The Arlington Virginia Computer Repair Blog
Blogging about computer repair, data recovery, malware and open source

Data recovery: Hard drives with bad sectors and media errors

February 26th, 2015

This is what a laptop hard drive looks like inside. Data recovery technicians are no stranger to hard drives with bad sectors.  In fact it’s one of the more common forms of hard drive damage that we see from consumer storage devices.  So what  exactly are bad sectors or media errors and how do they effect a hard drive?

What is a hard drive sector?

Let’s start with the basics.  Sectors hold tiny chunks of information.  The sector itself is just a small section of magnetic media surface.  This surface is referred to as the platter(s) of the hard drive.

Sectors represent how data is broken up and where it is stored on to hard drives (and other storage devices).  Most sectors are 512 bytes on older drives and 4096 bytes on modern drives.  They are a component that is part of what is referred to as ‘disk geometry’ or the physical location of data stored on the hard drive’s platters.

Your actual data is stored in these very same sectors as fragments.  These fragments are what make up your files, such as documents, photos, music, etc.  When the fragments of data that are stored in each sector are assembled properly your data is accessible to read, edit, save, etc.  But when these fragments of data cannot be accessed properly, it may be due to bad sectors.  And those bad sectors may actually worsen as the drive is accessed.

The inside of a desktop hard drive.

Hard drive internal platters.

How do hard drive sectors go bad?

Most of the time hard drive storage sectors go bad because of wear and tear.   Hard drives are spinning around from 5,400 RPM all the way to 15,000 RPM depending on the model.  This force, combined with the heat of a motor and the action reading and writing data all cause the hard drive to begin to stress itself on a molecular level.

The surface that data is recorded on to is a microscopic layer of magnetic material that is electroplated on to the hard drive’s platter.  As a result it is quite fragile and can actually begin to degrade or even flake off in to tiny bits of metal over time.  Sectors may also degrade due to direct physical damage, manufacturer defects or other problems.

Bad sectors are defined as a sector that take a long time to access, is no longer readable/writeable or otherwise compromised.  Because bad sectors are a sign of a hard drive failing, it is recommended that hard drives with this condition are retired as they will functionally deteriorate until they are no longer operational.

How can I avoid bad sectors?

You can’t reliably avoid bad sectors, but you can try to ensure that you keep your data on multiple storage devices, so that when (and not if) one dies, you have a copy of your data located somewhere else that is still reliable.  To ensure your drive has a long, healthy life you can be mindful of extreme temperature changes, high humidity, physical shock and not moving the hard drive while it is powered on.

I didn’t backup, is my hard drive’s data lost?

Probably not so don’t lose hope yet!  Arlington Virginia Computer Repair is a small, family-owned and operated company that offers expert data recovery services at competitive prices to the Washington, DC area and beyond.  We will exhaust every option to re-unite you with your data as cost effectively as possible.  Our rates are competitive and our success rate is currently 90%.  That means there’s a very good chance that if you can’t find your data anywhere else, we can recover it from a damaged hard drive with bad sectors (or other maladies).

Read more about our data recovery services and contact us for help.

Computers for back to school: Repair or replace?

August 11th, 2014

Laptop_broken_screenStudents all over the United States are heading back to school.  One question about their computer lingers in their minds and the minds of their parents.  Should we repair it or replace it?  In this article we’ll go through several criteria to decide whether or not the system may be worth repairing or if it is best to replace it instead.  Most of these factors rely on answers you can provide, thus enabling you to make an informed decision as to whether or not repair is possible.

First and foremost, we highly recommend looking at how the computer has served its owner in the past.  Has it been reliable or flaky?  Systems that have been unreliable may be less worthwhile of an investment.  But systems that have performed well and grown sluggish or unstable over the years may be more worthwhile as repairs.  We recommend making this judgment based on the history of the computer and what amount of money may have been invested in it initially, how its performed and how much has been spent repairing it to determine if it makes sense to invest more money or replace it.

Secondly, how old is this computer?  If the machine is over 6 years old then it may not be worth repairing, but if it is 6 or younger then there’s some chance a cost effective repair may be worthwhile.  Age is an important factor because computers age both from usage as well as time passing.  The less a computer is used or at least the less intensively it is used, the more viable it may be for future usage.  The passage of time also has an effect on hardware components as well.  Some may age from oxidization (or exposure to air), corrosion (humidity or liquid) and temperature changes.

