Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

Disk Crash: a backup and recovery story

A hard drive died. I review the steps I took, and what finally saved me in the end.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!


This is Leo Notenboom for

I had a hard disk crash recently, and I thought it might be interesting to
review what happened and what I’ve done since to try and recover my data.

The disk is a 300 gigabyte external Maxtor USB drive to which I regularly
backup some data, and on which I maintain my music library and images of
product CDs for ready access.

One day Windows simply reported that it could not read the drive; that the
data had been corrupted.

My first thought was to run SpinRite to locate and repair any physical
defects on the drive itself. SpinRite ran for several hours and told me the
drive was just fine.

Of course it wasn’t, but this ruled out a true hardware crash and pointed to
simple data corruption.

“The only truly reliable way to recover is to have backups.”

I pulled out a copy of Acronis Disk Director to attempt to repair the
partition table, thinking that might be the next logical place for a failure.
Acronis found nothing to repair, the partition table was fine. That implied
that the actual disk directory structure – NTFS in this case – had somehow
become garbled.

I found an interesting utility called “Get Data Back”. Running that for
several hours recovered what I’d estimate to be about 50 to 70% of the data on
the drive. I copied that off and decided to call it quits there.

You see, recovering the drive was an exercise in convenience. Most
everything on that drive was duplicated elsewhere: the mp3’s were ripped from
my CD collection, the iTunes downloads were being backed up nightly to another
drive, product and other CD images were just that; images of CDs that I had
sitting around elsewhere. Recovering what I could was a time saver, but not
much more.

There are two lessons here that I think make this story worthwhile:

  1. Stuff happens. You will at some point, when you least expect it, lose the
    contents of a drive.

  2. The only truly reliable way to recover is to have backups.

Yes, I was able to recover some of my data directly from the drive, but not
all. The fact that everything was backed up in some form or another is what
saved me.

As to why this happened: I suspect, but can’t yet confirm, that putting
three external USB and Firewire drives on a single machine confused the USB and
Firewire adapter I was using. Something didn’t get transferred properly that
should have.

But that’s only a guess.

In the mean time I’m reformatting that drive, and once again reviewing my
backup strategy just in case.

I’d love to hear what you think. Visit and enter 11707 in the go
to article number box to access the show notes, the transcript and to leave me
a comment. While you’re there, browse over 1,200 technical questions and
answers on the site.

Till next time, I’m Leo Notenboom, for


Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

14 comments on “Disk Crash: a backup and recovery story”

  1. Thanks for your article. I’m one of those people with multiple copies of everything, but I have no real back-up strategy and that almost cost me some real heart-ache.

    I did something incredibly stupid that resulted in corruption on a removable USB drive. Specifically, I switched drives and restarted the computer, forgetting that I had hibernated the system, not turned it off or restarted it. When the computer tried to read a 180GB drive as a 400GB drive with a different FAT, well, the FAT hit the fan as they say.

    I was able to recover everything on the drive with a program called PC Inspector File Recovery. Amazingly its free, and although there is almost no documentation and it took a bit of fiddling to get the result I needed, it worked & I was able to recover all the files with their original names, save them elsewhere, reformat the drive and restore all the recovered files to their original drive. I seriously recommend this program to anyone as a first step, basically because it worked & costs nothing. If it doesn’t solve the problem, you’re not out of pocket. Also no sign so far of any nasties hitchhiking on the download, and this all happened several months ago.

    So, thanks again & I’ll try to be a better back-up person in future.

  2. My back-up strategy at home: a batch file, using XCopy, to back up all of my documents over to a different machine in our home network. It’s a gigabit network – runs in seconds and it’s easy. It doesn’t get me an “off site” backup, but at least I’m on two different hard drives.

    My back-up strategy at work: a batch file, using RoboCopy, to mirror all of my documents onto a removable, USB memory drive. The memory drive was $36 (4 gig) and allows me to take my documents off site. It also runs pretty quickly (about 30 seconds) and is very easy.

    Hope this gives some others ideas on how they can make a simple, easy back-up platform.

  3. As a computer repair tech and business owner, I have worked on many crashed hard drives.

    When I need to recover data after a crash, I use the Pup Linux CD. Linux is great for accessing disks that Windows can’t recognize. Pup Linux will show a list of recognized drives and is one of the few that will mount NTFS partitions Read/Write.

    I have lost count of how many drives I have recovered data from over the last three years I have been in business performing
    computer repair and data recovery in the Virginia Beach, VA area. Most of them just had corrupted data, and Windows wouldn’t boot. I have only had three that were hardware failures. I still managed to get that data off of all but one of the three using Linux disk and forensics tools.

