Recovering from a Hard-Drive Disaster

If you have a computer, then you also have a hard drive: a fragile spinning disc that stores every scrap of your digital life, from photos to e-mail. Experts say it's a matter of when — not if — it will fail. New York Times technology columnist David Pogue recently found that out the hard way.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And on Mondays, our business segment focuses on technology. If you have a computer, you also have a hard drive, that fragile spinning disk that stores every scrap of your digital life, from photos to e-mail. Valuable personal information stowed on hard drives is one of the things people lost in Katrina. Even if a hard drive isn't swamped by a hurricane, experts say it's a matter of when, not if, it will fail. New York Times technology columnist David Pogue recently found that out the hard way.

Mr. DAVID POGUE (The New York Times): Turned the thing on, it said, `Disk read error,' and that's about as far as I could get with it.

MONTAGNE: And so you obviously had to try and get it back. Where did you start?

Mr. POGUE: Well, I was a card-carrying nerd. I knew all the things you're supposed to do in a do-it-yourself way. You know, I tried starting up in what they call safe mode and I tried holding down certain keys and running recovery software. None of it worked, so I resorted to a very expensive but very effective last-ditch solution. I sent it to a company called DriveSavers, a data recovery company where you actually mail them your hard drive, and they scrape the data off of it.

MONTAGNE: So when someone does go to this company or any other company, you know, what was your experience?

Mr. POGUE: Well, the price, which is $1,000 and up, includes a lot of hand-holding over the phone with whatever engineer was assigned to your case. My guy, whose name was Ryan Piccolo(PH), told me you wouldn't believe the kinds of things that happen to hard drives.

Mr. RYAN PICCOLO (DriveSavers): Run over by a tour bus and caught in hurricanes in Florida and floods in Texas. We've seen actually a hard drive that somehow ended up down range at a shooting range.

MONTAGNE: So, David, how did DriveSavers tell you how it recovers data that you can't recover for yourself?

Mr. POGUE: They actually had to take my hard drive down to this dust-proof surgical center, where they have this huge warehouse filled with replacement parts from every hard drive from any company in the world, and they actually had to reassemble pieces of mine in order to scrape the data from it.

MONTAGNE: Well, you wonder if the DriveSavers' engineers have a unique perspective on our society, having seen so many people's lives paraded before them via computer.

Mr. POGUE: That's true. While I was waiting for things to happen, I would chat with my engineer Ryan and he was telling me these incredible stories of recovering files. A guy brought his hard drive in and the files that Ryan found led to the final chapter of this guy's marriage.

Mr. PICCOLO: We ended up getting some information that had been deleted previously as to his extracurricular activities.

Mr. POGUE: That's not the only time that emotion and technology intersects when it comes to dead hard drives. Here's how they told me they handle the worst cases.

Mr. PICCOLO: We do have a suicide counselor on staff. Many a times, I've patched through calls before where customers are very frantic or distraught or just don't know how they're going to cope without this data.

MONTAGNE: So that was Ryan Piccolo of DriveSavers, your engineer, David. Did you get your files back?

Mr. POGUE: I got most of them back. I didn't get any of my e-mail back, but I got all of my Word files and my digital photos and my music back, which was a good thing.

MONTAGNE: And after all of that, do you plan to make any changes to your computing routine?

Mr. POGUE: There's two kinds of people in the world: those who have good regular backup systems and those who will. And I'm in the latter category. There are a number of different ways to back up your information. What a lot of people do is just burn their My Documents folder onto a CD. What I settled on is a second hard drive that I keep updated as a perfect identical clone of my regular hard drive just in case.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks much.

Mr. POGUE: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: David Pogue is the technology columnist for The New York Times.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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