Forewarned is forearmed...
Dead hard disk drive: The HDD of my laptop PC has died giving the error message: Operating system not found
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The hard disk drive of my HP Pavilion laptop PC seems to have failed irrecoverably. The error message produced says: Operating system not found. I assumed that the Master Boot Record had been corrupted, so I loaded Windows XP's Recovery Console to rebuild it. I intended to use the fdisk /mbr command, but the Recovery Console reported no hard disk drive present. The BIOS reported that hard drive as being present. There are no clicking noises coming from the drive, nor is it behaving in any other unusual way, so perhaps there is something else responsible other than an irrecoverable failure. The data- recovery service I asked about the problem said they can't guarantee that all my files can be recovered, but quoted a recovery attempt of several hundred pounds.
Using a data-recovery service is never cheap, costing from a few hundred to a few thousand pounds, which is why it is madness not to make regular backups of valuable data files and also images of the whole system. Online backup solutions are now also widely available - usually free up to a certain lowish capacity (Microsoft SkyDrive 25GB, but reported in April 2012 to be coming down to 7GB some time soon - ZoneAlarm IDrive, 5GB - AVG LiveKive, 5GB) and paid-for for large-capacity whole-system backups. Click here! to go to the information on backups on this website.
All versions of Windows provide a Backup program, but with Windows 7 backing up is now easier than ever. It provides inbuilt software to create restorable backups and a system image, which given the size a modern systems are best saved to an external hard disk drive that can be detached from the computer(s) backed up so that if an electrical spike destroys the hard main hard drive it won't destroy the backup drive. You have to create a Repair Disc from within Windows 7 that is used to boot the system and restore a backup or system image from whichever storage it has been saved to. External hard drives with 500GB to 3GB of disk space are currently available and the capacities are increasing all the time, with the lower-capacity (500GB/1TB) drives being very affordable.
Since there is no clicking sound coming from the drive that is a tell-tale sign of irrecoverable physical damage, it is quite possible, indeed very likely, that the hard drive is still functioning properly but that its partition information has been lost. No doubt because of this, the Windows XP Recovery Console reported that no drive was available. If this is the case, it is possible to recover the situation by using an excellent free data-recovery utility called TestDisk, which can be run from a distribution of Linux used as a boot disc - or by using the version for Windows.
You can download a Linux distribution (that can be run from its disc as well as being installed on the hard drive) in ISO format, use disc-burning software's feature to burn an image to a recordable DVD disc and then use it to boot your computer and run the TestDisk utility, which can be used to restore the partition information.
Knoppix from http://www.knopper.net/knoppix/index-en.html includes a copy of TestDisk. You have to run the utility from a terminal window and then follow the instructions. Fortunately, the process is described and illustrated here:
If the problem was encountered in a desktop PC, you could install the hard drive as an auxiliary drive in another desktop PC and run TestDisk from it. Unfortunately, you won't be able to do this with a laptop unless it has a free hard-drive bay, which very few laptops provide, that runs the same type of hard drive that your laptop uses - given its age probably an old IDE (not a current SATA) drive. An IDE drive cannot be installed in a laptop that is designed to run an SATA drive, but desktop PCs with a motherboard that only provides IDE connectors can use a converter cable to run an SATA drive. Use ide to sata converter as the search query in a search engine to locate vendors.
TestDisk is also available for Windows as a command-line utility that runs from the Command Prompt - the equivalent of a terminal window in Linux - made available from http://www.cgsecurity.org/wiki/Main_Page.
If the hard drive is dead...
If the hard drive has suffered from a mechanical failure it can be revived if the damage is only to the drive's logic board, not to crashed search heads, which pick up the data from the drive's spinning disk(s). Crashed heads make a clicking sound when the computer is turned on. Only a data-recovery business can recover a drive in that state, because the disks can be damaged by the crashed heads, but if the logic board has failed, if you buy an identical drive - the same make and model, which must be running the same firmware (all of that information is provided on the drive itself, including the firmware version) - you can open the bottom of the case using a Torx screwdriver and remove the logic board on the faulty drive, which is easily done by unscrewing it, and replace it with the board from the replacement drive.
Some people have revived a failed hard drive by removing it from the desktop or laptop computer, placing it in a plastic bag and putting it in a freezer for a few hours and then replacing it. The freezing shrinks the parts and can enable the drive to spin up properly for long enough to recover its data. Alternatively, if everything else fails, successful fixes have been achieved by knocking the drive and dropping it. Apparently, the search heads can get stuck and a knock or a drop can dislodge them.
Note that if you install the hard drive in another desktop PC, and Disk Management, which can be opened by entering diskmgmt.msc in the Run box in Windows XP and by entering Disk Management in the Search box in Windows Vista and Windows 7, reports that all of the drive's capacity is unallocated space, you won't be able you assign that space a drive letter by right clicking on its graphical representation in Disk Management and using the Change Drive Letter and Paths option, because the drive space has to be formatted in order to be able to change its drive letter. Windows assigns a formatted drive or partition a drive letter automatically, which can be changed for a non-boot drive or partition using that option. The drive letter of the boot drive cannot be changed.
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