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How to get your computer data back

By Elizabeth Wasserman

These days, there’s no reason to cry over lost computer data.

In fact, experts say that if you react quickly and make the right moves, you may be able to minimize damage to your computer and recover missing data such as your family vital records, precious family digital photos or other valuable bits and bytes.

Whether you accidentally delete files or your computer gets damaged during a natural disaster like flood or fire, there are a variety of methods you can try at home — or by hiring a pro — to try and save your digital assets.

“My first advice is don’t panic,” says Todd Johnson, vice president of Ontrack Data Recovery, a data recovery company. “There is a great chance you’ll be able to recover that data if you take the proper steps.”

Step No. 1: Diagnose the problem

First you need to understand where data is stored on your computer and what could possibly go wrong. When you save a file — whether it’s a Word document or a digital picture or an MP3 music file — the information is stored on your disk drive, which on most computers is known as your hard drive. The disk drive is embedded inside your desktop or laptop computer. It looks like a bunch of platters or plates stacked on top of each other. Their job is to read and record the data you create and store on your computer.

There are two types of data failures you might suffer, says Kevin Payne, marketing director at Seagate Technology, which operates data recovery services:

  • You just can’t access your data: In this case, the hard drive still works and you can hear it spinning, but it’s not recognizing the data for some reason (in other words you can’t access your files). This problem is dubbed “logical failure” by tech pros. “Those recoveries are fairly simple, mostly because the disk drive is still operational,” Payne says.

  • Your hard drive is damaged: In this situation, there is something physically wrong with the operation of the disk drive (a.k.a. mechanical failure). You might be able to tell a mechanical failure if you hear a clicking sound or tapping sound when you run your computer. In this case, shut the computer down immediately because the heads may be scratching the hard drive and destroying more data (see Step 3 below for what to do next).

Step No. 2: Try to fix the problem yourself

If you accidentally deleted a file or your computer crashed while you were working on something important, sometimes all you need to do is look for the missing data, experts say. The first place to look if your computer runs the Windows operating system is in the Recycle Bin; on the Mac, a similar feature is called Trash. Another option is to use the Find or Finder function from your computer’s main menu and search for the file name. You might be able to locate a backup copy.

Depending upon the value of the data you lost, you might want to try to download or purchase a software program that scans your disk drive for deleted files. Programs range in cost from $50 to $100, although there are free software programs available online, which you can download at your own risk. Make sure to read the instructions carefully so you don’t cause more loss. For instance, if you run a software data recovery program on a hard drive that is suffering from a mechanical failure, you can cause even more damage and lose your data permanently if the hard drive gets further scratched. 

Seagate and Ontrack both sell software programs for Macs and PCs (and Ontrack allows you to test your hard drive for free to see which files can be recovered). There are other vendors, too, such as FreeUndelete 2.0 for PCs or Data Rescue II for Macs.

Step No. 3: Find an expert to help

If you suspect mechanical failure or have lost irreplaceable data, such as family photos or valuable work documents, you might want to skip the do-it-yourself route and spring for professional help. There are a growing number of computer repair businesses sprouting up from coast-to-coast, but there is currently no regulation of this industry. So how do you choose?

Payne recommends first going back to whoever sold you the computer. Many electronics retailers — such as Best Buy, Apple Store and Staples — now have computer repair services or affiliates. Johnson also recommends that you “do your homework.” That means asking computer repair specialists how long they have been in the industry, about the security protocols they use and maybe even asking for references.

Depending upon the damage, the difficulty extracting data, data recovery services can run from $500 to several thousand dollars. But also make sure to check your warranty for coverage of hard drive failure. Generally, recovery services can take a couple days to several weeks. Seagate, which is affiliated with Staples’ Easy Tech, or Ontrack, which is affiliated with Best Buy’s Geek Squad, also work directly with consumers. You have to mail in your computer or hard drive to their labs. If you have a Mac, reach out to Apple directly through its toll free number or visit your nearby Apple Store’s Genius Bar, which is a walk-in repair service.

Whatever you do, don’t despair when you see a blank blue screen. Data recovery services have helped businesses and consumers recover files from computers that have been caught in fires, floods and other disasters. “In most cases, the chances of recovering data are good,” says Payne. “The computer doesn’t actually delete the data. When you delete a file, it deletes the information as to where you stored it. That’s like throwing the Dewey Decimal System card out at the library. It’s not the same thing as having thrown out the book.”

Elizabeth Wasserman is a freelance writer and editor based in Fairfax, Va. She writes for a variety of publications including Congressional Quarterly, Inc magazine, and she edits the online publication CIO Strategy Center. 

Copyright (c) 2010 Studio One Networks. All rights reserved.

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