Third, does the system fit your needs?  Is it physically compatible with traveling between classes?  If the system is too large or the keyboard is too small then that may make it difficult to travel with or use to take notes.  The form factor, durability, battery life, processing power and memory are all important considerations.  Having a portable and lightweight system may be great  for taking notes and having a more heavy duty notebook may be better for classes that require more processing power or graphics rendering capabilities.

Finally, what kind of software does your school require?  Some schools may require Windows, Apple, usage of Google Apps, etc.  These may help to decide what kind of machine is the best bet for your needs.  Make certain that the system can perform according to the requirements of the classes being taken.  Sometimes applications are cloud-based and very light on system resources, other schools may have more resource intensive requirements for certain classes.  Because these variables are very school and course-specific, I recommend querying those institutions directly for a list of system requirements.If your current machine can handle everything the school will throw at you and it meets the first three criteria then it may indeed be worth investing in.

Personally I recommend everyone make their decisions on a case by case basis and weigh the pros and cons of all the options available.  This is a long term investment for educational purposes, but it is also one that may change over the course of the education process.  What served for the initial classes may not be ideal later on, so some degree of flexibility may also be appropriate.

If you have questions or want help figuring out whether your older system is worth fixing up, contact us.  We’re happy to help.  Arlington Virginia Computer Repair has been serving the DC area for over 15 years helping families and small businesses.

 

Corrupted Microsoft Windows User Profiles On The Rise

July 28th, 2014

Microsoft Windows logoAn increasingly common problem on Microsoft Windows computers is the corrupted user profile error.  Everything seems fine until one attempts to log on.  Then the error strikes.  Your user profile is corrupted and you cannot log on any longer.  This is an interesting problem, because how can one fix an error without being able to log on to their PC?

Fortunately there are a variety of solutions at one’s disposal, but unfortunately none of them are very simple.  Below we will explore three potential resolutions that will work for users that have their data backed up and are simply looking to re-gain access to their user accounts.  But first let’s talk about what a user profile is so that we know what we’re trying to repair!

The Windows user profile is essentially your account’s configuration data.  It contains critical information for Windows to determine how your account is configured, such as the where your libraries (Documents, Pictures, Music, etc) are located, your NTUSER data (personal settings, software locations), cookies from your web browsing, temporary as well as cache files, etc.  The user profile dates back to the days of Windows 95 when user accounts were given unique configurations to allow multiple users easier access to their own files and settings.  If the user profile is not functioning properly one would not be able to use their computer properly without having to reconfigure parts of their user account from scratch.

Please keep in mind that these solutions are somewhat advanced.  If you have any reservations about performing them you can always hire a professional to help you instead.

1: Try running a check disk to see if the corruption is due to a bad file system.  If you can boot in to the recovery console, which is installed on most Windows Vista and Windows 7 computers you will be able to access the command prompt.  Most systems allow access to the recovery console by hitting F8 before the Windows screen appears.  When you are in the recovery console you’ll want to select advanced repair options and choose command prompt.  From the command prompt you need to determine which drive hosts your operating system.  For example if you issue the command:

dir C:

And the command returns a list of directories including a Windows directory, then chances are your OS is also on the C: drive.  If not you can check D: or E:.

From there you want to run a full chkdsk to examine the disk for any bad file system data.

WARNING if your data is not backed up this command can result in data loss.  DO NOT run a chkdsk if your data is not backed up.  In fact if your data is not backed up you shouldn’t perform any troubleshooting until it is.

chkdsk /r /f /x C:

Once the chkdsk finishes (it may take several hours) the final log will tell you if there were any errors corrected.  If so, then perhaps the issue is resolved.

2: Run a system restore to repair damaged system files. If the chkdsk does not help, you can re-visit the recovery console and attempt to run a system restore.  These restores are non-destructive and should not overwrite personal data, but if your data is not backed up please do not proceed. A damaged hard drive may fail during a system restore.

Try to choose a date that pre-dates whenever the system profile corruption began, but not too far back as the further back one goes, the less likely a restore will be successful.

Wait for the process to complete, it may take quite a while.  Once it completes please reboot and see if you can log in.

