To format or not to format a drive with important files on it
November 24, 2008 9:33 AM   Subscribe

Please help me figure out whether or not to format an unformatted hard drive that still has data I need on it.

Dear Mefi,

Posting this for my brother, though I'm the one actually doing the work. His computer died after someone from [cable company] tried to hook up a DSL line to it. Windows wouldn't start at all.

I took it back to my place and reinstalled Windows XP. Everything seemed to be fine, and I even copied his Word files, mostly comedy material from his radio show, from the old "My Documents" folder to the new one. Everything ok, right?

Wrong. When I took it back to his place, on bootup I got "Insert system disk and press Enter to restart". No Windows detected. When I booted from the Windows install disk, it read the hard drive as unformatted and wanted to format it.

I've tried booting with both Ubuntu and Knoppix live CDs, and neither will go past the introductory parts. I also tried several boot disk utilities, and none of them will give me anything but a DOS prompt on R:/, created in the RAM. I cannot change to any other drive.

The problem is the Word files. He needs them. I would just go ahead and reformat the C:/ drive and reinstall XP, but I need to know if there are any other options. Should I just reformat and worry about data recovery later? If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of me kicking myself for not backing the files up when I had the chance.

Complicating the issue is that this is a super-small Acer TravelMate C100 with a super-small IBM Travelstar hard drive, model IC25N030ATCS04. It doesn't fit in any other computer I own, so I can't just pop it in somewhere and test it out.

Thanks a bunch MeFi - I've already wasted a weekend on this, and it's really getting to me!
posted by mjklin to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Reformatting will destroy any hope you had of data recovery. I'd suggest buying an external USB enclosure to try the drive in - shouldn't set you back more than $20ish.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:56 AM on November 24, 2008

Should I just reformat and worry about data recovery later? I

No. Reformating will cause another layer of writes, which will make it more difficult if not impossible to get the files. If both XP and Linux cant read that disk, then there's a good chance that disk is dead or dying. That's probably the core issue. The disk was dying before the tech installed the DSL software and that install was the last straw.
You can also run a smart utility to see what the disc reports back. Speedfan has one built in.

It doesn't fit in any other computer I own, so I can't just pop it in somewhere and test it out.

I'd buy an adapter and hook it up to a working computer. Is it a standard 3.5" laptop drive? If so something like this will work. You may be able to run a file rescue program and extract data from it. If that fails then the files may be lost or you may need to send the drive to a pro.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:36 AM on November 24, 2008

Whoa -- at this point, the last thing you want to do is write to the drive again. If this was me, I would:

1) Slap the drive into an external enclosure.
2) Attach said drive to a machine that has enough free space for me to make an image of the drive or three.
3) Use software for whatever operating system my machine runs on to make an image of the drive
4) Make a backup copy of the image
5) Attempt any recovery efforts on the newly created image of the drive.

There have been lots of Ask MeFi posts about data recovery. I use Linux for such things and would recommend dd_rhelp and testdisk.
posted by dhammala at 11:02 AM on November 24, 2008

As far as software solutions for data recovery go, there's a difference between programs that can recover deleted files and those that can recover data after a format. The latter include (for Windows) OnTrack EastRecovery Pro and (for multiple platforms) Stellar Phoenix.

I've recovered all sorts of data from hard disks and memory cards with these two packages. There may well be a free or shareware alternative but I haven't found one that will recover data reliably after a drive has been formatted and partially reused.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 11:38 AM on November 24, 2008

Thanks guys, sounds like the next step is an enclosure of some kind to let me read the drive on another computer. It's a 2.5" drive, so something like this seems to be in order. Thanks for making this less of a headache!

Seriously, you don't know how much it helps.
posted by mjklin at 12:29 PM on November 24, 2008

If the Windows XP setup program detects the drive as unformatted, then it is likely that it will show up as unformatted in an external enclosure as well.

SpinRite. Seriously. Best disk maintenance/recovery tool I've used. You won't have to remove the drive from the TravelMate as long as you can boot from floppy, CD/DVD, or other (USB) boot device.

The author has a 30-day money-back guarantee, no questions asked.
posted by Perplexer at 4:09 PM on November 24, 2008

ddrescue and ntfsclone
posted by vsync at 4:25 AM on November 25, 2008

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