Last week I got a call from someone whose name I won’t reveal but whose story should be a lesson to everyone reading this. The person in question is someone who uses her laptop continually, but doesn’t know that much about it.
“My computer went black,” she said.
“Totally black?” I asked.
“No, it has white letters on it. It says ‘Operating system not found.’”
“Oh,” I said intelligently. “That’s not good. Have you been using the backup drive?” (I knew this person had a supposedly foolproof, plug-it-in-and-it-backs-you-up Rebit SaveMe drive.)
“No—it doesn’t fit on the desk.”
Beat. Head. On. Wall.
As with exercise, the best backup system is the one you’re going to use. This one had seemed just about foolproof, but you do have to actually connect the drive to the computer. And while online backup might be more foolproof, particularly for someone who’s usually connected, it’s not that practical for RAW photos in the thousands.
A simple reboot actually brought the operating system back, but only temporarily. The machine continued to crash, and the “check hardware” message made my client suspect (incorrectly) that the backup drive might be the cause of the problem, so she disconnected it before it could complete its backup cycle. (Though there really did seem to be something wrong there, as transfer speeds to that drive were insanely slow when I later tried to copy some photos to it directly. I had, however, tested the drive myself, and it performed normally with my own older and slower machine.)
A few days later, the Ur-Guru and I actually got to see the machine bluescreen. By this time I’d already looked through the Event Log without finding any explanations for the problems and checked the health of the hard drive with the Computer Management tool. We’d even cleared off about 100 GB of old photos so the drive wasn’t red-lining in the space department. Everything seemed normal, but obviously wasn’t—especially when the machine crashed again. This time it reported memory errors, so we tried running the Vista memory diagnostics tool. (I never use Vista, so didn’t know about this.)
The test reported no problems, but the machine was obviously having problems. The Ur-Guru downloaded Memtest86 to give the RAM a further workout.
Still no problems found. But the machine kept acting up. I hate problems I can’t understand, especially serious ones like that. At this point, voodoo starts to seem like a viable option.
The only remaining thing to try to see whether the problem was with the hardware or the software was to reinstall the machine—preferably with Windows 7 instead of Vista. But that would reformat the entire drive, erasing all the data. And there was no guarantee the drive (or other hardware) was really stable enough for that to work.
Or, of course, you could just replace the computer, in which case it might be possible to salvage the data by taking the drive out of the machine, putting it into a 2.5” drive case, and connecting it to the new machine by USB. But that’s a somewhat iffy proposition with a drive whose soundness is in question, and not something a novice computer user can do anyway.
This mysteriously failing laptop is less than two years old. There’s no real reason (well, apart from the Vista operating system) to expect it to have serious problems so soon. But you never know what’s going to happen to your computer, and that’s especially true for laptops, which are much more at risk of being dropped, spilled on, or stolen. That’s why you need to start backing your machine up as soon as you get it—or at least as soon as you start putting data on it.
In this case, it looks as if installing Windows 7 (and reformatting the hard drive) has restored the laptop to a functioning state, though it’s too soon to be sure. But everything that was stored on that 320 GB hard drive is gone now.
Don’t let it happen to you.