How much stuff is on your computer? How much of it is important to you? Photos? Stories? Projects? Memories?
Whatever it is, one thing I can tell you for sure is that it’s expensive.
So this is a PSA to all of my readers: Make sure that you create a backup of your computer drive. Do it now even. The price of spare hard drives has come down incredibly fast recently, you can get a 1TB SSD that connects via USB for less than £50. Grab one, put all your files on it, and update it at least monthly if not more often.
Why are you telling us all this now? What happened?
Last Sunday, my laptop died. It froze randomly on me, audio still worked, but everything else stopped, I resigned to just, power off the laptop. Yknow, restart it, knowing that it’ll probably fix itself, right?
Needless to say, it didn’t…
Well, the laptop itself turned back on, but when I went to check steam, I was greeted by a “Reinstall” button instead of the “Play” button that I expected to see. When I moused over it, a helpful yet terrifying popup appeared and told me that the drive this game was supposed to be on had been disconnected.
Thats strange. I check file explorer, and there it is: my entire D: drive is missing.
Thats exceptionally not good…
Some context to set the scene.
I got my laptop between about two and three years ago. I got it second hand refurbished at a discount from the computer shop my now partner used to work at back when she was still in a position where she could work. It’s not too shabby to be honest, even for it’s age. The machine is an MSI from around 2016-2018 when VR was just starting to take off, and used to belong to the VR lab at a university, so it’s exceptional parts for the time became pretty decent parts in the current day.
My laptop has two drives in it. It’s from an era of computing where SSDs were incredibly expensive and HDDs were incredibly cheap. My laptop therefore has a 120GB SSD for it’s boot partition and all the Windows guff that comes with making a computer work, and a 2TB HDD for everything else.
Back when it was being used for VR development, I suspect it ran windows and maybe VR studio on the C: drive, and stored all the models and stuff on the vastly larger D: drive.
But enough about them. When I got my hands on this thing, I did the most sensible thing I could have thought to do. I have a lot of big project files, and knowing how Windows handles user data I did the savvy move of junctioning all of my home document folders onto the D: drive.
It’s honestly a very simple to do.
- First you make a folder called something like D:/home/lanterns
- Then you move your Documents, Music, Videos, Pictures and Downloads into that folder
- Then lastly, you open up an admin cmd prompt, go to C:/Users/lanterns, and run
C:\Users\lanterns> mklink /J Documents D:\home\lanterns\Documents
- Or for the more Bash inclined among us, you can open up your favourite flavour of Bash terminal and run1
/c/Users/lanterns# ln -s /d/home/lanterns/Documents Documents
And just like that, the important folders of my home directory were moved to the HDD. Now I no longer have to worry about having 8GB of recordings that I’m putting off uploading to YouTube, or 35 different Python virtual environments each costing a couple dozen mb eating up at the precious 40GB or so of remaining space that I have on my boot drive. The only things left on my C drive were my appdata files, Firefox, Notepad++, Discord, and for a bit, Borderlands 2, where I wanted the extra load speed that the SSD provided.
All my files were in D:/home/lanterns, All my application files and DRM free games were in D:/apps, and all my Steam games were in D:/steamapps (which you can actually just natively set up in the Steam client by going settings > storage and adding a new drive.)
All in all I had about 900GB of data on this hard drive, which out of the 2TB isn’t too bad.
my home folder amounted to about 30GB, apps came to about 80GB, and the rest was all Steam games.
All my eggs in one basket, but then the basket broke…
As I mentioned above, the drive stopped being recognised by windows. So I did what any hardware tech person would do and got the laptop open. Thankfully while the C: drive is burried under the motherboard, the D drive is a 2.5″ HDD that just sat in the corner next to the battery, and easily accessable to anyone with a screwdriver after removing a single SATA cable. Nessie (the aformentioned partner) has a few bits and pieces from when she worked at the computer shop, including a SATA to USB adapter, so we plugged the drive into her laptop to see if we could narrow down the issue.
And then her laptop refused to pick up the drive either.
We tried plugging it into a copy of Linux Mint hoping that maybe it’s a Windows specific issue and that we could mount it onto linux and recover files that way, but no dice there either.
So after a pretty depressing night of dread, panic, and fears about lost data or recovery costs, or both even, we bit the bullet and Ness sent off some emails to various repair shops local to either our home, or my work.
We recieved quotes anywhere from £200 to £1600, depending on the damage to the drive, which was exceptionally worrying to me.
Heres the thing, right?
That drive has all of my project code on it…
The only project that was spared was 42, which was pretty consistently sent to a Gitlab server just as part of the process of spinning up a new version.
Put The Block, my in-dev score server website and forum.
All the code and images for my Fitbit watch face.
