Skip to content
Thoughtful, detailed coverage of everything Apple for 34 years
and the TidBITS Content Network for Apple professionals

DriveSavers to the Rescue

Late one night when I was writing for my high school’s newspaper, I finished an article using the staff’s new Mac Plus and saved it to my floppy disk. Perhaps because I was glad to have finished the piece, or maybe just because adolescent males seem predisposed to the motion, I wound up my body like a major league baseball pitcher and then uncoiled in a pantomime of delivering a winning fastball over home plate. Except in that case, because the floppy was tenuously gripped between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand, I actually delivered the disk directly into the side of a metal filing cabinet halfway across the room.

That pitch still haunts me, a ghosted slow-motion memory of the type experienced by cinema sports figures graced with good lighting and a soft lens. Little shards of beige plastic erupted horizontally, then settled on the bent magnetic platter that seconds before had represented the only copy of my article. That was my first lesson about how fragile most of our high tech devices can be.

The memory of that floppy disk’s wreckage returned with a vengeance recently when my PowerBook’s hard drive began making a nasty kerchunking noise before suffering a major hardware failure. Salvaging the drive, and more important, the data stored on it, required more than a diagnostic pass with Disk First Aid. I had previously wondered whether the much-lauded data recovery services of DriveSavers was worth its reputation; this was my chance to discover firsthand.


This Is the Way the Drive Ends — I’d always thought a severe hard drive crash would be a visual spectacle. After looking at the various ways data is represented onscreen, you’d think that having it all disrupted would make for bright colors and digital fireworks. Instead, my drive’s demise was an audible event: after pressing Command-S to save a file, the drive spun for a bit then made fast clicking sounds, punctuated by louder clacking noises.

I shut off the PowerBook and rebooted, but got nothing but a blinking question mark icon. Starting up from the Mac OS 8.5 CD-ROM worked fine, but my drive’s partitions didn’t appear, and weren’t visible to Disk First Aid or Drive Setup. Each time I powered up the machine, however, the clicking and clacking sounds remained. Spurred on by visions of the read/write mechanism chopping into the disk platters like a lumberjack, I shut down, hoping to minimize additional damage.

Fortunately, prompted by Adam’s articles on backing up your Macintosh (see "Backed Up Today?" beginning in TidBITS-432), I had finally purchased a DAT drive and Retrospect at home, which meant that I had a backup of my data. Unfortunately, as it too often is with technology that seems to be working fine, I hadn’t been diligent about verifying the integrity of my backups. So although I had been backing up information on a fairly regular basis, an error on my part meant that Retrospect was backing up the wrong data: instead of excluding each day’s Web browser cache files, they were the only files being archived. Oops.


I had done a full backup two weeks earlier, so much of my data was available. A separate incremental backup at my office reduced the bulk of my data loss to one week. But email! I get a lot of email, and over the years my email program has come to rule my life. A full week of notes, deadlines, conversations, and agreements were gone. And, of course, I was juggling multiple deadlines.

A cold, odd sense of terrified calm came over me, like Roy Scheider’s character in the movie Jaws when he first sees the killer shark and says, "We’re gonna need a bigger boat." I knew it was going to be a long week.


Damage Control — After contacting DriveSavers (at 800/440-1904; outside the U.S. and Canada they can be reached at 415/382-2000) and verifying that the problem was most likely a hardware failure, I removed the drive from the machine – a simple process thanks to the PowerBook G3’s accessible design – and shipped it to the company’s headquarters in Novato, California.

In the meantime, I restored what data I could from my backups to an external APS hard drive, which then became the primary startup drive for the PowerBook G3. There were times when I needed portability, and since toting the external drive was a poor and inelegant option, I re-enlisted my PowerBook 5300cs and loaded it with my week-old email and essential files. The speed difference between the two machines was dramatic, but I was able to remain mobile, which minimized the collateral damage to my work. In this case particularly, that PowerBook 5300 was worth more to me as a second-string machine than anything I could have made by selling it.

DriveSavers to the Rescue — While I was scrambling to patch together fragments of lost work and communications, the technicians at DriveSavers were performing triage on my malfunctioning hard drive. If you’re not familiar with DriveSavers, you may recognize them from descriptions of their booth at Macworld Expo. Walking past the PowerBook 100 on display at the bottom of an aquarium or an unidentifiable half-melted PC laptop tells you that DriveSavers is serious when it comes to recovering data from all sorts of catastrophes. (You can read more about similar feats of recovery at the company’s Museum of Bizarre Disk-asters on their Web site.)