    Using a boot CD with Linux is even easier than slaving the drive into another computer, and is much more effective.

  4. From the first post, I gather some would like to know a good but simple backup plan. as a self-taught PC-TECH and Lan Admin, I’ve had to learn things the hard way, and have found, I think a working fix. in the home I have 3 copies of every thing on one machine. I know some thing the “Off-Site” solution is best, but tend to think for the home, it’s just bragging. I have 3 drives, 74gig raptor for the OS and apps, 250gig for storage and downloads and 300gig for temp and backups. Currently I’m using VistaUltimate, and Norton 360 and Ghost12. (please spare me the Norton and Vista complaints, it works just fine at MY home)1.Vista will do a realtime full drive backup, then a diff. backup every thursday to the 250(D), Norton 360 will backup all document(I keep everything I need to backup in the “My Documents” folder)to the D-Drive on Friday night adding only those files that have changed, then Ghost will backup the C-Drive to the D-Drive then the D-Drive to the 300gig drive. with this the internal SATA’s are much faster than USB, and it’s very unlikely all drives will fail or become corrupt at one time, and once set, I don’t have to do anything. If I’m at all concerned, I could use A USB as the final backup point(the 300gig) and I may in the future, but for now, I like the way everything works!!

  5. I second the point about “Get Data Back” . My clients rarely backup their data. “Get Data Back for NTSF” almost always gets back the important data anyway. It is cheap and you can download a non-recovery version to see if it will get anything for free.

  6. I’ve used GetDataBack for NTFS before as well.. You are right. It almost always allows you to recover up to 70% of the drive. The problem is, when the files are separate parts (example: extracted image of a cd). Some of the larger files may not be recoverable, therefor killing the entire extraction.

    My #1 backup source is Norton Ghost 12. It makes it so ez to do backups automatically. I set it to back up 3 times a week at 5am when no one is on the comp. The bootable Norton Ghost 12 CD can read the backup images on network or local drives as well (yes I have 2 backup sources).

    I do a lot of partitioning and when something goes wrong with Partition Magic 8 (it always does), it takes less than 8 minutes to recover my windows partition from the latest backup file!

  7. I have used Ontrack Easy Recovery twice now to recover all of the information on hard drives mounted in external trays. Windows XP and other operating systems reported the HD as unformated. It was formatted as NTFS. I used Format Recovery to copy all of the files and folders to another drive, then reformatted and copied them back.

    The app shows files/folders as if using Explorer in Windows, and copying is just as fast. There are other recovery modes too, including Advanced, Deleted, and Raw. Saved me twice so far!

    If you know a tech who has miniPE XT, there is a version of the app on the disc.

  8. I have bin carryng for years a second drive (clone) in my car. I have cloned with Norton Ghost each 15 days until I found once that I cannot recover the files from the clone because Ghost didn’t do the job. Then I switched to Acronis True Image (free for every Seagate and Maxtor owners! See at the Seagate and Maxtor URL). Since a couple of months I have a second backup drive installed in my PC. This second backup drive is only for files. I use FullSync (free) to backup automaticaly this files every x minutes.

  9. I backup my main computer into 2 separate computers. My main computer has 4 disk, as well as the other 2 computers. All are backed up using rsync. USB/Firewire external drives are OK, as long as they are manageable and you know which hard drive is which. However, if too many hard drives to manage, better get an inexpensive PC and put all the hard drives in it.

  10. Ghost 12 does NOT work with Vista Ultimate when you try to recover. It appears to backup just fine but wait until you have a full system crash and have to install a new hard drive. It just doesn’t restore with Vista Ultimate. I too have many back-ups at home, one I had used the Vista Back-up utility and did a full system back-up. After trying Ghost many times, I decided to try to recover from the many CD’s I had from the Vista back-up. And it worked perfectly just time consuming because of all the CD’s. My entire system was right back to where it was when I did the back-up, no issues at all. But I wish ghost worked with Vista better, it’s works perfectly with my older XP machines.

    I have a desktop HP with Vista. Recently it would not boot ..called HP support, they were useless. Could not fix it.

    Anyway here is my current situation, I backed up my personal files on 5 4.7GB dvd+r. followed the on screen instructions to create them, took me about 6 hours. Went through the recovery process, computer boots everything works.

    Now iam trying to run the Backups I created, After I insert disc 1, it auto runs and states what files do you want to recover .. I click “next”. it states please insert Disc # 5. And thats it. No matter what disc I put in, it pushes the disc out. Iam stock!


    No way to know without knowing what backup program you’ve been using.

    – Leo

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.