Possibly even the hardware designed in Turing Complete. I don’t actually know, I think that might have been saved by the cloud but I’m not fully sure, and if it wasn’t stored on the cloud, appdata, or documents, I might be SOL here anyway…
All that was gone from me. I didn’t have a choice, either I relinquish it for good, or I pay the steep toll.
Reluctantly I mailed off the drive on Monday morning to a shop for triage.
Lets talk about what actually happened.
It’s hard to tell what may have gone wrong with a device when it fails, it could be anything really, from software glitches, data corruption, hardware failure, MRI lab helium based hyjinks, or for HDDs specifically, partition corruption or drive head crashes.
Since the last thing that happened before finding the drive dead was me launching a game and loading a save file, then force powering off the laptop, my assumption was that it tried to write something to the disk, got interrupted, and corrupted the file index on the drive, which is why the partition couldn’t be read. In hindsight though, this almost certainly wasn’t the case. If it was, then rather than the drive not being picked up at all, it’d be picked up in an invalid state and request it be formatted before being used again.
But with no better ideas, I simply waited.
On Tuesday we got a phone call from the repair shop saying they had received the drive (they sent a courier on monday afternoon to collect it) and that they’d take 24-36 hours to diagnose the issue.
On Wednesday I distinctly remember being in a stand-up morning meeting at work explaining what was going on with this whole situation when Ness got a phone call from the recovery shop. I quickly excused myself from the meeting before going to check what was being said, and the repair shop said they’d diagnosed the issue with the drive and found it to be a firmware failure. This was entirely unexpected to me.
Apparently what happened was that the firmware on the drive itself had been corrupted and the drive head wasn’t active because of it. That explained why Windows and Mint couldn’t detect the drive at all even though it did spin up properly: The drive was literally incapable of telling the computer what it was or what was on it.
I presume they loaded the platters into a working caddy after that.
The last piece of information was that they’d send an email the next day with a list of files on the drive and a cost for recovery.
So what’s the damages?
£630 excluding VAT, £760 if we wanted expedited service, but at the very least every single file on the drive was intact.
They said they’d recover the files and send it over via Dropbox, so that price doesn’t even include a new drive
the stingy bastards. I’m just happy that all my project code is in tact.
So on Thursday morning, I called the recovery company on behalf of Nessie and sent them some payment details to start the process. Including VAT it came to about £750. An extremely expensive mistake that I don’t intend to let happen again.
I told them I only needed the home and apps directories, and that the steamapps folder could be abandoned. Downloading 110GB would be far easier for us than the whole 900GB, and steamapps can be redownloaded from Steam anyway. All I’d lose is save files for games that store saves in their steamapps folder instead of appdata, Documents/Games, or the Steam cloud.
I also needed to replace the drive in my laptop, so I went looking, and frankly thought that this couldn’t be accurate at all and was Amazon filled with a bunch of chineesium peddlers? Amazon was claiming that a 512GB SSD was in the range of £20-30. That felt way too cheap. Like way way too cheap. I didn’t make any purchases that day.
To be honest, the most I know about the actual price of consumer computer hardware was back before the pandemic when I was more interested in looking into computer builds, and back then 256GB would run you close to £100 if not more, which is why this laptop had most of it’s data on a HDD anyway.
The next day, when Ness was awake, we looked into replacement drives together, and she was just as flabbergasted at the low price points as I was, but assured me that Crucial was a high quality and reliable manufactorer, so we bought a new 1TB SSD for my laptop as well as a portable 1TB SSD for doing backups onto. We’d have got like an 8TB fat HDD, but we have no way of powering fat drives unfortunately.
My new drive just arrived today. Writing this post is the first thing I’m doing after installing it, putting my laptop back together, and recreating the folders being targeted by the junctions. At least I can install steam games again, I’ve been looking forward to Talos 2 releasing in a few days.
The data is slated to arrive sometime in the next week and a half. Once that’s ready, I’ll download it, merge it into the new home folders, and then I can start working on my project code again. I want to do more work on Put The Block, as well as 42-slash, which I haven’t written about here, but might make for a good series.
How do I conclude a post.
I don’t know.
Go back up your data. Do it now. In fact even if you don’t have a spare drive handy, you can still back up your most important project files onto Google Drive if they are small enough for you to do so.
A portable 1TB SSD only costs about £50 now, so if you can spare the change, it’s well worth it. Better to spend £50 now then £750 when things go wrong.
Don’t make the same expensive mistake I did.
1: Note there is a difference between junctions and symbolic links, and from what I’ve read, junctions amount more to a “mount” command rather than a “ln” command in bash, but for the context of a local drive, this shouldn’t make much of a difference. I used the batch method with junctions though, so I wouldn’t be able to tell you if symlinks do exactly the same job or if there are any flaws in either of them.
To be honest, sending a drive off for recovery/repair is one of the main reasons why I’m too shameful to spend the other 1TB remaining on my HDD downloading copious amounts of questionable furry pornography.