Need help with a computer diagnosis.
December 13, 2008 2:39 PM   Subscribe

Computer Diagnostic Help and Interpretation, Please: My son inherited an 8-year-old Dell Dimension L933r from his grandpa. It had been upgraded to Windows XP and had an additional hard drive installed. It was working smoothly for us for almost a year, but recently it went into an infinite reboot loop (which we couldn't resolve ourselves) and we took it to an independent computer repair guy (details and questions inside).

The computer repair guy (who came highly recommended for his competence and fair pricing from the guys at my son's favorite independent video game store) said that the C drive was "fried," that "nothing can be recovered from it" and that the CD/DVD drive is "shot" (which is apparently why we couldn't solve the infinite reboot problem with the Windows recovery disc - the machine couldn't read it) but he said that the additional hard drive (which is the E drive) is "fine" and that he can "put it into a new machine and fire it up right away"...

Now, my problem is, I'm conversant enough in computer terminology to have a casual conversation, but when confronted with a computer repair guy who answers nearly every question with a firm "Nope, that's not an option, sorry" I'm not sure how to move forward.

So, my question to AskMefi is: When he says that the C drive is "fried" does he truly mean that absolutely nothing can be recovered from it, no way, no how? (My son so badly wants to believe that he can figure out a way to do so - and he also thinks that his grandpa had the computer configured so that everything on the C drive was automatically backed up on the E drive. If so, would the computer guy see that and would he tell us if he did?)...

The computer guy only charged us $15 for his time in rendering a diagnosis (which was more than fair), but he also pushed pretty heavily for getting us to agree to put the E drive into a "new machine" (which he wanted to sell us). We ended up bringing the tower home and telling him we'd think about our options. I guess I'm just wondering what those options might be (beyond what the computer guy is pushing for) and should we seek a second opinion?

If you need any additional information to be able to answer my question, I'll be away from the computer intermittently, but
will check back as often as I can.
posted by amyms to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's completely possible that the C drive isn't bootable, but it'd probably be possible to recover some data from it if you sent it to a (very expensive) data recovery service. When drives die, they tend to do so in a way that makes them unable to be repaired by your standard neighborhood computer guy.

You could ask if there's any backup data on the other drive. It might take some looking, but he should be able to determine that. As for the "new machine" idea, why not just replace the DVD drive and put the second, working hard drive into the current PC as a primary? That should work, unless there's something else he's not mentioning.
posted by mikeh at 2:52 PM on December 13, 2008

There are specialist services that can recover information from damaged hard disk drives. These services cost hundreds of dollars, though. There is no way that this technician would have been able to tell whether one of these services would work. It's possible that you could get some data off of it even without using one of these services. It depends on what he meant by "fried" which is not really that descriptive.

He would be unlikely to know whether stuff was automatically backed up, but you would be able to find out by looking on the E drive, or asking if specific files are there.

On preview, what mikeh said. Which is somewhat eerie since my name is also Mike H.
posted by grouse at 2:54 PM on December 13, 2008

A 9 year old computer is ancient - most hardware, especially hard-drives, will not last even half that long. There are a few ways your C drive could be "fried" and of those, some of them will render the data unrecoverable. Even if it were possible to recover some of the data - it's incredibly expensive to do so, and usually, you will need to do a lot of work in order to find your data even if it is recovered. The repair guy was not out of line to offer you another tower to put the remaining hard drive into. This is usually what you do when your old machine dies.

A 9 year old computer isn't worth the gas required to drive it to the repair place - it's not even worth donating, really. You can get a brand new computer for about $300 - that would be a better use of your money.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:02 PM on December 13, 2008

The reboot endlessly thing may be due to XP being set to reboot upon bluescreen (of death!). The bluescreen can be due to a corrupt OS file, or hardware malfunction, hard for anyone to say without looking at the machine.
If the bluescreen is coming from a corrupt system file, you should be able to find someone whom can easily pop it into an enclosure and you can get the files from it. You might not need data recovery services. I don't know what/how your computer guy did to arrive at his conclusions, but IMO, he seems a bit eager to sell a new machine.
posted by kellyblah at 3:08 PM on December 13, 2008

Here's a DIY guide to retrieving data from a dead HD. What the technician was telling you is that the drive no longer responds and is mostly dead. Freezing it or hitting it hard can sometimes wake it from death long enough to copy the data you need from it.

