I used to think I was very adept at protecting my personal information, but I was mistaken.
My personal files were backed up on two HDD external hard drives, which both died within 24 hours in July.
Windows 10 kept telling me that one drive wasn’t operating correctly and offered to fix it, but it didn’t, and the other made a strange clicking noise and couldn’t be recognized at all.
All of this got me thinking: what is the best approach to back up your data as a consumer, and what do you do if anything goes wrong?
External hard drives are plug-and-play storage devices for computers. There are two types: hard disk drives (HDDs), which store data on spinning magnetic discs, and solid state drives (SSDs), which employ chip-based flash storage technology.
In 2015, I began utilizing 1TB Western Digital HDD disks. I had already backed up my data on both my laptop and writeable DVDs.
If my computer died, I would buy a new one, have the data on the previous laptop retrieved, and then move it to the new PC.
However, after I started using an external hard drive, it was so simple to use that I became completely reliant on it, and when I added a second drive, I felt my solution was unbreakable.
I wasn’t concerned when I acquired a new laptop with a considerably smaller but exponentially quicker SSD hard drive a few years ago; all I had to do was keep most of my files on the hard drives, leaving only a few regularly used files on the laptop.
So I was taken aback when the drives failed. I went to the internet for guidance, but the online software courses were useless.
I began my search for data recovery services by Googling and calling three companies in London.
One engineer told me to cease attempting to access the hard disk that Windows said was not functioning correctly right away.
He claimed the drive had a logic fault and that it would cost £250 to fix it. He warned that if I continued to try to access the disk, I may lose all of my data.
The clicking sounds on the drive was even worse. The read-and-write head – similar to a needle on a record player – needs to be changed due to a mechanical breakdown. At the very least, a repair would cost £500.
Except for Currys PC World’s Team Knowhow service, which cost me £90 for a logic failure repair and £350 for a mechanical or component failure, none of the other bids were any cheaper.
The retailer claims there will be no fee if data recovery is unsuccessful. However, especially in the case of a pandemic, you must be patient as to when it will be completed.
“If a drive has ceased operating, we recommend consumers to contact out to our customer care team to assist diagnose the issue and explore options,” Western Digital said.
“If the drive fails, our customer care staff can help with replacement goods depending on warranty, or direct the client to one of our data recovery partners if necessary.”
However, because my hard drives were six and four years old, the only choice was to pay for data recovery.
So, what is the best method for backing up your data?
I posed this issue to a number of data specialists, as well as Currys PC World and consumer device manufacturers Western Digital and Seagate. Their advise was unanimous: make three backups of your data and keep at least one of them somewhere other than your house.
“My answer would be to purchase three drives from two or three different manufacturers – one should be an SSD and the other two should be HDD drives,” says Joseph Nagdhi, head data recovery specialist at London-based IT business Data Recovery Lab.
“Three distinct hard disks from three different manufacturers failing at the same time is quite unlikely.”
He also recommends that individuals make a backup of any data they don’t want to lose, such as important family pictures, and keep it with a relative.
Michael Cade, a senior global technologist at Veeam Data Management, agrees.
“I have two big hard drives that I send to my folks’ residence 30 miles away on a regular basis. I make a complete backup of all of the essential data, transfer it to the hard drive, and bring it over.
“Then there’s another hard drive at home that I keep next to me all the time. I make incremental backups, and every a month or so, I take the drive with me and change it out with the one at my parents’ house.”
According to Seagate, their drives feature a data recovery service that covers logic failures. It charges for mechanical problems, but won’t tell me how much.
For extreme activities, Gavin Martin, a customer technical engineer at Seagate, recommends choosing robust drives or an SSD, which won’t shatter as readily if dropped.
“It’s a fragile piece of technology, and depending on the climate it’s operated in – high or low humidity, severe temperatures – pieces may ultimately wear out over time.
“You must utilize the appropriate drive for the task at hand. No brand on the planet can guarantee your data for the rest of your life.”
According to Dean Kramer, director of services at Dixon Carphone, which owns Currys PC World, HDDs are still worthwhile since they provide four times the capacity of SSDs.
The store, on the other hand, is now shifting its product line to SSDs, “because the technology is considerably more stable.”
“Over the next couple of years, we expect the price of SSDs to drop, making them more affordable,” he says.
There’s also the cloud. Seagate, Currys PC World, and Mr Cade all support data storage on the cloud, which includes services such as iCloud, Dropbox, and OneDrive.
Mr Nagdhi, on the other hand, is skeptical about the security of your data: “You can’t rely on internet backups – if you pay £1,000 a month for cloud data storage, sure, but if you pay peanuts or nothing, no.”
For mechanical problems, Data Recovery Lab charges £550 and tries to recover data within six working days.
Mr Nagdhi adds that the price is so expensive because it costs around £25,000 to set up a special “clean room” laboratory where read-and-write heads of drives may be replaced — a risky, time-consuming procedure.
He goes on to say that there is only one company in the world that provides data recovery software and hardware: Ace Laboratory in Russia. “The issue is that they don’t have any genuine competitors,” he explains.
There is also a serious lack of data recovery specialists in the UK, according to Data Recovery Lab and Currys PC World. Because there is no formal qualification for data recovery, both companies had to create their own training programs.
Personal NAS-RAID units are recommended by professionals for tech-savvy customers. These are wi-fi-enabled devices with many HDD or SSD drives, so if one fails, there are numerous “redundant” drives with duplicate copies of your data.
In my case, the experts believe I was simply unfortunate in having both drives fail at the same time.
I chose the least expensive option. In the end, I received one of my disks back after 49 days, but only portion of the data was restored.