Sit right back and prepare for a tale of horror and suspense. I recently installed a new hard drive with mixed results (to say the least). The story will get a bit technical at times - it delves into Windows, hard drive partitions, and the BIOS - but I hope it is at least entertaining and possibly helpful. It's a tale I call:

"My hard drive crashed and I nearly lost everything"

Well not everything, but enough to be heartbreaking. My last full CD-ROM backup is from July 2001. So everything since then was lost into the ether. Half a year's worth of digital photos, documents, and programming files.

Don't worry, this has a happy ending.

CURRENT STATE OF MIND:  Oblivious of the frustration about to ensue

My tale starts with a not at all uncommon experience: the Windows Blue Screen of Death (BSOD).

  < cue wavy flash-back effect >

It first happened a few weeks ago. That cursed screen pops up saying "Error writing to drive C:". Uh-oh. I press a key and everything returns to normal for a while. Then it happens again. And again. Houston, we have a problem.

I launch Norton Utilities and perform a thorough disk scan (with surface scan). Several hours later not a single error is found. Well that's a relief - I think. Next I try to defrag the drive. Mid way through it gives me an error "Cannot write to sector " and suggests running scan disk again. One more scan and a few hours later it still doesn't find an error.

The BSOD's are occurring frequently, but I can avoid them by not doing anything too strenuous. Web browsing is okay, thank goodness. A quick Google Groups search finds messages from others with the same problem. There are two main schools of thought on this particular BSOD: either your hard drive is full, or it is in the initial stages of crashing. My hard drive is not full.

Fearing the worst I try burning a CD of my important files. No dice. BSOD every time resulting in a CD-shaped coaster. Okay, well at least I have a second hard drive. A quick drag-and-drop and all my documents are safely copied to the other disk. Whew! (cue forboding maniacal laughter in the background)

Now I am faced with a decision. I obviously don't want to use the old C: drive anymore since it is of questionable integrity. I could format my second hard drive, reinstall windows, and copy the files from the first drive. However, since I'm using that second drive as a backup, what happens if the first disk finally crashes for good during this process? I would have destroyed both my original and backup copies.

Not wanting to tempt Murphy I order a new 40 GB hard drive and have it sent 3-day UPS so that I play with it over the weekend.

CURRENT STATE OF MIND: Annoyed, but optimistic

Friday, after a little problem with UPS (they delivered it to the wrong address by mistake), I have my new disk and am ready to start the data transfer. I hook it up and boot the machine. It hangs.

It's hanging while trying to detect the new hard drive. I verify all the cables and jumpers are correct. I try several combinations of master/slave configurations with all three disks (from here on referred to as "Original Drive", "Backup Drive", and "New Drive"). No luck.

Oh great, they shipped me a bad drive. I have visions of RMA numbers and trying to get my money back. Then I remember that I had a similar problem the last time I added a hard drive. I had to upgrade my BIOS to get it to recognize the disk. My PC is pretty old (by PC standards) so it's not unthinkable. A quick browse and sure enough there is an updated BIOS for download.

The new BIOS has a checksum associated with it. It's a way you can verify that the BIOS chip was programmed successfully. I start flashing in the new BIOS. The first half is programmed just fine, but it gives errors further along. After it's done the checksum doesn't match. I try flashing it again to the same result. Fearing for my life (the PC cannot function without the BIOS) I try restoring the original BIOS. I get an error. Oh great. With nothing left to do I reboot, fearing the worst.

Sure enough, I hosed my machine. The BIOS was corrupted and would only boot into what's called the BootBlock. It seems someone had the sense to protect part of the BIOS against idiots like me. Should the main BIOS become corrupted this "BootBlock" will take over.

It's kind of like a mini-BIOS. The BootBlock contains only a small set of functions designed so that you can get your system back up and running. It only lets you access the floppy drive and gives a really annoying ambulance-sounding beeping (non-stop I might add). Thank goodness I installed a volume knob on the PC speaker.

Okay, so I boot in the BootBlock and try flashing the BIOS again. This time I get write errors over almost all of the area. Many attempts later and I still don't have a restored BIOS. Oh crap.

CURRENT STATE OF MIND:  Very frustrated and mildly worried

Luckily my wife's PC works so I can still do Google searches. I find the web page of the BIOS maker. They will mail you a new chip for thirty-five bucks.