3: If you have another account that works, you may be able to use these advanced steps.  If you have another user account that can log on, but yours can’t then a specialized Microsoft Windows troubleshooting process may help.

Follow the directions in the link (above).  Once completed try to reboot and see if the account is usable again.

If none of these methods resolve the corrupted user profile on your Microsoft Windows computer or your data is not backed up and you want a professional to examine the computer, we are happy to help.  Arlington Virginia Computer Repair is a family-owned and operated home-based business that has been serving customers in the Washington, DC area for over 15 years.  We have a lot of experience dealing with this problem and providing customers with resolutions that get them back up and running.  Contact us today for help.

 

Data recovery in Arlington, Virginia just became affordable

June 16th, 2014

The inside of a desktop hard drive.It’s a situation everyone faces at least once. Your storage device, whether it’s an external hard drive, desktop, laptop or USB flash drive, stops working unexpectedly.  Or maybe files were accidentally deleted.  Either way those ones and zeroes that make up your critical information are now in jeopardy.

But there is good news.  If you live or work near Arlington, Virginia we are able to provide you with cost effective data recovery solutions.  Arlington Virginia Computer Repair is a small, family-owned and operated home-based business with over 19 years of experience performing data recovery services.  Our goal is to reconnect you with your valuable information, without you feeling as though you need to take out a second mortgage.

We’ve all heard the horror stories of someone spending thousands of dollars to recover information from a clicking hard drive.  It’s shocking, if not appalling. But often times it’s even more heartbreaking to simply walk away from our treasured memories, crucial business documents or other important information.  Our aim at Arlington Virginia Computer Repair is to change that.  We charge a fraction of the price of the competition to perform the same services, and we’ve revamped our data recovery lab so that we can handle greater number of complex cases simultaneously.

Our prices are fair, our turn around times are reasonable and we’ve helped over 10,000 clients with data recovery and computer repair services since 1999.  Why pay an enormous amount of money when you can help support a local, family-based business and save your hard earned cash at the same time?  Arlington Virginia Computer Repair is here to help you recover your lost data.  Contact us today for help.

The Heartbleed OpenSSL vulnerability and what it means for your security

April 9th, 2014

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The Internet is buzzing about one of the most widespread vulnerabilities seen in ages. The bug is called “Heartbleed” and it directly impacts all servers, network appliances and other devices that use OpenSSL 1.0.1 branch are vulnerable up to version 1.0.1g.  When exploited, Heartbleed allows attackers to read server memory in 64K chunks.  This can allow a determined attacker to download and map a large portion of protected server memory, which may include sensitive data like private keys, usernames, passwords, credit card numbers and more.

How does a server bug effect individuals?

Why does this matter to you if you don’t run a server?  Because we all rely on them for our every day activities online, including, but not limited to accessing web sites, e-mails, instant messaging and more.  Think of your online bank account, credit card and other sensitive accounts as the highest priority targets for hackers.  This vulnerability has actually existed for well over a year in the wild and was only publicly discovered and addressed (by some vendors) this week.

The amount of time the vulnerability has existed is quite important, because one can only assume that every OpenSSL 1.0.1 secured communication during this period of time, as well as the servers facilitating them may have been compromised.  That means that even though you may not operate your own server, you do still interact with them on a daily basis.  And most of those servers require authentication.  Many of them store sensitive and communicate data.  This means that even though you may not have felt any impact yet, there could be a massive attack on compromised accounts in the works.

What can I do to defend myself?

My recommendation is to change every single password you use.  Assume they have all been compromised.  Do not share passwords between multiple websites or user accounts as that significantly weakens your security.  Use complex passwords that don’t spell words (even with numbers and varying capitalization).  Word-based passwords are much, much easier to guess!

Vendors may also issue patches that do not change the version number, but fix the bug.  To test if your server is vulnerable you may consider using this Heartbleed bug scanner. Any servers you see that are vulnerable should be avoided until they are patched.  DO NOT log on to a server that is not patched or you may put your account at greater risk.  Instead call customer service, report the problem and ask them to disable your account until it is fixed.  Or change the password over the phone if you feel comfortable doing that.

What if I do have a server or network appliance using OpenSSL?

