Saving a hard drive/Windows install that is freezing up.
July 20, 2013 7:51 PM   Subscribe

Our desktop computer is locking up in scary ways, and I'm looking for advice on how to save the contents of the hard drive, and/or just get it up and running again.

This is a Windows Vista machine that is several years old. Big hard drive with tons of stuff on it. A couple of days ago, it started freezing up erratically, and I'm worried that the hard drive might be on the verge of failure. At the very least, I've got something screwy with either some bad sectors or a damaged Windows install.

Here's what happens now: When I turn it on, it goes through the BIOS boot-up just fine, then wants to run check-disk. If I let it do that, it starts the check-disk process, then freezes up at 5 percent in. If I restart it and skip the check-disk, Windows starts up just fine and dandy, but locks up whenever I try to launch any application.

Is it the case, as I suspect, that if I were able to get a check-disk program to work to completion, that all would be well? Is there a good tool that I could boot from a USB and run to scan the disk? I've had the thing turned off just to make sure no additional damage is done. What would you do to try to salvage things at this point?
posted by jbickers to Computers & Internet (13 answers total)
If the hard drive contents is at all valuable to you:

Go and buy or borrow a new hard drive. Obtain a technically competent person and a second, working computer. Put hard drive into second, working computer. Copy the valuable contents.

It could just be a corrupted windows install (in which case, you can just reinstall windows vista). If you do suspect this is the case, borrow rather than buy that second drive, but still do it... because:

It could be a damaged hard drive. In that case, you have x amount of use before it dies and you can't retrieve your data any more.
posted by Ashlyth at 8:01 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

(So, just in case I wasn't clear, running stuff from USB to scan the disc may kill the disc, and it won't fix your windows problems. Running stuff from USB might say 'you have a problem, it's here' - it can only 'fix' very small problems.)

Once you've backed up your data or decided you don't want it, then you can reformat the drive, and reinstall windows, and see if the disc still lives. I'd keep the backup for a while though.

Nearly every time I've seen chkdisc come up on a computer, it's meant the hard drive was dying.
Exception: right after a powercut, and it went away on restart.
posted by Ashlyth at 8:15 PM on July 20, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks all ... I've got a working HP Mini netbook with tons of storage space ... is there any way to connect it with the failing PC/hard drive and salvage the data from it? Any way to do this without buying additional cords/devices/etc.?

(And yes, the contents of the hard drive are precious ... several years worth of kid photos and videos. Thank you for your help.)
posted by jbickers at 8:19 PM on July 20, 2013

not sure why you need a 2nd computer.

Buy a new hard drive.

Pull old drive.

Install new drive. Boot to windows dvd. Format new drive. Install Windows onto new drive.

Add old drive as a slave drive.

Copy your important files from the old drive to the new.

Bonus: Disassemble old drive for cool rare-earth magnet.
posted by Bonzai at 8:22 PM on July 20, 2013

If you've got a friend with any kind of external hard drive enclosure that you can borrow (the kind that you can swap the drive in), that would work with your netbook, yep. Or via a friend's desktop, which might be easier to find.

If there was less data (like, 1 - 2 GB) you could potentially do it via some linux distro on a USB drive, but I wouldn't suggest it with more.
posted by Ashlyth at 8:28 PM on July 20, 2013

As others have mentioned, get a USB hard drive enclosure, stick the old hard drive in it, and copy the files off of the drive ASAP. It may or may not be the hard drive (though that's where my money would go), but the longer you wait to pull files off of a dying drive, the harder it will be to get them. If the drive fails, data recovery services may be your only option, and they will be much more expensive than a USB enclosure.

Also, for the future, if these files are truly irreplaceable, have a good backup plan in place before you have hardware issues. Otherwise, you *will* lose these files someday. It's not an if, it's a when. All storage hardware can fail unpredictably. If you want something that is more set it and forget it, look at using something that backs up files automatically like Crashplan, or even just use a cloud service to store irreplaceable files like Dropbox, SkyDrive, Google Drive or (my favorite, as it encrypts the files before sending them so not even the service can look at them) SpiderOak.
posted by Aleyn at 8:43 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Aleyn above pretty much sums up the short term (and the long term), but consider that your PC is acting screwy because it is hot. Open the case and point a fan at it.

I once had an overheating northbridge that presented as a failing HDD. I got the data off the HDD, but unfortunately I needed the PC to last long enough to make a client deadline. The fan kept it cool enough, long enough to finish the project and buy more PC fans. And workup a proper backup strategy.
posted by notyou at 11:44 PM on July 20, 2013

Pull the hard drive out, get a new one, and put the old drive in this.

Includes all needed cables, and then if you ever need to get data off of any other drives(from a laptop OR desktop!) you have this handy universal dock.

I've had one for a long time and it's come in handy in numerous ways. Want to give away an old system? pull the drive out and wipe it quickly with your newer faster system. Want to get data off of moms old laptop that broke? Bam, handy dock.

It's just a cool thing to have, and much more useful than an external hard drive case that you have to completely dis-assemble and re-assemble every time you want to switch the drives. And it's not limited to one size of drive(laptop/desktop) either!
posted by emptythought at 1:33 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do not do any chkdsk or anything anymore. Do not boot it up anymore.

1. Buy new HDD, install Windows (if this is what you like)
2. Put old HDD into an external enclosure and try to copy data to new HDD

If this does not work, try to freeze your old HDD

For future reference: Backup your data!
posted by yoyo_nyc at 2:13 AM on July 21, 2013

Lots of good advice here, so I just wanted to add: this is why it's important to back up your data! Cloud backup is probably safest/most foolproof (although may come with security concerns depending on what kind of data you are backing up). But it does come with recurring costs. At the very least, you can burn a few copies of important data to DVD and stash those somewhere other than your home. Also an external hard drive with daily automatic backups is a good idea.
posted by number9dream at 4:55 AM on July 21, 2013

You can pick up cheap hard drive enclosures if you have a computer store nearby, or check Amazon. Should not have to spend more than $15 for a generic USB version. Worth paying a little more if you think you might use the enclosure to host a backup drive in the future (I have two externals, daisy-chained using FireWire, backup drive in each - one manual backup using a sync program for specific folders, second drive is an automatic backup for all our computers using a scheduled backup service). If your computers have similar storage space, you can also mirror important things that way (my wife's laptop and my own system have the same Pictures folder structure, with duplicates of all of our photos and videos). And then there is the cloud option, which gives you not only redundancy and version control, but offsite storage too. I have lots of backups but if the house blew up it would all be gone, aside from what's online. If you don't have a lot of cash, Flickr is now giving 2 terabytes of free storage to everyone these days, so you can at the very least upload your photos and videos without paying for cloud storage.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:36 AM on July 21, 2013

if you are (or have access to a friend who is) familiar with Linux, I'd suggest GNU ddrescue for recovering your data from the failing drive - it's not as simple as just copying files off the drive, but I've had success using it in cases where the source disk was otherwise unusable.
posted by russm at 8:55 AM on July 21, 2013

I used the USB/external hard drive trick just last week, also running Lazesoft Recovery Suite to help get the hard drive to behave a bit better while I copied the files I needed. In my case, I had a lost partition and some sector errors. It was able to repair the former and minimize the damage caused by the latter. I was able to safely recover all but a handful of files.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:38 AM on July 21, 2013

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