Preventing Hard Drive Crashes, Recovering Data and the Importance of Backing Up

by jessicaturner on April 25, 2013

How you will feel if your hard drive crashes

This post is the second of a 2-part sponsored series by Gillware. To read part one about my hard drive crash & recovery of three years worth of photos, click here.

Before my hard drive crashed, I don’t think I ever would have read this post. I had the mentality of it will never happen to me.

I was wrong.

In retrospect, I wish I had read a post like this before hand. If I had, I might have taken better care of my drive and not needed to use Gillware to recover three years worth of photos when our hard drive fell to the floor and then literally crashed. (Be sure to check out part one of this series about my hard drive crash.)

Today I’m excited to share a Q&A I did with Gillware about hard drives, crashes and recovery. I found their answers really helpful and think you will too. Throughout the post you will find my thoughts in italics. I also included photos to break up the text and to share a few of the thousands of the images that Gillware recovered. Each photo was not stored anywhere but on the drive, and had Gillware not recovered our photos, they would have been lost. I took for granted the little moments that were stored on my hard drive and going through the images was such a blessing. I hope the pictures make you smile.

Be sure to pin this post so that you can refer to it in the future and thanks to Gillware for all their useful information. Also, if you are interested in a free online back-up option, be sure to read to the end of the post.

Preventing Hard Drive Crashes, Recovering Data and the Importance of Backing Up

What makes a hard drive crash?

A true crash happens when moving parts inside the hard drive collide. This is what happened to my drive.

A hard drive keeps its information on a thin magnetic coating on each side of a stack of rigid disks. The information is read and recorded by tiny read/write heads. The heads are mounted on wing-like arms that allow the heads to fly over the disks. The spinning disks actually create air current inside the hard drive, which lifts the read/write heads off the platter surfaces. The separation between the heads and the disk is incredibly small – only about enough room for a few dozen air molecules.

When a spinning hard drive is dropped, bumped or vibrated, a read/write head can close the tiny gap and collide with the platter surface. This is what happened to my hard drive. It was spinning when it fell to the floor. Sometimes this is harmless – the head will lift off after grazing the spinning disk and keep working. But other times, the head will get mangled, or continue to drag on the platter, or stop the disk from spinning. Sometimes these crashes are so bad they end up scratching away so much of the disks’ magnetic material that data recovery becomes impossible.

While falls, collisions, exposure to water and other mishaps often lead to a hard drive crash, it is very common for a crash to happen for no apparent reason. Apart from internal collisions of moving parts, there are a lot of other ways a hard drive can fail. The technology that allows a hard drive to store amazing amounts of data requires a great deal of complexity and leaves very little room for error, leaving the possibility for a range of things to go wrong through no fault of the user.

Can you prevent a hard drive from crashing?

That is a great question. So far, unfortunately, there isn’t any electronic storage device that is invulnerable to failure. Solid-state storage, which is common on smart phones, tablets and many new laptops, also fails at rates roughly equivalent to hard drives.

There are some things you can do, though, to protect your data and help it be recovered after a hard drive fails. First of all, if the drive is not spinning or making its usual humming noise, do not run power to it. Also, do not run power to it if you hear unusual clicking, beeping or grinding noises. If a read/write head is dragging on the platter, running power to the device increases the likelihood that your data could be scratched away.

If your computer is not booting up or giving strange error messages, do not reinstall the operating system or reformat or re-initialize the hard drive without first making sure your data is copied elsewhere.

Are certain brands of external hard drives better than others? If so, what ones are best?

The hard drive manufacturing industry has consolidated quite a bit over the years. Your choices now are: Western Digital, Seagate and Toshiba. Other companies will make enclosures for these drives, or they may be branded in some other way, but these three companies own the market.

The technology is pretty consistent across the market, and some internal hard drive components are coming from the same suppliers, regardless of the manufacturer.

The point is, if you’re trying to avoid data loss, buying brand X versus brand Y is not going to be a good strategy. The manufacturers are all competing hard to make the best product, but none is invulnerable.

One useful tip I can offer when selecting an external storage device is to do a little research before selecting one of the bigger units that uses more than one drive. There are a number of popular external storage devices that use two hard drives. If you buy a dual-drive external, make sure it is one in which your data is duplicated on each drive. That’s called a RAID-1 or mirrored drives. The alternative is called a RAID-0, where your data is pulled apart like a zipper, and pieces of each file are stored on each drive. The idea of a RAID-0 is that data from each drive can be read simultaneously, offering greater speed and the full capacity of both drives. But most of the time, and speed advantage of a RAID-0 external hard drive system is negated by the cord connecting it to the computer, and these devices leave you much, much more vulnerable to a drive failure. Such good information here!

If my hard drive crashes, how likely is it that the data will be recoverable?

Gillware only charge for its work if a client decides, after seeing a full list of results, that we succeeded. That model only works because we can normally find a way to recover the data. Like they did for me. YAY!

There are some barriers, though, that do prevent data recovery. First, the magnetic coating on the hard drive’s disks holds the data, so if it’s gone, so too is the data. It needs to be relatively healthy. The more scratches there are, the more data will be missing. And significant scratching can make an entire hard drive impossible to recover.

Second, if an important file has been overwritten by something else, or the structural information necessary to make sense of a file has been overwritten, that file won’t be recoverable. So if you’ve mistakenly had files deleted, or you’ve reformatted or reinitialized your drive, don’t do anything that would write data to the drive. If it’s in the computer, don’t use that computer until you’ve talked to a data recovery specialist.

Is it easier to recover data from certain brands of hard drives?

Yes, in a sense. The difficulty – or at least the cost – typically goes up as a hard drive is more specialized, complex or obscure. Many hard drive brands are now obsolete and no longer in production. Recovering data from them can require replacement parts from several drives of the same model. So generally, it is easier to recover data from hard drives that were widely produced or still in production.

