Mark Harris

Joly bad luck - Dom suffers the click of death
Make sure you look after your digital kit - or you'll suffer the consequences, says Mark Harris

Imagine losing all of your music, photos, letters, financial records, addresses and phone numbers. In the real world, that would take a catastrophic accident (or a very thorough burglar) but in the digital world, it can happen in an instant. And it can happen to anyone.

Last year, comedian Dom Joly dropped his laptop and got what he calls ‘the click of death’ when he tried to turn it on. “My hard drive was permanently damaged,” recalls Dom. “I lost five thousand photos of my kids as babies, wedding pictures and Robert Smith from The Cure in my kitchen. As well as the photos I lost over six thousand songs on iTunes, half a book I was writing and all my old newspaper columns. In short, I lost my entire identity!”

We’re increasingly relying on computers to store the most important things in our lives, from our favourite MP3 tunes to precious digital photos. But as Dom discovered, the hard discs inside them are relatively fragile, spinning at thousands of revolutions a minute and vulnerable to the slightest knock. And even if you handle your PC with kid gloves, all hard drives eventually wear out. The life expectancy for a drive used daily is three to five years, although some fail much earlier.

The answer is to back up your data as often as possible. The simplest way to to this is to copy files to a CD or DVD disc. Most home computers have a recordable CD burner built-in, or you can buy an external drive (from around £60) that connects with a USB cable. Blank discs are cheap but the problem comes when you start to build up a serious photo or MP3 collection. CDs can store 700Mb of data at most – that’s only about 140 MP3 tunes or 200 high resolution digital photos, and even DVDs can only hold six times as much.

If you don’t want to spend all your time burning discs, consider buying an external hard drive. These cost from £90 and, if you buy one the same size (or perhaps slightly larger) than your computer’s hard drive, you can simply duplicate all your data, with regular, automatic updates.

Of course, most people only realise just how valuable their computer is after it dies. Even then, all is not lost. Specialist companies like Ontrack can extract information from the most abused hard drives – they even managed to recover data from the wreckage of the Columbia Space Shuttle. Dom Joly handed over his laptop to Ontrack and was impressed with the results: “I have nearly all my photos back, all my music, all of my book and all my old columns.”

And as technology moves on, it’s not just computers that are at risk. Apple iPods contain a tiny 1.8-inch hard drive that’s just as sensitive to drops and malfunction. Brad Cahoon of Data Recovery Direct says, “The early 15Gb and 20Gb iPods are getting old now, and we’re seeing their drives wearing out and crashing, just like any other hard disc. Some people even accidentally format the drive when updating their iPod.”

Fixing an iPod is no different from restoring a computer’s PC. Some of it can be done with specialist software, although more serious mechancial faults require diassembling the drive in a dust-free ‘class 100’ clean room. “The good news is that we’ve never had an iPod we couldn’t fix,” claims Cahoon.

The bad news is that none of this comes cheap. Fixing a basic hard drive problem on an iPod or PC starts at around £250, growing to £500 or even £1000 if they need to get inside the unit. So unless you fancy spending more than your computer cost to extract your digital memories, get backing up today.

Back-up bargains

Buffalo HD-HB250U2 £90
Just plug this external hard drive into your PC and let it do the rest. It has auto power-on and auto back-up functions - and its 250Gb capacity should handle even the largest MP3 collection.

Freecom FX-50 DVD+/-RW £100
This one-stop optical drive plays and burns almost every DVD format there is - and can even burn dual-layer discs to store up to 8.5Gb on a single blank.

If the worst happens… - British company specialising in iPod recovery and high tech business servers. - The world's largest data recovery company has fixed hard drives that have been whacked with hammers, had holes drilled through them, and even been attacked by cockroaches! - Offers a fixed price (£295) service to recover data from all kinds of media and operating system. They also have a 'no recovery, no fee' guarantee.

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