Then it occurs to me to try reprogramming the chip myself. Luckily I work for a company that has access to equipment to do this. I pop out the chip (thankfully it's in a socket and not soldered down) and drive to work with both it and a floppy containing the BIOS.

[SIDE NOTE: I also take the New Drive and verify that it does indeed work fine. That's a relief - no need to return it.]

I put the chip in the programmer and fire up the software. I try programming the chip, but once again I get errors half way through. Then I remember that the BootBlock is in a protected section of the chip. Figuring things can't get much worse anyway, I unprotect the section, and erase & program the entire chip. No errors this time and *bonus* the checksum matches!

I drive home, plop the chip back in and the system boots like a charm (with a new graphic startup screen I might add). And it now detects the New Drive! Yay!

                        (not knowing the worst has yet to come)

Now to transfer the data from the Original Drive to the New Drive. There's a program called Ghost which will exactly duplicate one hard disk onto another. This seems great to me since I really don't want to reinstall Windows and all of my programs.

Mid way through the process, Ghost reports an error. I guess the problem on the Original Drive that caused the original BSOD still exists. One more attempt at Ghost produces the same result. Looks like I need to reinstall Windows after all.

What a fun process it is installing Windows. Lots of dialog boxes, driver upgrades, and trying to avoid getting MSN, CompuServe, or other things shoved down my throat. Installation goes as well as can be expected. I even get my wireless network card working so I can browse the web - no need to use my wife's PC. (BTW, clean installs of Windows boot a LOT faster.)

Now to transfer the files from the Original Drive to the New Drive. I open up "My Computer". Uh, I don't see the Original Drive. That's odd. I check the cables and the jumpers to make sure I have everything connected correctly. Seems okay to me. A reboot tells me that the BIOS detects the Original Drive just fine. It just doesn't show up in Windows. Even Windows' Device Manager sees that there are two hard drives, but it only assigns a drive letter to the New Drive, not the Original Drive.

Running FDISK reveals the problem. The Original Drive no longer has a drive letter associated with it. I must have corrupted the partition information on the drive. How this happened I don't know, but the result is that I cannot access the disk at all. For paranoia I check the Backup Drive and get the same result. Oh crap! The Original Drive and the Backup Drive have the only two copies of my data. And I can't access either of them?!?

CURRENT STATE OF MIND:  Panic!  (ohshitohshitohshit!)

Searching on Google I find pleas from others with the same problem as me: drives that seem to be okay other than not having a drive letter. The responses they get are not very useful. Most instruct to repartition & format the disk and start over. That's not an option for me as I have data on the disks. *I* know the data is there - I just need to find a way for the operating system to know it too!

I go to sleep fearing the worst. I believe my only course of action is to send the drive to a data recovery company and hope they can restore the files. They're usually very expensive and I would be putting all my eggs in their basket - if it didn't work the data would be ruined.

The next morning I do a Google search for "data recovery hard disk". Several of the "sponsored links" are for software packages that claim to do what I need. The first I click on costs $250. The second, however, is a more reasonable $70 and also has a trial version. The trial won't let you save any files, but will still scan the disk. That's fine with me since I want to see if it works before shelling out the money.

I download the program, appropriately named "GetDataBack", and try it out. Nope it doesn't detect the Original Drive at all. Well nuts. I figure the Backup Drive will give me the same results, but try it anyway. What do you know it detects the drive!

I start the program scanning the disk. One nice thing about GetDataBack is that it is read-only; it will not write to the damaged disk at all. Meaning that if this doesn't work I won't have ruined anything and can still try other avenues.

As it scans I see messages scroll by about files it finds. I recognize the names of my files! An hour later it finishes and is ready to restore the files. I pay the $70 to unlock the program and start copying them to my working hard disk.

[SIDE NOTE: They sent me the registration key via email so I could unlock the program immediately. I didn't need to exit program at all or even start the scan over. Very slick process.]

It worked! I now have all my files back safe and sound on my new hard disk. I quickly burned them all to CD-ROM too just in case :)


I thought I knew the importance of backing up. This weekend taught me I need to take it even more seriously. (Especially when the data is of such an irreplaceable personal nature like digital photos.)

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