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Issue #687 : September 20-26, 2020

Q: I keep my embroidery designs (thousands of them) on an external drive. All of a sudden I can’t get my external drive to open up on my laptop. I took it to my husband’s desk top and it gave me a message that it needed to be reformatted. That means I will lose all my designs. Is there anything I can do to save them? Please let me know if there is anything I can do, otherwise I will take it to the Geek Squad and see if they can help me.

– Norma M.
Fort Walton Beach, Florida

A:  Regardless of the type of data that one places into long-term storage, whether it be system backups, cherished photographs, much-loved music, or, in your case, thousands of embroidery designs, it is always a gut-tightening experience to see a failure message on the screen when one attempts to access seemingly irreplaceable content that took years – and possibly a quantity of cash – to acquire.

I hate to say “I told you so” but in numerous past issues, I’ve tried to drive home the point that all storage media will eventually fail.  It’s not a matter of “if” it is always a matter of time until “when”.  The technology has yet to be invented that can stand up to the ravages of even a single person’s lifetime, much less have the fortitude to be passed along to future generations.  Diskettes, CD-Rs, DVD-Rs, flash modules (including chips, so-called “thumb” drives, and solid-state drives or SSDs), and, of course, the venerable spinning magnetic disk drive, aka “hard” drive, all are subject to failure and potential data loss over time.

I genuinely hope that your data are recoverable, Norma, but there’s no way for me to tell from a mere description of the failure whether that will be the case.  A lot is going to depend on the make and model of the drive.  For example, there are multiple components that might have failed in your unit.  It’s possible that the drive itself is in-tact, and the hardware that interfaces it to the computer has failed.  If the drive can be removed from the housing (a task that’s not for the beginner!) it might be possible to connect it to another drive controller and rescue the files.  There are also software utilities that might be able to talk to the drive in ways that Windows isn’t designed to do.  One of these might be able to rescue your files.  Unfortunately, the only way to know is to try it out.  I’m glad you tried the drive on another PC, because in doing so you eliminated one potential problem – your computer itself. 

Your plan to take it to a professional, whether the Geek Squad, or another computer repair professional, is a good one.  They will be far more likely to be able to perform an analysis of the trouble than you probably are, or than I am without my hands on the device.

Whether you get your designs back, or are forced to start collecting them over from scratch, there is a valuable lesson to be learned here.  That is, don’t rely on a backup method that includes a single point of failure.  In other words, maintain multiple copies of your data, so that if one fails, you have others to fall back on.  The easiest way I know of to eliminate this problem completely is to store your data in the cloud.  Data centers that maintain cloud storage devices routinely perform multiple backups, and periodically replace aging hardware to avoid the exact issue you’re experiencing.  There are lots of cloud storage solutions available these days, many of which are free.  Good luck with your recovery, and happy computing (and long term storing)!

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