Disk restoration by a professional runs thousands of dollars. This scenario happened at an old job of mine and the quotes started at $2500.

My son so badly wants to believe that he can figure out a way to do so - and he also thinks that his grandpa had the computer configured so that everything on the C drive was automatically backed up on the E drive.

You can replace the CD drive and boot with a CD (either windows or linux based) and browse the E: drive. Be extra sure you are not installing ubuntu on there. You just want to boot the live image. You can then copy what you need from there to another drive. Dont let the tech wipe that drive before you've gotten everything off.

Also, there's a good chance that the tech doesnt realize that the problem might be the controller the CD and C: drive are plugged into. Its suspicious that both would fail at the same time. It may be case that plugging the c: drive into cable the e: drive is on will make it bootable again. Or was the CD drive broken before?
posted by damn dirty ape at 3:12 PM on December 13, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far, you've given us some good ideas. I wanted to respond to a couple of things:

A 9 year old computer isn't worth the gas required to drive it to the repair place

We realize that on an intellectual level, but it is worth it to my son on an emotional and nostalgic level. He just wants to make sure we explore all possible options before giving up on it.

Its suspicious that both [the CD/DVD drive and the C drive] would fail at the same time... Or was the CD drive broken before?

It had been acting up a little bit (it stopped recognizing DVDs, and it would no longer burn CDs) but it was still reading music CDs and gaming discs up until the point when it refused to recognize the Windows recovery disc.
posted by amyms at 3:26 PM on December 13, 2008

There are basically two methods of failure for a hard-drive. It's a mechanical motor attached to some spinning steel magnetic discs, with some circuitry to power it and read the data back off the discs. It's entirely possible for this mechanism to fail in some fashion - dead electronics, seized motor etc. This is generally what is meant by 'fried' - the tech plugs it into another machine, and it's not even recognised as a hard-drive, or it won't allow any data to be read. Sometimes, it makes nasty noises as the motor does things it's not supposed to - often called the 'click of death'.

In such circumstances, the data may well be still be on the physical metal platters, but there's no way to get to it. There are very expensive specialist recovery people who can disassemble the drive, replace the electronics with the same from a sacrificial drive of the same model etc etc - the older the drive and the worse the damage, the greater the cost to recover it, and it's definitely a specialist-lab with a clean room kind of repair. Unless it's irreplacable and vital financial documents, it's rarely worth the cost.

The second type of failure is software based. The data on the disc is made sense of by the operating system, windows. If, for some reason, that data is written incorrectly to the disc, next time windows tries to read some of it back, it fails. If the corruption is in just the wrong place (filetable), then it can stop windows reading anything back from the drive at all. Depending upon how bad the corruption is, some or almost all of the data may be recoverable using another machine and the right software. I've recovered many a set of files from a physically healthy but software addled drive.

It's reasonably safe to assume a competent tech would have tried this type of software recovery, as it's a useful way to tell if the drive is physically OK. That he could get nothing back at all of your C: drive, is fairly indicative of major hard-drive failure. Plus, it sounds like he did the same test on the E: drive - if there was data on there worth having, he would have said so. Still, it wouldn't hurt to get a 2nd opinion on the E: drive, and double check to see what data if any is on there. Any pc geek should be able to stick your E: drive in their PC and see. It only takes a few minutes.

It also is worth saying that 9 years is absolutely ancient in PC terms. I'm amazed any of it still functions, the motor bearings on your original fans, power supply and hard-drive must all be shot to hell, and there's leaky capacitors on your motherboard, dust... The best warranty on hard-drives is 5 years, often it's only 3. It really isn't worth repairing; it will fail again, and it will cost you more to fix than replace, especially given the way hardware prices have plummeted the last few years. The tech moves so quickly too. You'll get a new machine literally 10 times or more powerful for a few hundred dollars, with warranties to boot.
posted by ArkhanJG at 3:32 PM on December 13, 2008

Response by poster: It also is worth saying that 9 years is absolutely ancient in PC terms. I'm amazed any of it still functions

Yeah, we're amazed too, but it's been well-taken-care-of, and it had experienced zero problems until this episode that we're dealing with now. My own computer (that I'm typing on right now) is only a year younger than the one in question and it's still puttering along quite nicely *fingers crossed* despite some minor issues over the years that have always been easily resolved without having to take it to anyone, so we're really inexperienced in having to deal with an actual repair person.

