two. Look in to getting a couple external hard drives. Cause you just don't know what could happen.