Your first stop should be your vendor’s security vulnerability disclosure web site.  Many vendors will show you exactly what has been patched, when and give you methods to install the patch or links to download it.  Others may still be working on a patch.  Just because your vendor has not listed a new patch for this bug does not mean your device is not vulnerable.  OpenSSL is widely used for securing a lot of different types of connectivity, meaning you may find that devices you didn’t expect are vulnerable, such as routers, network appliances, load balancing servers and proxies.

If you cannot upgrade to a secure version of OpenSSL, consider disabling SSL temporarily.  After all, the bug itself is much more dangerous than the protection that SSL offers.  We also recommend revoking and reissuing any SSL certificates that were used so that private keys are regenerated.

I’m overwhelmed and need help!

We’re here to help!  Arlington Virginia Computer Repair boasts 19 years of information security experience, and we are well versed in working with OpenSSL on a variety of platforms.  We can help individuals and small businesses ensure their computers and networks are secure.  We can also assist with reacting to an attack that has occurred, mitigating the damage and ensuring the most effective security measures possible to reduce the likelihood of future attacks.  In addition, we can help individuals and businesses with security training to ensure that the best practices for avoiding the weakest link in most networks (human error).

The impossibility of avoiding malware reactively

April 4th, 2014

Black lock

What if every day a new threat was on the horizon?  It would be seemingly overwhelming!  But what if every day tens of thousands of new threats were appearing, and the majority have yet to be identified?  Scary as that may seem we must face reality and realize that is the world we live in.  And for that reason there is no way to protect from malware by only using a reactive approach.

Always knocking on the door

Imagine your computer as a house, with your connection to the Internet as a door.  If you don’t secure your connection properly, then your door is effectively unlocked.  Automated malware is literally always knocking on that door.  If you don’t have any form of firewall, your system can be compromised very quickly.  Automated Internet-based attacks happen on an average of every 15 seconds.

The unlocked door may not be the only point of entry, though.  Sometimes we may willingly invite malware in to our house through infections through techniques like trojan horses, where the malware represents itself as something else (such as a compromised legitimate program download).  On other occasions malware could sneak in through an unlocked window in the form of an insecure Internet browser or outdated version of Windows.

Understand what neighborhood you’re in

This a metaphorical way to represent how safe your house (computer) is based off of several key factors:

1: Where do you go?  If you visit unsafe places, dangerous malware could follow you back to your house.

2: Who are your neighbors?  Other houses that could be compromised by malware that are local to you (or on the same network) could pose significant risks.

3: Do I have good perimeter security? Not having a firewall is the same as leaving your door unlocked. A good firewall can help to mitigate Internet-based attacks.

4: Do I have good locks? Anti-virus software can be helpful and is strongly recommended.  Other security applications can be helpful as well.  But what seems to be more important is keeping all of your applications up to date.  Think of this as keeping up the integrity of your home’s structure.

This is a good overview of how to visualize malware threats on a basic level.  The notions of having your computer as your virtual home and trying to secure that very home against attack.

What does malicious software do?

Overall, though, mitigating the threat of malware is more complex than these analogies allow me to articulate.  So let’s dive a little bit deeper down the rabbit hole that is malicious software.  I’m often asked how does malware work, what does it do and why?  These are all important questions.  First, let’s tackle the ins and outs of malware.

Malware functions by invading software on a computer and accomplishing a task.  This task may be to spread itself, saturate the computer user’s experience with advertising or put the computer under the control of others.  It is not purposeless software meant only to annoy the user.  There are grave risks that come with severe forms of malware.  Some may attempt to harvest sensitive information, such as social security numbers, bank accounts, credit card numbers or passwords by monitor keystrokes or searching the hard drive.  Others may actually encrypt your data and try to extort you for the password.

Long gone is the era of an adolescent in his or her parents’ basement writing self-replicating programs to fulfill their curiosity and to the frustration of those who become their victims.  Now we are dwelling on a playing field where the stakes are much higher and the groups are motivated by money instead of childlike wonder and mischief.

There is more to malware protection than reactive defense

One of the biggest mistakes I see my clients make is to assume that the best protection is to react as malware is exposed to your computer.  Unfortunately statistical probabilities dictate that the likelihood your anti-virus software catches the latest and greatest threats is quite low.  In fact, with tens of thousands of new malware variations and even new novel programs coming in to existence on a daily basis, there is no conceivable way that a reactive defense is sufficient.