Just wanted to reiterate that this isn't about whether the computer is "worth saving," it's about my son's attachment to it, and to the various things he had saved on the C drive that he doesn't want to give up on without at least reading other opinions and considering every possible option.

So far he's really liking the idea of putting in a new CD/DVD drive and making the E drive primary. If we go that route, would he be able to explore the C drive on his own?
posted by amyms at 4:10 PM on December 13, 2008

Amyms, the best way to recover data (if it *is* recoverable -- and I agree with others here that it may not be) is to plug the hard drive(s) into an external disk enclosure, then try to read them on another computer. It's a shame that you are so far away -- I love playing with this stuff and I have a PC of that generation hanging around the house, just waiting for an excuse to swap the hard drives over(!). You need to ask your PC repair guy if he has tried to read the two hard drives in another PC or enclosure - the disks may still be readable and he may be assuming that it is the disks that have failed because he can't access them. damn dirty ape's suggestion that it could be a disk controller problem is a good one - I agree that it is highly suspicious that both the C: drive and the CD-ROM drive failed at the same time (these are accessed via the same "bus" (access channel) on the disk controller card in your type of PC).
First - do you have access to a different computer that has a USB port? If so, you can take the C: drive hard disk out of the Dimension and place it in an external disk enclosure. The full specification for the Dimension L933r is on the Dell website. This tells me that you have 3.5" EIDE hard drives installed in that model. So you need a 3.5" external IDE disk enclosure, such as this one ($25 if you buy it from Tiger Direct). Get a hard drive enclosure for IDE drives (the newer ones only work with SATA drives, so read the description to make sure that it works with IDE drives). Your PC repair guy should be able to help you with taking the hard drives out. There are some photos and explanation of how to install the drive in an external hard drive enclosure here. Install the C: hard drive in the enclosure then read it via the USB port on another computer to see what files are readable from it. Then take this hard drive out of the enclosure and do the same for the E: drive hard disk. This will tell you if the "automatic backup" from C: to E: did take place.
DON'T let your repair guy make the E: drive into the primary boot disk until you have looked to see what files are on the E: drive - i.e. whether it does contain a copy of the files that your son wants to save. Once he installs a Windows partition on the E: drive, he may overwrite the data that your son wants to keep (if it *has been* backed up to that drive, which we don;t know at this point). So try to read the contents of the E: drive using an external enclosure first.
If you do find the files that your son wants to keep, you need to back these up to a newer hard drive. 8 years is pretty old and you don't want to risk losing these again. Given that your old hard drive probably had 20MB or less of data on it, I have a small (2.5") 20MB external drive that I am not using - memail me if you would like this and I'll send it to you. Unfortunately, I don't have an external 3.5" enclosure of the sort that you need. But if you get stuck with any of this, memail me and I'll help you in any way that I can (by phone if that helps).
Finally, if the disks are readable, it is worth trying to replace the disk controller card. eBay or Craigslist are good places to try for spare parts on older machines (contact Dell to see if they can tell you which part to look for). There is a guy selling a complete Dell Dimension L933r on eBay just now for $40. He hasn't sold it and the auction is almost over (probably because he is asking $40 for shipping). You could always try contacting him to see if he is near enough for pickup and if he will take a lower offer. Then you could just swap the disk with your son's data over to the new PC. But you need to see if either of the disks can be read or not - and if the data still exists on the disk -- first(!). If the data is lost, I'd recommend going for a newer PC. Dell have some very good deals on their cheaper PCs at the moment - and you already have a monitor, so you can save some $$$ there.
posted by Susurration at 4:44 PM on December 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

If the e drive was a mirrored drive of the failed drive that will work. If it just has some data on it then it won't boot to windows.

If you want to keep the machine, you could buy a new hard drive and install windows on it. Like others have said, a 9 year old machine probably isn't worth putting money into, but a new hard drive would only cost you $40 on

If the tech is competent and he says the drive is dead I would believe him. At least your son is learning the lesson to back up his data early in life! Sorry, I know that sounds harsh.
posted by meta87 at 4:53 PM on December 13, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, Susurration, thank you so much for your ideas and for your generous offer of personal help (if it were up to my son, we'd be in the car right now embarking on a cross-country roadtrip to your door lol).

