How to Survive the Worst PC Disasters
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Readers' Tales of PC Disasters
To read more users' PC horror stories or add yours, go to our forum discussion on PC disasters. Also see both our slide show on using HijackThis and a video on salvaging wet gear.
'Resuscitating a Dead Hard Drive' by PC World.com reader Nathan Wiest
I once had a very perplexing case when I was still in school for my Microcomputer Technology degree. A lady at work had come to me saying that her hard drive would not work at all. Not unusual, since hard drives go bad, and many a hard drive won't boot because of a virus or some kind of spyware. She was worried because it had a lot of family photos and documents on it, and I didn't mind the thought of being a hero and saving her drive!
As I had suspected, the drive had crashed. There was no booting into Windows, and it made a weird noise. After messing around with it for a couple of hours and doing some research, I was about to say sorry, can't fix it, but then I stumbled on something: Freezing your hard drive. I had heard of it once before but never actually heard of anyone successfully freezing their hard drive and then retrieving some data. I thought, what the heck, this could be worth it to try, especially since the drive was already gone.
We tried it all right. We stuck the thing in a freezer for about 18 hours. It was wrapped in a paper towel and placed inside a plastic baggy, so no condensation would accumulate on any circuits or connectors. When I plugged the thing in to our test computer, I was shocked...it booted up fine and I was able to pull off most of the data she could remember having lost. It didn't completely make sense to me until afterwards, and most people won't believe me when I tell them this story, but the metal shrinks when it gets cold, duh! So if the head is touching the platter, then you freeze it, the head may pull away from the platter just enough for you to read the data again. Of course, it only works for about 20 minutes until the drive heats back up, but wow, it was a great way to be a hero!
I have used this technique a few times since, not all of the times successful, nor as important, but this is still a very worthwhile procedure. This is just one cool, bizarre, and useful way to reverse a relatively common computer disaster.
'Diagnosing a Bad BIOS' by PC World.com reader Shane Mitchell
I had no problems with the computer when I went to bed that Sunday night, and it was not used until I came back from classes Monday. I sat down to do my homework with trusty iTunes providing my study tunes for only a few minutes before my sound began to crackle and do its best to act as though it was a radio being jammed before ceasing to work completely. Oftentimes the miracle cure is a quick reboot, so that was my first reaction. But my rocking studyfest was ruined by interference yet again.
I decided it was time to upgrade drivers. I had no trouble finding the drivers, but little did I know that finding the drivers would be the last good thing to happen for a while... My first boot back in after the new drivers went well for about 2 seconds after logging in before my computer froze. But then it unfroze. But then it froze again. And......so it...... repeated.....
For every two seconds of use I was forced to endure a complete freeze for another two seconds. I managed to pull up Task Manager and see that my processor usage was jumping between 100% and around 0. Now while I am aware that this is a telltale sign of spyware and malware using your processor to perform their nasty deeds, I was reasonably confident in my antivirus and antiadware protection system. But it was growing late, so I powered my computer off for the night.
Somehow the problem grew worse overnight. When I next tried to start up my computer, I got as far as the Windows Loading Flag before the computer froze. Hoping for a fluke, I hit the reset button only to have my computer reboot and not even detect that the hard drive with Windows on it existed! A part of me wondered whether I had discovered an incredible new exploit where one could somehow infect the sound card of a computer and have the infection progress to knocking out a hard drive.
Not wanting to give up, I powered off the machine again and was luckily able to get the machine to detect the hard drive again and boot into Windows using Safe mode. So I set to work on troubleshooting the hard drive with system restore, deactivating all startup processes and programs save for the Windows necessities as well as using chkdsk and fixmbr from the Windows Recovery Console. Unfortunately, none of this made a difference. Finally, I tried a repair installation, but it could not complete without freezing either.
Fortunately, I run a computer with 3 hard drives and enough space to transfer all the music and files I wanted to save from the main hard drive with Windows to a backup drive, so I decided a format was in order. The format went off without a hitch and I managed to get through most of the 70-something updates for Windows for a new installation before I had to do my first reboot. Sure enough, it froze on the loading screen!
At this point I decided to replace the SATA cable for the hard drive with a new one, and I even changed the SATA slot the hard drive was on. It booted once with no problems before the loading freeze occured again after the next set of updates. I was still convinced the problem was in the hard drive despite the unusual problems with the sounds and the processor that had happened earlier. However, with the next reboot I lost even my Safe Boot option when my boot halted on the error 'DISK BOOT FAILURE: INSERT SYSTEM DISC AND PRESS ENTER'.