Anti-virus software relies on accurate signatures to detect a threat.  Those signatures are based off of the analysis of the malware that has been captured by these anti-virus software programmers and maintainers.  If malware is different enough that it doesn’t match existing signatures or heuristic (pattern-based) analysis, then it will slip by unnoticed in to your computer.

This article is the first in a series about malware by Alexander G. Chamandy of Arlington Virginia Computer Repair.  He is a seasoned IT professional with 19 years of experience, and a focus on information security.  Stay tuned for more as we continue to dive deeper in to this increasingly important topic.

Upgrading Microsoft Windows XP before support ends in April

March 24th, 2014

Microsoft Windows logoIt doesn’t seem like all that long ago that Bill Gates was on television touting Windows 98’s “Plug and Play” functionality as the new standard for installing hardware.  Unfortunately at the time Windows 98 was feeling a bit grumpy and decided to crash, rather than install the hardware, in front of a live audience and millions of viewers.  While this situation may seem amusing on the surface, it is never funny to have your computer crash at a critical moment.  This is an important reason why operating systems are constantly updated to fix bugs and security flaws that can lead to crashes.

A brief history of Microsoft Windows XP

Windows XP was released on October 25th, 2001 just a few years after Bill Gates’ ill-fated Windows 98 presentation.  The new operating system initially arrived with bugs as bad as the aforementioned show stopper, some of which were the inspiration of headaches for users and system administrators alike.  But over time, and with three service packs and thousands of patches, Windows XP eventually became a much more stable and usable operating system.  Even Plug and Play hardware worked seamlessly, allowing users to introduce new many types of hardware without having to reboot.

As use of Windows XP grew, so too did the demand for applications, hardware and support services.  This created new industries and fulfilled the demand of a growing population of computer users.  As the era of the Internet began to take a firm grip on America, Windows XP was simultaneously the most widely used desktop operating system in the world.  Only in the last few years did Windows 7 eclipse Windows XP as the most widely used desktop operating system, closing the chapter on one of Microsoft’s most successful operating system releases.

What options are users left with now that support is ending?

Now, 12 and a half years later, the remaining loyal Windows XP users are confronted with a difficult decision when support ends on April 8th.  This question is troubling individuals and organizations alike.  Continuing to use an operating system that no longer has security updates, leaving users exposed to malware, is not desirable.  Indeed, many know the answer is to upgrade their software if not purchase a newer computer, but the path is not clear.  Some applications are not supported on newer versions of Windows.  The user interface has changed and that requires time to learn, adapt and refresh workflow.  For large networks there are considerations about updating the client workstations, training the users and ensuring a smooth transition.

In essence, there are three options available.  Upgrade to a newer version of Windows (Visa, 7, 8.1) on the existing computer or replace it with a computer running a newer version of Windows.  Last, but not least, some users may also choose to run different operating systems such as Linux, Mac OS X or move to a different computing device such as a tablet.

What steps should be taken to ensure a smooth upgrade?

The key is to create a plan and try to follow it throughout the process you decide to embark upon.  If, for example, you are upgrading the operating system on your current computer, then you need to ensure that it has hardware driver support so that if you install Windows 7 your devices (think sound, networking, etc) will work properly.  If instead you are buying a new PC ensure that your system will have the capabilities you need and the software you require.

Backing up all of your important data is always the safest first step to any operating system upgrade.  This process isn’t as straightforward as it seems so consult a professional if you have any doubts about whether or not all your information has been backed up properly or to perform the backup process on your behalf.

Once your data is backed up it’s worth looking over your installed applications to determine what is and is not going to be supported.  Some applications may have newer versions that are supported in Windows 7 or Windows 8.1.  Others may need to run under compatibility mode or a virtual machine.  Machines that do not connect with the Internet may be safer and not need to upgrade any time too soon.  Other versions of Windows XP (such as embedded) may have a longer support life cycle until 2016.

How can one purchase Windows 7 on a new PC if only Windows 8 is offered?

Fortunately there are options available for users in this position, including new computers from many companies including HP, Lenovo, Dell and others.  The options may be more difficult to find on their web sites so you can call their salespeople for a rundown of the laptop and desktops available.  Demand for Windows 7 has been steady even after the release of Windows 8, perhaps because the release was bungled and the software still has some issues.  One of which that still draws criticism is the lack of a fully functional start menu.