The things you've described are a bit of out my range of techie ability, or at least they're things that I wouldn't feel competent to try... BUT, I am so grateful to have your ideas to take with us the next time we talk to the computer repair guy. If he's not willing to try them, maybe I can find someone else who will.

I know my son feels much more optimistic being armed with information, and he's very much appreciating all of the responses here.
posted by amyms at 5:16 PM on December 13, 2008

amyms writes "The things you've described are a bit of out my range of techie ability, or at least they're things that I wouldn't feel competent to try... BUT, I am so grateful to have your ideas to take with us the next time we talk to the computer repair guy. If he's not willing to try them, maybe I can find someone else who will. "

amyms, if you're able to read a cookbook or a cross stitch pattern or change a tire, you can do what Sussuration described.It's not complicated, you just have to electrically ground yourself, unscrew a few screws, and snap a few things in and out. Seriously, cross-stitching is harder (I've done done both).
posted by orthogonality at 8:06 AM on December 14, 2008

It also is worth saying that 9 years is absolutely ancient in PC terms. I'm amazed any of it still functions, the motor bearings on your original fans, power supply and hard-drive must all be shot to hell, and there's leaky capacitors on your motherboard, dust...

This is a completely ridiculous! A ~1GHz PIII is still a very useful system. It isn't surprising that a hard drive has failed, but you shouldn't assume anything else will necessarily fail because of it. The capacitors, unless they are "bad caps", have at least 10 more years of useful life (it doesn't have bad caps, because it wouldn't have gotten to 9 years if it did). The BIOS battery probably needs replacing (and it may actually be related to the problems you're having, but probably not). Fans do wear out, but they are easily replaced if they do. 99% of the electronics simply don't wear out, ever!
posted by Chuckles at 4:35 PM on December 14, 2008

And it is doubly disappointing, because the rest of ArkhanJG's answer is great.
posted by Chuckles at 4:39 PM on December 14, 2008

I run a few hundred computers in a school. Nothing ever gets thrown out until it dies, and even then we cannabalize for parts to keep as many going as we can.

Hard-drives and power supplies are the things that go first, usually the motors. Estimated failure rate on a current batch of 6 year old pcs is about 30%. Failure rates on our gear that's 8 years old, was about 80%. Yes, you can keep replacing fans, replacing power supplies and replacing motherboards and harddrives, but at some point it becomes cost ineffective to do so, given the historically low prices of new hardware, and the imminent demise of XP, and the performance improvement of doing so.

I was also referring to the bad cap problem as one that kills machines during a 9 year lifetime, as well as dust. No, not all old machines suffer that problem, nor even a majority, but we lost a whole batch of them over the course of a couple of years to it, though there was no sign of it in their first few years of life. Do we even know it wasn't bad caps on this board that killed it and took the drive and CD with it? Without getting it on the bench, or knowing more about the state of the rest of the PC, we've no idea.

Quite a lot of cheap electronics do indeed 'wear out' during normal use. I've a whole stack of dead motherboards and graphics cards in my office to prove it.

Anyway. Assuming the failed PC is still operational apart from the cd and hard drive, yes, you could put the E: drive in as primary, replace the CD and reinstall windows. You would however lose whatever was stored on the E: drive, so you'll definitely want to try and find out what's on it first.

I have to admit, I still think your original tech's idea is probably the best; buy a new pc, put the E: drive in that, and then you can backup whatever files at your leisure. you can even try and recover the C: drive via the same method, though it does sound like it's gone to the great electronics graveyard physically.
posted by ArkhanJG at 5:16 PM on December 14, 2008

Response by poster: I thought I'd better pop back in here and post an update of sorts. We ended up getting my son a laptop for Christmas (which was two weeks after the desktop computer in the question gave up the ghost). Once he had the laptop in his hands, he completely forgot about all of his nostalgic attachment to the old computer -- ahh, to be a fickle teenager again lol -- but the tower is sitting in the attic in case he wants to try to tackle it with any data recovery options in the future. The good thing is that he's learned a valuable lesson about backing up his important stuff (he's using jump drives now).

I want to thank you all for your helpful responses. You gave my son a lot of hope when he was feeling panicky and upset, and even though he's moved on from it for the time being, I know that your advice will come in handy if he decides to pursue it (the data recovery) again.
posted by amyms at 8:17 PM on April 11, 2009

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