Speaking of obsolete, if you have your data on something really old like floppy discs, back it up elsewhere. This seems weird to me personally, but this is applying more and more to the media I remember being brand new – DVDs and CDs. New laptops often come without DVD players. Fewer music players use CDs. There could come a day soon when all the photos backed up to DVDs are difficult to access because a CD/DVD drive will be as difficult to find as a floppy drive is today.

What makes Gillware different than other data recovery specialists?

Our company is full of some of the most talented engineers and computer scientists in the industry, and the people who founded it are still solving cases every day in the lab. I love that!

We introduced the practice of showing a full list of results and charging only if our client decides we succeeded. We have made it our mission to be transparent, secure and cost effective with the best customer service.

Gillware was founded by two brothers, Brian and Tyler Gill, after Tyler’s hard drive crashed. We help people regain what once seemed lost. That’s our purpose, and we are most proud of simply being able to help those in need. It’s driven our efforts to be able to recover data from all types of electronic storage devices, regardless of how they’ve failed.

Our track record can be seen by looking at what people have written at our LinkedIn company page, as well as all over the internet. We’re rated A+ by the Better Business Bureau and are a GSA contract holder.

We’re fortunate to have clients from all sectors. Bloggers raising kids. Like me! Universities. Federal agencies. Fortune 500 corporations. We are the official data recovery lab for Dell, and recommended by Western Digital.

But what I hope separates us is our exemplary concern for our next client and our exceptional drive to get back what’s important.

I was only backing my photos up on one external hard drive. What SHOULD I have been doing?

That’s a question we get lots of times every day. Our customers basically say: We’re grateful for the recovery, but how can I never see you guys again? Maybe it’s not in our best interest, but we developed an answer. A reliable, automatic online backup is what we consider the best solution.

Why is an online back-up service the best option for data?

Backups fail for a lot of reasons. Often it’s because they rely on remembering to do something.

Backups that are in the same building as the data they’re protecting can fail for a lot of unfortunate reasons, as we are seeing now with the flooding in Chicago, or we saw again and again after Hurricane Sandy. Online backups protect data in many situations where a local backup will fail: robberies, fire, storms and more.

Plus, it’s not impossible – or really even that unlikely — for multiple storage devices to fail. We’ve had many cases in the lab where after a computer stops working, it’s discovered that the backup device is also inoperable.

Are online back-up services expensive?

No, most people can back up all the files they care about for a few dollars a month.

What online back-up services does Gillware offer?

We offer a service that is cleverly named Gillware Online Backup. It’s used by New York Life, the American Institute of CPAs, and thousands of our data recovery clients. We offer our data recovery clients a free 2 GB backup account, which is available to download here. The free 2GB of compressed storage is enough to protect about 1,000 high resolution photos or at least 200,000 typical Office documents. Beyond that, it’s 50 cents per compressed GB per month.

Your data stays more private and secure than online credit card transactions. Your backup is encrypted and remains that way.

Currently, Gillware Online Backup can be used by any computer running a Windows operating system. I wish they supported Mac too! You choose what files, file types and folders are important, and Gillware Online Backup does the rest. We offer one-on-one Advanced Technical Reviews to make sure the backup is doing its job and no new software, for instance, is interfering. All customer support comes directly from us in Madison, Wis.

WHEW! That’s a lot of great information, isn’t it? If you have a PC, I would definitely recommend checking Gillware out for an online back-up solution. Since we use macs in my home, I’m still exploring options for our photos. Thank you so much to Gillware for recovering my photos and for providing so much great information for this post. I hope it was as helpful to you as it was to me.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Valerie April 25, 2013 at 8:17 am

So glad you were able to recover your pictures! I am hyper crazy about backing up mine…I have CD’s copies of each picture, an external hard drive backup, and I use smugmug as a backup as well!


jessicaturner April 25, 2013 at 8:42 am

Whew! Sounds like I need to take a lesson from you. :)


Sara April 25, 2013 at 10:22 am

Oh, what a timely and interesting series! We’ve just had a lovely family vacation and I’m looking at ways to back up our pics. As a Mac user, though, what are your suggestions? Love Gillware and would love to use them… :) Thanks again!



jessicaturner April 25, 2013 at 11:02 am

Hi Sara – I actually haven’t gotten that far in my research yet. I have heard good things about Carbonite…


Emily April 25, 2013 at 12:51 pm

We only use macs in our home as well, will you share which one you decide on to use? Thanks so much for your post! I’m going to get a hard drive and DVDs now to burn!!


Bree April 25, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Wow. You never think about these types of things, until something bad happens. Thank you, so much, for sharing your story! I plan on buying an external drive and exploring online back-up solutions, this weekend.


Andrea April 25, 2013 at 5:24 pm

We use Carbonate and I love it. All pics that get added to my
computer are automatically backed up. Side note though,
Carbonate will only back up the files on your computer.
If you delete an image it is deleted from Carbonate after
30 days. So this service would not work if you are looking to
delete images from your computer to free up space. Hope this


Kelli April 25, 2013 at 9:44 pm

Thank you for the review, it’s so nice to read something simply and to the point. I appreciate your sharing. I was told to back everything up to CD’s, but when I went to retrieve them two years later, none of our systems would read the CD’s. Royal pain. I’m going to look into Gillware, but I did wonder as you buy bigger and bigger space can you delete out what is no longer important?


jessicaturner September 9, 2013 at 11:15 am

I don’t know if you mean me personally or generally speaking. I am someone who would rather buy more space than take the time to delete photos I don’t need. I just take too many. :) So I pull the best photos into weekly files for Project Life and call it a day. :)


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