On a Mac, the process is so simpler. Use a FireWire cable for hooking your nonworking Mac to a working Mac, then, “target boot” the nonworking machine by holding down the T key as you power it on. With either method, it’s possible that your failed hard drive will show up on your healthy computer and reveal its files, in which case your hard drive is probably fine, but your operating system needs to be reinstalled. (Don’t forget to offload your files before you do that.)
If your files don’t show up on the secondary computer, then you are at one of those pivotal moments in life when you find out how much your hard work and treasured memories are really worth to you. Depending on how your drive is damaged, an attempt to salvage your data can cost anywhere from a hundred dollars to several thousand. What’s more, the process can take days—and there is no guarantee that the money and time you invest will produce any results whatsoever.
Now that we’ve gone through the depressing task of properly setting your expectations, here’s the good news: Very often, the data on failed drives is recoverable. In fact, it’s surprising how resilient that information can be—just ask any corporate embezzler who thought he had deleted all the evidence from his PC, only to have it show up later in court. The comparison is apt, since the very same computer forensic tools that uncover digital misdeeds are the ones that can find your treasured family photos.
There are two ways that drives crash: Logical failure and mechanical failure. In a logical failure, the drive’s components are physically undamaged, but because of either accidental formatting or a corrupt file system, the drive is not able to find and navigate its own data. However, unless it has been overwritten, that data still exists on your drive.
A mechanical failure means that your drive has broken parts that are preventing it from working busted drives often make a telltale clicking sound as they futilely attempt to access their files. If you hear that, your data may still be there, but you’re not getting it back without calling in the experts (see “Worst-Case Scenario,” next page). And those experts make good money. Data recovery services from Kroll Ontrack, Seagate’s i365 and Iomega charge between $500 and $2500 to attempt to salvage data from either logical or mechanical disasters, depending on the severity of the situation. But if you are just dealing with a logical failure, you can get your files back on your own for far less.
Recovering a hard drive is a bit like getting back a stolen car—you’ll be happy to have your files back, but the results could be messy. No data recovery program will return your files to you in exactly the condition you originally kept them. These programs are designed to essentially do a data dump from your problem drive to a new drive. Files will be organized by type (JPEG images will be in one folder, Word documents in some other folder, MPEG movies in another) and your songs and photos will be mixed with random sound and image files from your computer’s system folder.
Additionally, the names of all your files will have been changed to various alphanumeric sequences, such as IMG1039.jpg or MOV2010.mov. So be prepared to settle in for a long weekend of sifting through and renaming your files. Oh, and while you’re at it, now’s a good time to buy that backup drive.