Avoiding Laptop Wipeout

They're crash-prone. But you can protect your files

When Christopher Walters called Drive-Savers Data Recovery in Novato, Calif., he was in a panic. A faulty disk had caused his laptop to die, and, with his arrangements for a 72-piece orchestra for country singer Barbara Mandrell locked in it, he was afraid his fledgling career as an arranger was about to go down the drain. With only three days left before showtime, DriveSavers recovered 94% of his data. Walters reconstructed the rest and the show--and his career--went on.

Walters' predicament isn't unusual. As laptops become more sophisticated, people are using them as primary PCs. So folks are saving large amounts of critical data on portable disk drives. But "laptops hardly ever get backed up," laments Scott Gaidano, president of DriveSavers (800 440-1904; www.drivesavers.com). And because laptops are portable, "they get into more adventures," Gaidano adds. Among the many disasters he has seen: a laptop that had fallen into the Amazon, one that melted in a car fire, one that was run over by a bus, and four dumped in bathtubs. In each case, although the machine was trashed, the data were salvaged.

You don't have to trek to the Amazon or compute in the tub to wipe out your laptop, however. Improper storage and handling and temperature changes can do plenty of damage. A simple protective measure is to use a padded carrying case designed to hold a laptop snugly. "The most common failure is in a laptop's plastics--latches and doors are No. 1," says Dan Thorne of CompUSA. But throwing a laptop into a plane's carry-on bin can do it damage, even if it's in a padded case. Even a solid case can cause problems. "People put them on planes in aluminum cases, and it gets pretty cold," says Gaidano. "Then if you open the computer while it's still cold you get instant condensation, which will crash your computer."

HEAD SLAP. Few realize just how delicate laptops can be. Inside is something like a record player. When your hard disk spins, electronic information is read by a magnetic head on an arm. As with a phonograph, a jolt can send the head skipping across the disk, wiping out information along the way. Even experts like Gaidano sometimes mess up. "Last night, I was lifting my laptop and I turned it. The heads of my hard drive hit the platter for an instant." That action, called a head slap, caused permanent damage. Gaidano should have turned off the computer first, locking the head. In fact, it's best to turn a laptop off and wait for the screen to go dark before gently closing the lid. The sleep mode won't do; it doesn't lock down the heads.

It's also a good idea to run a disk-maintenance program, such as Norton Utilities or FixIt Utilities, weekly. The programs can spot some types of disk damage and software problems before they cause a crash. Most also have a "defragment" feature that takes fragmented files--whose information is stored in many different locations on a disk--and puts their pieces together. This gives the drive less work to do and incurs less wear while pulling up programs.

If your laptop does crash, it's often a software glitch. Disk-repair programs offer a boot disk that lets you start your PC and run repair programs that might restore your laptop or recover your data. But if you suspect a hardware crash--meaning your hard drive's motor or bearings are frozen or the read-write head has quit--skip the disk-repair program. Sometimes it can cause even more damage.

A good tip-off that your disk needs professional care is if your laptop sounds odd before quitting. "A screeching noise--that's a bad thing," says Gaidano. In that case, there is little to do but go to a data-recovery shop. Ontrack Data International (800 872-2599; www.ontrack.com) of Eden Prairie, Minn., a leading data-recovery shop, starts with a $100 diagnostic fee, then generally adds a repair or recovery charge beginning at $300, says Greg Olson, director of data-recovery services. DriveSavers' Gaidano says most of his jobs run about $1,000, but prices range from $375 to $1,400 to recover a 1- to 4-gigabyte drive. Both Ontrack and DriveSavers also can repair software troubles by modem, especially those caused by a virus. A crash shouldn't mean the end of the world, and you can probably get your data back--for a price.

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