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Adventures in backup and restore

Don Reisinger shares his trials and tribulations with backup and restore. And suggests why you should back up now.

My (once) beautiful iMac. Don Reisinger/CNET

Earlier this week, I showed you how to take apart your iMac and replace your hard drive. But I ended that with a promise to tell you the rest of the story. Here it is:

After I installed the new hard drive (a 500GB 3.5-inch internal Seagate hard drive costing $99), to replace the computer's nonfunctioning drive, I put my iMac back together and fired it up. I popped my Leopard install disc into the DVD slot, formatted the new hard drive, and installed the operating system. Within about 30 minutes, my iMac was back to life. I was ready to determine what happened to my old drive.

First, I bought a hard drive enclosure to convert my internal disk to an external hard drive. I bought an Antec enclosure for about $70 at Best Buy. It's a simple black box that connects to your computer via USB. It wasn't the most expensive enclosure on the shelf, but it did the trick.

After placing my internal hard drive in the enclosure, I plugged it into my iMac via USB. I waited (and waited and waited) for the hard drive to pop up in Finder. Eventually, it did. Unfortunately, only my Windows partition was accessible. My OS X files were gone.

I needed to find those files. I first tried the Windows app SpinRite from the Gibson Research Corporation. Granted, the software works best on a drive that's formatted with a Windows file system, but the latest version of the application, 6.0, works just fine with HFS Plus, the Mac OS X file system. I connected my old hard drive to a Windows PC and ran the software on the drive. Failure. It wasn't able to access anything from my OS X partition. I'd wasted $89.

Almost at wit's end, I tried one more utility that I had heard great things about: the Mac app DiskWarrior. I bought the software and, $108 (after tax) later, it was installed on my iMac.

DiskWarrior immediately found "Macintosh HD"--the name for my drive's OS X partition--and gave me the option to repair it. DiskWarrior found dozens of issues with the hard drive. It reported that some of the files on the drive were corrupted and inaccessible. That stunk, but it was better than nothing, right?

Once DiskWarrior was finished repairing my drive, I was able to access many of my old files. Some of my music was gone, half of my documents were corrupted, and I wasn't able to transfer many applications. But the really important stuff was salvaged.

DiskWarrior's setup, repair, and recovery was simply fantastic. I recommend it to anyone in times of trouble.

Lesson learned

During this crazy week of trying to restore my hard drive, I learned two valuable lessons: No backup solution is too expensive. And it's better to restore (from backup) than recover (using a tool like DiskWarrior).

Before my hard drive failed, I didn't have a backup service running. I hadn't backed up any files through Time Machine for more than 400 days. The only backup I could find on a DVD was from 2007. I didn't use any online backup services, like Carbonite or Mozy. And I didn't have a Time Capsule or external hard drive running.

I was at the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York City last summer debating purchasing a Time Capsule. I decided against it, reasoning that its $299 price tag was too high. Had I only known then that I would end up paying more than $350 for solutions to restore my lost hard drive, I wouldn't have hesitated to buy it.

I screwed up and it cost me money. Don't let this happen to you. Make sure you back up your files. Mozy and Carbonite, two great online backup services, cost just $54.95 per year. An external hard drive can be as cheap as $100. DVD media is even cheaper. Don't be forced to spend too much money on restore services that might not work. It's much quicker and affordable to back up all your data before disaster strikes.

Now, excuse me while I configure my Time Capsule.

Check out Don's Digital Home podcast, Twitter stream, and FriendFeed.