John Christopher, my contact at DriveSavers, was able to determine that the crash was due to a failed actuator, which is the armature that holds the drive’s read/write heads. To make the determination, they used a proprietary hardware device that enables them to test various physical drive functions. Failed drives are never mounted on a computer for diagnostic purposes, since mounting could change a disk’s structure and overwrite important information needed for the recovery.

"We have dedicated clean-room technicians who do nothing but assemble and disassemble drives daily," he said. "The technician on your drive identified the physical failure of the drive, removed the actuator assembly, and replaced it with one from an identical model drive." DriveSavers has about 100 Macintoshes of all flavors from the 128K on up, plus at least one unit of nearly every removable drive ever made and parts for over 3,000 drives. "From there we clone the drive for safety, making a mirror image of every sector. We figure that once a drive comes in, we may only get one shot at doing a recovery before everything goes south."

In my case, actually recovering the data was an easy task because the hardware failure had not disrupted the information on the disk. "We had a perfect directory, so I was able to mount my clone and copy the data over," John said. "In most cases it’s not that easy, so we rely on software we’ve had written to scour the drive and give us the best possible recovery."

The diagnosis, recovery, and restoration of my data took about seven hours. Disassembly and reassembly typically take one to two hours; cloning and recovery take at least two hours, depending on the amount of information recovered. DriveSavers then verifies and checks the data for viruses before being loaded onto whatever storage media you prefer, such as CD-ROMs, Zip disks, Jaz disks, hard drives, etc. A DataExpress service offered by DriveSavers also lets you download your data from their FTP site, an option that can be timed well for customers on the east cost of the United States.

"I did a priority job one time for a guy in New York," John said. "He shipped it to me counter-to-counter service. The drive arrived at 9 P.M. Pacific time and I finished the recovery at 3 A.M., so he was able to start his download from the DataExpress site at 6 A.M. Eastern time. He got his server back up and online before 9 A.M."

Six days after hearing my drive fail, I received a box via UPS containing my dead hard drive and five CD-ROMs containing the complete contents of the disk at the time of the crash, which now have the added benefit of being permanent archives of my data at the time. The cost in a situation like mine, where DriveSavers performed the recovery on a 4 GB hard disk under their standard 1-2 day service, started at about $900 and could run to $2,800 or more depending on the nature of the problem. DriveSavers also offers priority, economy, international, and on-site service options, as well as a high security service plan. In short, DriveSavers isn’t cheap or for casual use, but if your data is truly important to you, the costs are worthwhile.

Warranty Woes — With my data in hand, my remaining hurdle was replacing the damaged drive. Since the PowerBook was less than a year old, the failed drive was replaceable under warranty. However, since DriveSavers had opened the drive casing (an action that would normally void the warranty), I needed to make sure I was still covered. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. DriveSavers handles nearly 400 drives each month, and therefore works closely with hardware providers and every hard drive manufacturer. I was able to have the drive replaced while retaining my warranty.

The biggest surprise at this late stage was finding a local service provider who could order a new drive with a minimum of fuss. One company wanted me to bring in the entire PowerBook, diagnose the problem (which was impossible since the original drive had been opened and modified by DriveSavers), order the new drive, and install it themselves – meaning that I would be without my perfectly functional PowerBook for at least five days. After asking around, I went to MacTechs, a local Apple-authorized service center, which ordered the replacement drive and handed it over in exchange for the damaged one.


Calling Apple directly was not helpful in this case but did provide some amusement. After I explained the situation, the technical support person I spoke to asked if DriveSavers had removed the drive. When I answered no, he pointed out that I may have voided my warranty by pulling the drive myself, since Apple considers RAM to be the only user-installable part of the PowerBook. This is despite the fact that pages 81 and 82 of my PowerBook manual specifically explain how any user can remove the hard drive "for repair or security reasons." When I pointed this out, he got a bit defensive, so I didn’t press the issue. Since I already had a lead on a local company, I didn’t try to follow up with someone else at Apple, so this very well could have been an instance where the individual was misinformed.

Late that night, after installing my new drive, copying over the recovered data from the DriveSavers CD-ROMs, and merging them with that week’s changed files, I performed a different action than the one in my high school’s newsroom: I went to bed and got a good night’s sleep (while my DAT drive created a good backup, of course).

Subscribe today so you don’t miss any TidBITS articles!

Every week you’ll get tech tips, in-depth reviews, and insightful news analysis for discerning Apple users. For over 33 years, we’ve published professional, member-supported tech journalism that makes you smarter.

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA. The Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.