DIY data recovery -- challenges and alternatives

Modern laptops and desktops can hold a massive amount of information, including tens of thousands of pictures and millions of pages of text. Despite their storage capacities, these devices should not be used as a means to permanently store digital information because they’re prone to breakage and data corruption. Recovering data from one of these failed devices is difficult, and requires a high-level of expertise that’s not always accessible to the person that likes to fix things themselves.

Older laptops that were constructed with traditional hard drives were fairly simple to pop open and fix. You could unscrew a few screws holding the case together, and then plug into the drive via a universal SATA port to retrieve the data. Opening the actual drive itself is not without risk or advisable as dust could and will enter the drive causing contamination and it can always cause additional damaged during the process. 

For example, older drives would be subject to something called stiction and become "stuck" where the head and actuator were locked or stuck and the motor fails to spin up so the platters were not spinning properly. One trick that had some reported success involved placing a hard drive in the freezer which would cause the metal to contract and unstuck, at least long enough to offload the data.

Modern SSD drives in newer portable computers are much more difficult to access. These laptops are built very thin, and reaching the casing screws is sometimes impossible. And even if the case can be opened, many of these drives are inaccessible and sometimes even soldered directly onto the other components, so removal is virtually impossible. If someone has a SSD laptop that’s inoperable and contains important data, then the only viable option is to send the machine to a specialized shop. This company will open the device in a clean room and have the right sockets to match to the laptop’s proprietary connectors. While such recovery is usually successful, it could potentially cost thousands of dollars and will require a considerable amount of time.

Recovery services are also the only viable option if the machine was exposed to water or if it was dropped and it’s likely some part of the drive was broken. If you hear loud clicking noises, or the machine was immersed in liquids, then the best route is to turn it off and keep it off. Never use a hairdryer or other hot air on the machine as this can push the liquid into further components and create an environment of high humidity. Simply find a recovery service and let the experts handle it.

Beware Software Tools

There are hundreds of software utility tools that can be downloaded off the internet for free and offer promises of fast and easy data retrieval. Unfortunately, some of these are unreliable and worse have limitations on the amount of data you can recover without upgrading to a paid version. If going down this route, only choose well known, and well respected programs.

Reduce the risks of data loss

Despite the availability of some recovery options, the best way to avoid going through the expensive recovery process is to proactively manage data so that if a device fails, it does not have as big of an impact on your productivity. You simply buy a new machine and go about your day. Here’s some tips for reducing the risks of data loss:

Sync Data with the Cloud

Secure and reliable data backups are best done in the cloud. Use a reputable cloud service such as Google or Amazon to "mirror" your data from your computer to a secure virtual server. Cloud storage is very cheap and provides you with risk protection through automated backups, so set your data to back up automatically. You can also use external hard drives to create "backups of your backups" for extra peace of mind.

Use the Best Security Solutions

The first line of defense for a computer should be a login PIN number, which offers a layer of protection against theft. Another tactic is to install (and update frequently) a firewall program and a well-regarded antivirus and malware utility. You can also encrypt your data which makes it nearly impossible to read unless in possession of the encryption key. Update the O/S frequently to pull in the latest security patches, and use multi-faceted tools that will warn you about possible phishing emails, unsecure websites, and other hacking attempts.

Recovery should always be seen as a "last resort" that’s used to pull the most important data. It’s best to treat a laptop or desktop as simply a gateway for reaching the internet and a way to power software. With the cloud, there’s no longer any reason to use a computer as a storage device. So if something goes wrong with the machine, then simply buy a new one for $500 and dive back into work.

David Zimmerman has been in the hardware/software industry for over 30 years, specifically in the data recovery software market for 18 years. His company, LC Technology International, Inc., makes data recovery products for most of his competitors. Clients include original equipment manufacturers, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, corporate security specialists and IT consultants, among others. Available worldwide and published in more than 24 different languages, LC Technology products are available direct or through several major manufacturers of flash memory products.

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