go backup your computer. NOW.

OK, now that you're all backed up, let me tell you about my day.

Sometime Friday evening, the hard drive in my home desktop PC failed, in a major kind of way. In retrospect, I should have realized this was coming -- except that I have never had a drive fail like this before. But my gut was telling me something was wrong with that computer (which is 4 1/2 yrs old). I haven't been using my desktop at home as much lately, ever since I got the laptop. But I prefer to work on it for anything involving graphics, and it has all of my personal files and programs (the laptop is owned by my U and I keep it very streamlined with work materials only). So my awareness of its behaviors was less attuned than it might have been a few months ago, when I was using it daily.

A Little History
A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that the hard drive seemed to be active often even when I wasn't doing anything resource intensive. Of course, I suspected software problems. I ran all my spyware checkers, double checked my antivirus and firewall. I didn't come up with anything. Then one day Windows Explorer, which I use to manage my directories and files, kept freezing up. I Googled the problem, and discovered various possible reasons for it (a conflict with an old printer -- which had never caused the problem before; the need to edit some registry values; etc) . I followed all the recommended steps and my machine still kept freezing up. Finally, I downloaded a shareware filemanager that worked plenty fast (and had features I'd often wished for in Windows Explorer). I was still a bit uneasy about why my WinEx had suddenly started pooping out -- but then a few days later it was back up just as speedy as ever. Weird. And for some reason I never considered that it might be a hardware issue. I blamed the most recent piece of evaluation software I'd put on the machine, and uninstalled it (to no effect). I questioned our home network setup. I knew something was off, but I didn't know enough to know what to look for.

The universe had been sending me some unrecognized signs, though. One in the form of one of my colleagues, who told me all about how one of her hard drives crashed and she lost 400 hours of work. Another was the little nagging voice in my head telling me I ought to do a full backup (which I didn't listen to). And only a couple of weeks ago, I stood in front of an aisle of external hard drives with my GF, who was buying one, and I talked about getting one to simplify my backup strategy. But I felt overwhelmed by the choices, burdened by debt, and I hadn't done any research, so I didn't walk out of the store with a new drive. I put it on the list of things to look into.

The Crash
I used my desktop computer Friday afternoon for a couple of hours. Nothing unusual in sound, behavior, anything. Then I put it to sleep, and went about my day. Around 11 pm, I happened to walk by the door to my study, and saw that the monitor was on. I went in, and it was showing the "hard drive not found" error message. Yikes. I turned the machine off, turned it on again, with no luck. I knew this was bad. I googled around a bit on the laptop to learn what my options might be, and then went to bed.

I got up early today (Sat), walked the dogs, made a lot of coffee, and faced up to the situation. My first task was to check my backups (I've been burning my backups to CDs) and see what I was missing. Most of my work files are pretty well backed up, but I had a lot of photos that weren't. Those were my primary concern, since they couldn't be replaced or reconstructed (the most recent work files and Quicken stuff could be rebuilt from paper documents if necessary).
I made a list of what I wanted to recover from the drive, if possible, and in what order.

I had turned the AC on in that room overnight, concerned that my machine might have overheated (Friday was a warm day, and that room can get quite warm). So I turned it on this morning hoping that all would be well -- and it wasn't. In fact, it was now worse, as I could hear the clicks of death coming from the drive. I quickly shut the machine off, and turned back to Google.

My Action Plan
I knew that going to a professional data recovery place was not an option -- I don't have the money for it, and the files weren't that crucial nor that numerous. I needed to figure out what were the last-ditch things I could try at home. (Bearing in mind that I'm a reasonably skilled computer user, but not someone who messes around under the hood. In fact, I'd never opened up my machine until last fall, when I had to replace the power supply.)

I did some reading around, learned about how hard drives physically fail, and came across various suggestions about what to do. I learned a lot from reading other people's stories, which is why I'm writing all this down, so that it might help someone else eventually.

Based in part on this article, as well as some other references, I decided to go ahead and download Knoppix, a Linux filesystem that boots from CD and can help you recover files from a failing drive. It took me about an hour (my wireless connection with the laptop isn't that fast) to download the ISO file, which I then burned (as an image) to a CD. (After getting a utility to do the recommended checksum -- all very easy to do, but all new to me.)

Then I went out to pick up an external USB drive. I got the basic Maxtor, which lets you just plug it in and use it. Other models and brands had backup utilities and other features which might be great someday, but for this situation I wanted the simplest thing.

Then it was time to disconnect my desktop (which meant pulling down our internet connection), remove the hard drive, put it in three layers of ziploc bags (two regular, one freezer weight) and stick it in the freezer:
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
If you Google "freeze hard drive" you'll see that there are a great many people who recommend this for drives that have physically failed. The cold shrinks the metal enough that sometimes a drive will spin that has been having problems. This made a lot of sense to me, especially since I feared that excessive heat had been a contributing factor in the breakdown of the drive. And it's not like I could get into a position that was in some way worse than having a clicking drive that won't boot.

Recommendations for freezer time vary, from 30 minutes to 6 hours or more. I left it in there for about 3 hours while I fixed dinner, ate, and tried not to think about what might be lost.

Moment of Truth
So I plugged in my new external drive, hooked up the necessary stuff to my computer, and got the hard drive out of the freezer. I left it in the ziplocs, opening them just enough to plug in the cables. I left the drive outside of the computer tower, resting it on a blue freezy block (like you put in a cooler) that was wrapped in a light towel.

I turned on the machine. The drive started clicking. I inserted the Knoppix CD into the CD drive, and it booted into Knoppix no problem. But Knoppix couldn't find my hard drive, only the new external drive.

I restarted the machine from within Knoppix. It still couldn't see the hard drive. I shut down.

I had read some suggestions that it was as the drive warmed up from the freezer that it would come to life, so I took it off the freezy block and turned it upside down a couple of times as I turned the machine on, and it stopped clicking and then booted into XP. I was ecstatic. I quickly copied over all the photos that I needed to my USB drive. This took a few minutes -- 5 or 6? maybe 10? Then as I started to look around for a few other files I wanted to save, the drive started clicking again. It felt pretty hot to the touch, so I put it back on the freezy block and put a gel ice pack on top of it. But this didn't work quickly enough to cool it down, and soon the computer wouldn't recognize the drive any longer. I left the ice packs around it and tried booting into Knoppix, but that didn't help.

So I've popped the drive back into the freezer for the night, and I'll try tomorrow to recover a few more files. I don't know how cold our freezer runs, or how many other environmental factors could affect it. (I assume since it's summer here, that the drive will heat up faster than it would in January.) My sense is that the drive has to warm up a bit from freezing, but that it can't get too warm -- sort of a tricky balance. You just get a short window of time, but if you know which files you want to copy off the dead drive, this trick can really help. Knoppix didn't help me, but I can see how it would if the drive weren't so totally dead. (Booting into XP added some wear onto the already weak hard drive that might have been avoided had Knoppix been able to see the drive. Maybe I'll try Knoppix one more time tomorrow, with a slightly thawed drive.)

The Lesson
Well, duh. Back up your stuff. I knew that already. But I'm a fallible, flawed human being who sometimes loses track of the calendar and doesn't always get to everything on the to do list.

The other lesson for me was to go ahead and try something a little drastic, because it wasn't that hard and it actually worked. I got all my pictures!