Jenna's Laptop

A few days ago my friend Jenna in Wisconsin called me and said she had a message on her HP laptop computer that said, "No operating system found". I had her check the obvious stuff, no diskette or CD was loaded... It sounds like a hard disk failure to me. I had her ship me the computer. It arrived yesterday via FedEx overnight (she was desperate) and I immediately checked to see if the HD had any life at all. No luck with the HD in the computer. Next I took the HD out of the laptop and hooked it up to a system that I have setup to test HDs and fix problems. I wanted to see if the problem was in the HD itself or possibly in the HP Laptop hardware or firmware. I have several software tools that I use to test drives and recover data. One of my favorites is SpinRite from Gibson Research Corporation. The first sign of big trouble came when the BIOS in my test computer did not even recognize that a drive exists.

I was able to verify that the drive does spin up and there are no grinding noises or such. Which leads me to believe that the problem is in onboard electronics on the drive. Modern drives have a printed circuit board containing the drive electronics which is mounted to the outside of the drive casing. I inspected the visible side of the board and didn't see any sign of burning or other obvious signs of short circuit or component failure.

One trick I have used in the past with limited success is to swap out the electronics from the HD with the electronics from a working HD that is the exact same model. The drive is an IBM Travelstar 40Gb. Which I happen to have another identical model on hand that is in working order. The good news about swapping these circuits is that you do not have to open the drive casing and expose the platters and heads to microscopic dust particles which will certainly destroy the heads and platters. You need special tools to remove these circuit boards, in this case a torx T5 fit the screws. I removed the circuit boards from both drives and swapped them.

Even with the swapped circuit boards, neither drive was recognized. I swapped the boards back and the known working drive worked again. Either the failed drive has multiple problems, or more likely, certain data is recorded in non-volatile memory on the circuit board that contains data specific to the head-disk assembly. I haven't had much luck with this technique recently. I do read in internet forum's where people claim to have success in doing this. I have also read other posting where someone is claiming more radical processes involving swapping the platters that would be almost impossible to succeed. I am coming to the conclusion that swapping electronics on modern drives is not a workable solution. I know that the professional HD recovery operations have special equipment that they can use to accomplish data recovery when the electronics have failed. If any of you have success with swapping electronics, please respond to this post and let me know what drives this has worked with.

I have also read numerous postings where people have recovered data by freezing the HD. The drive comes back to life temporarily. I have personally had some success at freezing drives, but I am not sure what the circumstances are where this helps. In the case of Jenna's drive, overnight in the freezer had no effect.

I called Jenna and broke the news to her. I can easily fix her computer at a reasonable cost by replacing the HD with a new drive with double the capacity and 28% faster access. However, I had no way to recover her data. I advised her that HD recovery services are available, but the results are not guaranteed and she should expect to pay a few hundred dollars. I spent a few minute talking to her about what was on the drive. She has stored about 4 years worth of documents, how-to's, records and things that she uses every day to do her job. Fortunately none of the lost files were critical to the business she works for because the accounting data that she works with is actually on a server at her home office. Even though the business is not at risk, the loss of these files will cause Jenna a lot of time and effort over the next several months.

I get involved in these situations about once a month. Someone has lost their data for various reasons. Sometimes it can be recovered sometimes it can't. I am now on a crusade to get everyone I know to backup their data daily using an automated tool. My personal favorite is Rhinoback, it is inexpensive, safe and secure. For a few dollars a month, you will save a ton of time and money when you lose your data. It is only a question of "when" your data will be lost. It is certain to happen to all of us a few times. Please make sure you have good current backups when it does.

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