What To Do When Your Hard Drive Goes Soft.

I personally know of at least five filmmakers whose hard drives have gone buggy or outright died in the last month. The original internal drive on my old (2003) G5 was one of them. Kaput. So here are some quick tips in the public interest. Because I’ve been Apple-centric since, oh, 1984, this is for Mac users only. Sorry PC people.

These tips aren’t meant to be exhaustive — they can’t be, since hard drives crash for a number of reasons — but if these tips… Can. Save. Just. One. Computer…. Well, you get the picture…

Before you begin:

First, having access to another Macintosh computer during the process of diagnosis and repair is essential. It doesn’t have to be a supercomputer: My 2001 G3 iBook has saved my butt on a few occasions. The main thing is, the computer you use will need to have a firewire port so you can analyze your ailing drive in target disk mode. (If you don’t know about target disk mode, read more here.) Having an internet connection will be useful too because you might need to download a program, look up some information, etc.

If you’re having a problem with an external firewire drive, skip on over to Josh Oakhurst’s site where he gives some fine tips.

If the problem drive is your computer’s main (boot) drive, well, I feel your pain. Let’s get started:

First, try to get the thing to mount on your second (working) computer’s desktop. As mentioned previously, you do this using target disk mode. I’m going to assume this will work.

Let’s stay optimistic and keep things simple at first. Hopefully, it’s just a small problem.

1) Run Disk Utility
Disk Utility is Apple factory software and it should be on every Mac computer. (You’ll find it in Applications –> Utilities.) First, you’ll want to select the problem drive in the left hand column and then select “Verify Disk.” Assuming it shows some problems, click “Repair Disk.” And cross your fingers. If this works for you, you got off lucky. While you’re there you’ll want to “Verify Permissions” and, if there are problems with permissions, “Repair Permissions.”

Let’s assume this didn’t work. What next?

2) AppleJack
Here’s what Sourceforge.net has to say about Applejack:

AppleJack is a user friendly troubleshooting assistant for Mac OS X. With AppleJack you can troubleshoot a computer even if you can’t load the GUI, or don`t have a startup CD handy. AppleJack runs in Single User Mode and is menu-based for ease of use.

If you don’t already have it installed on your computer, you’ll need to do that first. Follow the AppleJack ReadMe instructions and take it from there.

You tried AppleJack and it’s still not working? Uh oh.

3) Disk Warrior
Next I would recommend Disk Warrior by Alsoft. DiskWarrior is commercial software, so it actually, you know, costs money. It’s worth it. It has saved at least one hard drive of mine. One of the nicer aspects about DiskWarrior is that you can purchase it by download so that you can start using it immediately (instead of, say, having to order it from an online vendor or buying it in a store). That is, if you have a working computer.

There are other applications out there — Norton makes one, TechTool is another. Those may work, too, though their ratings on VersionTracker are not as high.

4) Data Rescue II
If DiskWarrior doesn’t solve your problems, there’s probably little hope left for your drive… Still, there’s hope for your information, and that’s what’s important.

I speak from experience: In May, I tried all of the above steps and nothing worked. I mean nothing. I pretty much gave my drive up for dead because DiskWarrior had worked like a champ for me before and even it wasn’t helping things. Then I read a little about DataRescue II and decided to give it a shot.

Data Rescue II works. Basically, the program goes over your hard drive very, very slowly itemizing everything that it can. When it’s done it then allows you to save (literally and figuratively) that information to another hard drive. The process can take days. You read that right. For my 160GB hard drive it took about 60 continuous hours for this process to work. But it did it — it saved my information.

If you’ve gotten this far and nothing is working, well, I think it’s time to evaluate just how valuable that information is. You’ve probably spent hours, and maybe dropped a couple hundred bucks, trying to fix the thing. Take a browse through the recent HDforIndies discussion (some people talk about freezing hard drives). If none of the suggestions there work, and you need the information that badly (and don’t have a decent backup) move on to the next step.

5) Ship it off.
You’re going to need to send it to a company that specializes in disk repair. The good news is, they exist; the bad news is, you’re going to pay for it. Luckily, this is something I’ve never had to do. One such company is TekServe. Another, DriveSavers, has repaired disks for everyone from Industrial Light & Magic and Pixar to Beck and Keith Richards (!?!).

Remember: I’m not a licensed (or, for that matter, unlicensed) Apple technician, hard drive repairman, or anything else. You follow these tips at your own risk, yadda yadda. This is simply stuff that’s helped me.

Finally, two other things to consider:

1) Check your RAM. Once a computer I was using kept crashing. I thought it was the hard drive, but everything checked out okay. Reinstalled OS X. Still no fix. Then I tested the RAM: Bingo! A good tool for checking it: Rember.

2) If you’re having a hard drive crisis right now, I know you don’t want to hear this… but the reason it’s probably a crisis is that you’ve not been doing regular back-ups. Using a computer without backing up your data is like driving without insurance. So: Make sure you have a hard drive that is dedicated to regularly backing up your data. And then do it. It’s easier, of course, to backup data using an application like ChronoSync SuperDuper which is my NEW favorite, but there are other programs out there. The point is: If you’re not backing your data up, you’re asking for trouble.

