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Issue #195: April 17, 2011

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I learned something this week!  Well, in and of itself, that’s not very remarkable since I try to learn new things all the time.  But this one is different, and it might be able to help YOU as it helped me.  This has to do with hard drives and the way they store data, and moving data from one drive to another and even one computer to another.  Moreover, it has to do with an old Geek learning what is perhaps a very fundamental lesson in modern hard disk storage.

Once upon a time, hard drive storage was extremely complex to implement on a PC.  There were two different and incompatible types of hard drive “controller” that used different methods to encode data onto the physical surfaces inside the drive.  To configure one you had to know lots of arcane information about your drive, such as the number of physical disk platters, the number of read/write heads, and the number of cylinders and sectors on each platter.  You had to supply these to a utility when prepping the drive, and when a particular drive was mated to a particular controller, usually that was it – it was a gamble to try and move a drive to another controller without risking the loss of all the data.  Then someone got the genius idea of integrating the controller right into the drive itself.  This was called Integrated Drive Electronics, which you probably know better as IDE.  It presented a standard interface for all hard drives, and without a controller to worry about, left it up to the hard drive manufacturer how data was encoded on the physical platters.  Moving a drive to another computer worked fine, because the drive controller went along for the ride.  However, there was still the matter of how the data was laid out on the drive at the operating system level.  Although the drive takes care of the actual encoding of bits to the platters, Windows itself still has some say in how and where the data are stored on the device, and which files, or portions of files are locked.  It gets really complicated, but suffice it to say that in my Geek brain, it has always been nigh impossible to simply pick-up the internal operating system files from one drive and drop them on to another – especially if the drives are of different capacities, physical characteristics, and even access methods (such as IDE vs. USB vs. SATA).  I learned this week that I needed to unlearn what I thought I knew.

Here was my dilemma:  I had a hard drive in a laptop that was dying.  I wanted to get the data off of it before it died completely, then buy a new drive and put the data on the new one.  I was perfectly prepared to lose my OS and installed applications.  I’d simply back up my data to an external drive, remove the old hard drive, format-up the new drive, then go through the process of installing the OS and all my apps, then finally put my files back.  A time-consuming process to be sure, but something I thought there was no way around, and something I often recommend to you, my readers, facing similar circumstances.  As I was searching for a utility to do a mass-backup I discovered an article called 5 Free Apps to Clone Your Hard Drive by Lee Mathews (  In reading it I got the distinct impression that I could retain the entire contents of my drive, INCLUDING the operating system.  Well, that is exactly what I did.  Using one of the free apps recommended by the article (I used Macrium Reflect) and a large external USB drive, I backed everything up – even the files that were locked by Windows while the process was going on.  Then I swapped drives.  The newer drive is 200 gigs larger, has a bigger cache, and a faster access speed.  I had serious doubts this was going to work, but the software copied everything, right down to the boot sector, and when I re-started the machine after restoring the files, it booted right up the first time with no errors.  Total time for the job was about 2.5 hours to backup and restore nearly 300 Gigs of data.  Compare this to the 10-12 hours I expected to spend on re-downloading and re-installing all my apps.  This software is also very useful for other things as well.  If you make a periodic image of your hard drive, you’ll have an instant restore point in the event of a hardware disaster.

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