I found out I could bypass this error simply by having my XP CD in the drive and having the system ask me if I wanted to boot from it and just wait for that message to time out before booting to my choice of a frozen loading screen or Safe Mode. At this point I was ready to abandon my SATA drive and install windows on one of my other drives.
So I completed my second installation of XP in as many days and got through the updates and a few good boots before THAT hard drive began to have problems! I got the boot hanging error 'ntldr.sys not found'. It was as though my computer were asking "Do you think I could survive a toss out that second-story window next to you?" I was nearly ready to oblige my computer with an answer to that query when I had a sudden flash of random insight. Could the problem be my BIOS?
I decided to try a repair install of the ntldr-crippled hard drive to see if I could get into Windows and attempt to update the BIOS. I suceeded in getting back into Windows and found the nifty Windows Based BIOS Flashing utility that ASUS has on its Web site. The BIOS updated successfully, and the ntldr error was banished back to the void from which such problems originate. I soon found myself back in Windows, and there was much rejoicing!
I've been using that drive ever since (3 months), and though I never found out what caused these problems, the SATA drive is behaving just fine as data storage with no operating system. I managed to solve the problem without destroying my computer, losing my sanity, or spending a dollar on a replacement part! And now that I've monopolized most of the space on this forum page (sorry) I shall end this essay...
'Vanished Data--Found' by PC World.com reader Bob Drake
Back in the days of DOS, I was always rather confident about the security of my hard drive data. I had not one, nor even just two, but three hard drives installed on my machine! One I used for files, the second stored my programs, and the third I used for backing up data. I was religious about it. Several times a day I'd enter a few simple commands and back up everything--programs and data alike--on the third, very large (by standards of the day) hard drive.
When Win95 was introduced, I refused to install it for a year. It was important to be certain that the bugs were fixed, and that my system would be safe. After the reports began to settle down and it seemed secure, I decided to make the move.
Immediately after installing the OS, my computer began running in "spurts." It would start, then stop. Start, then stop. Start then... nada. Nothing. Zilch. Irritated, I decided to boot from a DOS disk, reformat the C: drive, and return to DOS. I rebooted, only to discover that there were no remnants of data on the C: drive! "How annoying," I thought. Still, I wasn't too concerned since I had backed up all the data prior to loading Win95. With complete confidence, I formatted C:, then went to my D: drive. Nothing.
A slight tingle ran down my spine, and it wasn't from the power source. I checked the E: drive. Nothing. Nothing! How could that be?! I had 15 years worth of work, dating back to the days of CPM, that were stored on that drive. Where did it go?! In a panic, I phoned Microsoft Tech Support. The phone calls continued daily for over two weeks, always with the same result. "We've never heard of this happening before. Sorry. There's nothing I can suggest."
Long distance call after long distance call (none of them toll free, and all during prime rate periods) yielded the same result. Finally, one sympathetic soul gave me the name and number of a fellow who worked for Microsoft in Texas. With only the slimmest of hopes, I dialed his number. We chatted for almost 45 minutes while I explained the situation and answered his questions.
"I bet I know what's happened," he said in an all-too-casual way.
"Is that good?" I asked. "Can we recover anything?"
Without replying directly, he instructed me to format a floppy (I was still able to work from the A: drive), and then told me to create a small .bat file, the contents of which he dictated. I did. I looked at C:, but nothing was there. I checked D:, and had the same result. Feeling completely defeated, I looked at E: I looked at E: again. I looked at E:, and screamed with joy into the telephone--it's there!!
Without realizing it, I had "compressed" the other two drives. It was a common technique for getting as much space as possible from a hard disk back in those days (when a 40-megabyte hard drive seemed limitless). What he correctly guessed was that when formatting C:, I had unknowingly deleted the file instructing the system how to read those drives as compressed when I reformatted my C: drive! By recreating the file, I was able to read the info from E:. Why it didn't work on the other two drives, I still don't know. The important thing was, I had all those irreplaceable files that I thought I'd never see again!
I took his name, address, and his supervisor's information to write a glowing, heartfelt thank-you note, praising his work. If he didn't receiving a whopping salary bonus as a result, it's not because he didn't deserve it!
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Christopher Null is a veteran journalist who covers technology topics daily through his blog at Christopher Null, The Working Guy.