External Hard Drives

Do you use an external hard drive to back up your computer data?  An external hard drive is an easy and affordable way to backup your documents, pictures, music, and other computer data in case your hard drive crashes.  A external hard drive is simply a hard disk, like the one in your computer, inside of a small case with a cable (usually USB) that allows it to attach to your computer.  The larger ones are a 3.5 inch drives like the ones used in desktop computers, while the smaller ones are a 2.5 inch drives like the ones used in laptops.  The larger ones give you the best capacity for the price.  The smaller ones are more convenient to carry and, in a pinch, could be installed in your laptop computer if your internal hard drive crashes and a new one is not readily available.  The One-Touch series from Maxtor is simple and affordable.  You can set it to backup your files when you press a button, or automatically on a schedule (each night at 3am).  Make sure you choose USB 2.0 for faster speed.  If your only desire is to backup your computer, you only need an external hard drive with the capacity (GBs) of your computer’s internal hard drive.  These may be purchased online (TigerDirect, Amazon, eBay) or in stores (BestBuy, Office Max, Staples, etc…).  Prices range from $50 to $150 for common models, depending on capacity (GBs) and size (3.5 or 2.5).  Currently a 3.5 inch 320GB is $80 and a 1TB (or 1,000GB) is $150.   Watch for sales as prices are falling in and the capacities are increasing.

Hard Drive Crash

The hard drive is one of the most fragile components of your computer because it contains the most moving parts.  Hard drives, like people, will eventually die, some of old age, some of disease, and some of accidents and injuries.  Physical trauma like dropping your laptop or knocking a desktop over, exposure to magnets, heat, electrical problems, and software problems may cause your hard drive to crash unexpectedly.

Hard drive crashes come in two varieties, logical and physical.  Logical crashes occur when files are in the wrong place.  This can be caused by a virus, improper shutdowns, overheating, or other causes.  In most cases the drive will not boot but may still be accessible by using a USB hard drive enclosure or by running a live-CD (or USB drive) operating system like Puppy Linux or Ubuntu.  This is less severe and often all the data is recoverable and sometimes the drive can be repaired with software.

A physical crash is more severe.  In this case, moving parts inside the hard drive touch each other or are damaged.  Sometimes electrical circuit boards have problems.  These crashes often are preceded by sounds of grinding, clicking, or other such noises.  This can be caused by overheating and physical trauma or other mechanical failure.  In this case, the drive may not be recognized even through a USB cable or live OS.

In most cases hard drives should only be repaired by professionals.  Prices can range from a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand depending on how much damage has been done.  In extreme cases, the hard drive can be sent to a lab where technicians rebuild it, as surgeon would operate on a patient.  There is no guarantee that your data will be recovered.  In areas without technicians, your choices are slim and often will involve sending the drive to a technician, who could see any confidential files on your hard drive.

One way to regain a working computer in the short-term is to work without the hard drive.  Puppy Linux is a free operating system that will run without a hard drive.  It installs itself from the CD to the RAM and you can use a USB drive to save your settings.  This will allow you to use your computer to browse the internet, send email, chat, work with Word and Excel documents and perform many other tasks.  It may allow you to access your hard drive to retrieve files, even when it will not boot to run Windows.  However, if your hard drive is making noises, continuing to access it may cause further damage.  In this case, you should take it to a technician. 

If there is no technician, or you are unwilling to pay the high repair costs, you can access the drive through Puppy Linux or by installing it in another computer via a USB enclosure.  You should try to copy the important files to another computer, USB drive, or CD quickly as the drive may become worse.  After you have copied the important files (documents, pictures, music, PGP keys, etc…) try to perform a factory reset.  Put the drive back in the computer and boot using the factory CDs that came with your computer or that you downloaded. 

To prepare for the inevitable hard drive crash, you should backup your data regularly.  Get a 2.5-inch external hard drive that connects via the USB port.  That way you already have a spare hard drive and can mirror your computer’s internal hard drive.  You should also have your factory CDs and software installation CDs.  If you don’t have these, download them.