By David Pogue
New York Times
You know, you can only be lucky for so long.
In the case of my Dell PC, that was about a year and a half. I came to my desk one morning, turned it on, and got this message on the screen: "DISK READ ERROR. Press Ctrl+Alt+Del to restart."
Dell's technicians, in thick Bombay accents, directed me to perform a number of tweaks, tests and experiments. After several hours, they announced that the hard drive must have died, and everything on it was lost.
Now, I do back up my My Documents folder. So I had a safety copy of all my books, columns, music and pictures. And I have my original installation discs for all my programs.
But I suddenly I remembered two items that Windows does not keep in My Documents: First, my Outlook message database, containing about 2,000 recent e-mail messages from readers to whom I hadn't yet replied (sorry, gang!).
Second, the voice files for Dragon NaturallySpeaking, the program I use to dictate my books and e-mail. Over the years, I've added hundreds of customized terms and commands, and honed the accuracy to a shine by making thousands of individual corrections.
They were gone. Needless to say, I was DEEPLY annoyed.
By some miracle, the hard drive was still under some kind of warranty; in fact, Dell Support sent a local technician to my attic office. He put in a new drive and installed a fresh copy of Windows XP.
I'll spare you the ugliest part of all: trying to get even the most basic features of this Dell working again. For example, I couldn't get online, even after installing the networking card's drivers from the original Dell CD. Another hour on the phone with Dell taught me that sometimes the PC doesn't "notice" its new drivers. I had to muck around in the Device Manager (don't ask) to make it work. "What kind of stupid system," I muttered, "requires this sort of geeky tweaks on a brand-new drive with a brand-new installation of Windows XP?"
Then, of course, I had to go download Service Pack 2, plus virus and spyware programs.
Incidentally, it's this sort of thing that really makes you appreciate the Mac. Any hard drive can die, of course. But on a Mac, you'd run the Mac OS X installer --about four clicks--and you'd be completely, 100 percent back in business. Because Apple makes both the hardware and the software, you never, ever have to install drivers for basic functions, let alone antivirus or spyware software.
But I digress. (And I invite hate mail.)
Anyway, as I reinstalled all my programs from their original CD's, I stared at the computer and had an inspiration. This unfortunate event was, perhaps, my opportunity to review a service I'd always wondered about: DriveSavers.
DriveSavers is a professional data-recovery company. (On Track Data Recovery is another.) You send them your mangled drive. They take it into a clean room, where space-suited technicians replace the damaged parts from a huge inventory of components, get the thing spinning again, and painstakingly re-create the data on your dead drive, sector by sector. They send the recovered files back to you on CD's, DVD's or over the Internet.
DriveSavers claims a 90 percent success rate, even on drives that have been burned in fires, run over by trucks and submerged on sunken ships. (The company was not so lucky with a laptop drive that somehow wound up at the business end of a rifle range.)
But DriveSavers is not cheap. Depending on how fast you need your stuff back and how much work its engineers have to do, you might pay $2,500 or more. (It seems less shocking when you compare it with emergency-room surgery, which, in a way, it is.)
The fun begins with a call from the technician who's assigned to your drive. In my case, that was a guy named Rian. He reported that he'd examined my drive, and it was pretty badly mangled.
A hard drive, he explained, is like a record that spins at thousands of rotations per minute. In a hard drive, though, the "needle" (the hard drive's read/write head) rides on a dangerously thin cushion of air. At some point, the heads in my drive actually struck the spinning platter, chewing out a tiny divot and spewing dust and debris into the interior of the sealed drive. Not good.
So how did DriveSavers do? I'll let you know next week. But one bit of advice Rian gave me is too important to withhold. When I asked if any one brand of drive was better than the others, he gave me an emphatic no. "EVERY drive will fail," he said, with the tone of somebody who's spent ten years watching a parade of broken hard drives. "It's not a matter of if, but when. The only good hard drive is one that's been backed up."