Data Wipe 2019: How I Lost 500GB in One Fell Swoop

Last month saw the 2 year anniversary of what was quite possibly the most devastating event of my cyber life. I’m still feeling the pain and recovering to this very day. In this blog post, I’ll explain everything that happened, as well as the act of sheer stupidity on my part that caused it. Be warned, however, this post contains a hell of a lot of tech language. Therefore, you may want to
have the Tech Terms Computer Dictionary open in a separate tab for reference to save your brain from exploding. I’d rather not spend all day cleaning up pieces of your grey matter, thank you very much.

Backstory

At this particular time, my 2016 Stone Group laptop, which has a 2.3GHz Intel Pentium 3550M and a 500GB Western Digital HDD, was running Windows 10. I really wasn’t happy with this. The system would run slow as hell at times, the fans were always on full power for no reason, and… well… it ran the giant piece of spyware, adware and bloatware we all know as Windows 10! I wanted to restore the laptop to its former glory by downgrading it to its home operating system, Windows 8.1. However, there was one problem, I didn’t have a clue how to access the PC’s BIOS or boot menu screen. As any competent PC user knows, installing a different operating system requires that you boot into external media, be it a CD, DVD or USB drive. Because Windows 8.1’s boot image doesn’t come with Narrator, I’d have to boot into a special preinstallation environment (PE) with the NVDA screen reader installed, then launch the Windows setup program from another resource, such as an ISO file or other storage location.
After turning the web upside down, I eventually found what seemed like the perfect solution to my problem. EasyBCD by NeoSmart Technologies is a tool that allows you to modify the Windows boot configuration database (BCD) so you can get a dual boot configuration going. Since it modifies the Windows boot loader, it doesn’t require any form of BIOS access. Many minutes of fighting with not so EasyBCD were spent before I finally had a boot entry configured for my talking PE. Then, it was time for the downgrade party to begin!

Where it all went awry

Here’s where things start to go sideways. I’m booted into the preinstallation environment, proceeding through the standard Windows 8.1 setup steps. I selected my region, language and keyboard layout, chose a partition on which to install Windows and waited a while for the setup program to copy files and do whatever else it needed to do.
I noticed something was wrong seconds after the laptop restarted. There was no activity from the 500GB Western Digital drive. Usually, with mechanical hard drives, you can hear quiet clicking sounds as the drive head reads and writes data to the drive. In this case, however, there was nothing. Complete silence. I waited about half an hour, then pressed Windows + Enter to see if Narrator would start. The initial installation stage was complete at this point, so Narrator would have indeed been available for the rest of the setup process. However, nothing happened when I used the Win + Enter shortcut. I waited 10 to 15 minutes and tried the shortcut again, but still nothing happened.
After many restarts and a call to the Microsoft Disability Answer Desk through the free Be My Eyes service, I eventually found out what the problem was. In a fit of utter idiocy that Homer Simpson would be proud of, I’d forgotten to format the drive before installing Windows, ultimately frying the boot loader and making the system completely unusable! And things were about to get a whole lot worse!

The Real Devastation

Many days have passed. My PC is still in an unusable state, even more so than before. The BIOS is now all kinds of messed up, and my talking Windows preinstallation environment, my one and only lifeline, was no more. Don’t ask me how this happened; I have absolutely no clue! The PE, along with all my other data, was stored on a 1TB Toshiba HDD, since that was the only means of external data storage I had at the time. I knew I only had one option, which I was not going to like one bit! I was gonna have to use my mum’s crappy Lenovo laptop to download another copy of the talking PE and write it to the Toshiba drive. This, of course, requires that the drive be reformatted… destroying all the data on the drive! Oh, and I also needed another Windows 8.1 ISO. After what felt like forever and a week, I finally had a new, fresh, clean PE drive to boot from. But I knew I couldn’t even attempt to boot from the thing, knowing the way my computer’s BIOS was. Luckily, I was able to find the manual on the manufacturer’s website and use it to help me reset the BIOS back to default. It took another call to the Microsoft Disability Answer Desk to get me around the BIOS and into the PE where I could independently install Windows. Soon, I had a clean install of Windows running and my PC was alive once more! However, all that rewriting of PE images and reformatting of drives had resulted in a combined total of over 500GB (half a terabyte) of valuable data being permanently lost. I’d experienced the digital equivalent of a house fire, losing all my personal belongings and everything I held dear in the blink of an eye.

2 Years On

Here we are, 2 years on from that fateful period. The Stone laptop is still alive and well, now quite happily running Windows 7. Yes, I know Microsoft doesn’t support Windows 7 anymore, but quite frankly, I couldn’t give 3 craps! I like Windows 7 and it works well for me. There is an enthusiastic community of retro tech lovers out there who are doing all they can to keep it and other icons of the past alive. I’m proud to be a part of said community and won’t be leaving any time soon! I’m also much more cautious about backing up my data now. I still have my 1TB Toshiba drive, but now I’m making use of cloud storage services like pCloud and OneDrive, so I always know where my data is. I also make more of a deal out of saving my work often. If I’m not sure if I’ve saved a piece of work yet, I save it anyway, even if I did actually save it earlier on. Better to save twice than to not save at all.
I’d also like to thank Be My Eyes and the awesome Microsoft Disability Answer Desk staff for helping me get back on my feet. I really don’t know what I’d have done without them.

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