Windows 7 still affords users better compatibility with older applications and a user experience more like that of Windows XP than that of a tablet.  And that may be an easier transition than jumping in to Windows 8.1.  No matter what path is chosen, take some time to measure the benefits and drawbacks to ensure you don’t run in to any unforeseen problems during the transition process.

If you still run in to trouble, contact a professional for help.

If you find yourself or your organization having difficulty upgrading from Windows XP please contact Arlington Virginia Computer Repair or a local IT professional for assistance.  We have over 19 years of experience providing clients with assistance with difficult situations like these and are happy to help ensure the best transition possible to a newer, safer version of Windows or another operating system.

Celebrating 15 years of computer repair and data recovery in Arlington, VA

March 5th, 2014

Small business, with the potential and fragility of a sapling.Arlington Virginia Computer Repair is celebrating 15 years of business in the Arlington, VA area.  We’ve been helping clients with their IT consulting, computer repair and data recovery needs since March of 1999 and hope to help for at least another 15 years!  Arlington Virginia Computer Repair is a home-based and family-operated business managed by Alexander G. Chamandy and his wife Jennifer Stolk.

The company started with humble beginnings in 1999 working out of Alex’s parents’ house (in the attic).  To start the company, Alex sold his first car (an Acura Integra) to fund  equipment, legal and other start-up expenses.  About two years later, Alex moved to a rented house down the street to continue growing his company.   Business picked up and Alex started setting aside funds for the future.

In August of 2002 Alex bought what is now home to Arlington Virginia Computer Repair, a house at 4827 8th Street South in South Arlington, VA.  For the next several months Alex, a few friends and a contractor re-finished the entire basement and continued to make improvements until a fully setup professional home office was implemented, complete with its own business entrance, waiting area, conference room, work lab and more.

15 years from those humble beginnings, Arlington Virginia Computer Repair is the most trusted and highly rated computer repair and data recovery operation in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, having served over 10,000 customers!  We’re also active in secure and environmentally friendly e-waste recycling,  over 2,000 laptops, desktops and other computer equipment for our clients.  Most of all, however, our greatest achievement is making our customers happy.   From the smiles we make possible to the relationships we build, this business has become a very important cornerstone to our every day lives.

And to all of our previous and current clients, thank you!  You make Arlington Virginia Computer Repair possible by supporting this home-based and family-operated company.  And we greatly appreciate your business and the opportunity to serve you.

Emergency Adobe flash player update now available

February 5th, 2014

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Adobe recently released a critical Flash Player update to address a security vulnerability in the product.  This update is for multiple platforms, including Windows, Mac and Linux.  The reason for the update is a vulnerability that allows an attacker to use a carefully crafted flash animation to gain remote access to execute code on a victim’s computer.

These kinds of vulnerabilities are extremely serious and must be addressed right away to ensure you are not affected by what is known as a ‘drive by attack.’  Please take some time to visit the Adobe website and update Flash Player (or remove it entirely).

What’s the best way to backup my data on a Mac?

February 4th, 2014

The inside of a desktop hard drive.

There are no shortage of options available for backing up data on an Apple computer running a recent version of OS X.  Keeping your data out of harm’s way is critical as the only guarantee with any storage device is that one day it will fail.  That’s why we prefer Time Machine as the best option for backing up data on Mac computers.

Time Machine has some functionality that sets it apart from other backup software — making it the best choice for Macs.  First of all, Time Machine offers an incremental backup solution that’s built right in to the operating system.  This means that you don’t need to install any specialized software to start backing up. This means you can back up all your data, from movies to documents, music, pictures and more using software that came with your computer out-of-the-box.

In addition, Time Machine offers the ability to backup all the applications you installed while using OS X, so your copy of Microsoft Office or iPhoto will stay with you when you restore the backup!  And restoring the backup couldn’t be easier.  Just install a new hard drive in your Mac, boot up off the Time Machine device and tell it to restore the most recent backup.  Vwala!  You’re back to where you were before the disaster occurred.

If your Time Machine restore doesn’t work properly that could mean either your hard drive was damaged and didn’t backup properly or that your backup device is failing.  In either of these situations we recommend contacting us for professional help recovering your data.  Arlington Virginia Computer Repair has over 18 years of experience recovering data from Mac and PC systems.