Okay. That’s all I got. Good luck.

ADDENDUM: Make sure you read the fine comments below, especially #3, which discusses Apple Hardware Test. That’s an important step, and one I really should have included.

9 Responses to “What To Do When Your Hard Drive Goes Soft.”

  1. Josh Boelter Says:

    I’ll second the endorsement of Disk Warrior. It couldn’t save the hard drive on my PowerBook, but it did save my data and I was able to transfer it to another hard drive.

    Here’s another tip. If you have a 12-inch PowerBook, do not take it apart yourself to install a new hard drive. I’ve taken apart PowerBooks before, but that 12-inch model is so easy to screw up. I nearly shorted out the motherboard. Everything is okay now, but I nearly killed the PowerBook.

  2. William Says:

    Tekserve is a cool joint.

    I just bought a G-Tech 250 GB drive to back up my back up when I work on projects as an editor for clients. It was replacing a LaCie that was making a grinding noise. I try to keep my editing workstation external drive as free as possible. That way it doesn’t get clogged with jobs I did 6 months ago. I don’t trash those jobs, I just move them over to the 250 GB as an archive and trash all their captured media. Everything else stays intact. If they want to recut, it’s there.

    Just a note on G-Tech, very good people over there. The 500GB external that I use for my workstation was grinding also. I commented on the G-Tech Forum on Creative Cow and I got a call on a weekend from their rep setting up an exchange for a brand new drive ASAP. Amazing! I don’t work for G-Tech, I just recognize good service when I see it and I rarely see it. Check my comments on my old blog here:


  3. Jonathan Says:

    One additional step you may want to squeeze in is the Apple Hardware Test, which is available on one of the optical discs that shipped with your Mac. If you’re system is under warranty, the AppleCare folks may ask you to do this and record any error messages as a means to identify a problem.

  4. Daniel Kremer Says:

    In December of last year, my portable hard-drive crashed and left me high and dry with two years of movies either lost or on the fritz. Obviously, a major disadvantage at a time I needed to have rough and final cuts ready. The drive was built by someone that knows someone I know, so I got it from a third party. I sent the drive off to be repaired and, because of some “strange wiring” in the drive itself, the fixers ruled my poor hard-drive irreparable, leaving me at a considerable altitude and far from liquid (um, high and dry). A second opinion verified this. I pass on this bit of advice: the first is a “Big Duh!” remark, but back up your stuff (it seems like it goes without saying, but very few people do it) and the second is to *know* where you are getting the drive and make sure their credentials are there (I learned the hard way having a drive built by a third party).

  5. Nick Hillyard Says:

    Any advice on what to do about a busted 2 disk striped raid setup? I made the mistake of making this my boot disk. Now one of the disks is labled as “Hard Disk Failed” in disk utility but the raid setup is still recognized even though it won’t mount. No mechanical sounding failures, but I suspect it may have overheated. Any ideas about data recover for raid?

  6. Paul Says:

    Nick –

    I don’t have tons of experience working with RAIDs, but here are some thoughts (largely arrived at by some googling):

    1) You’re probably not working from a Windows machine if you’re reading this article, ,but just in case you are, this could do the trick: http://www.runtime.org/raid.htm

    2) If you’re using a Mac, then things might be a little tougher. Everything I’ve read suggests that sending the drives off *might* be the only solution. Here’s what I found on the Data Rescue II site:

    < Does Data Rescue handle RAID volumes?

    Yes and no. With RAID, several component drives are set up to act logically as if they were a single composite drive.

    If your RAID drives or file system is in good enough shape that the system can still make them appear as a single logical drive, then Data Rescue should be able to scan that composite drive and recover files from it. If the situation is such that the system cannot present the component drives as a single composite drive, then the answer depends on what kind of RAID your drives are set up to do. If the drives are set up to do mirroring (i.e. each file is stored completely on each mirror drive), then Data Rescue should be able to Thorough-scan any of these component drives and recover files. If the RAID setup is striped, so that a single file’s data is stored spread out over more than one drive, then Data Rescue will not be able to recover most files from the component drives. In other words, Data Rescue does not have the ability to mimic the behavior of a striped RAID controller in order to scan the individual component drives on its own. Such a capability may be added to a future release.

    As far as sending things off, this site did look promising — they have 24/7/365 service:

    Hope this helps.

  7. Nick Hillyard Says:

    Thanks Paul. This is pretty much the same conclusion I came to myself. Oh well. I might have to sell the car to recover my data. HA!

  8. Bob Says:

    My lap top has an 80 gig hard drive.. i started running out of space so i bought an external 200 gig hard drive. the drive is powered externally. I switch it on and the light comes on and i can feel the disk spinning up. I connect via USB and a “safley remove hardware” icon pops up in the task tray. The device appears on the device manager and says its working properly… however when i try to access the drive… it doesnt appear on my computer… I have no way of putting anything on this drive… already tried updating the drivers… can u help?? thank you

  9. SRF: What To Do When Your Hard Drive Goes Soft at FresHDV Says:

    […] Paul over at Self Reliant Filmmaking has a great post with well-thought out, rational steps to take if your hard drive(s) were to start acting up. Remember that all hard drives fail. […]