Initial examination:
We begin with the axiom that everything in a computer can be replaced, with the lone exception of personal data. Photos, letters, music, video, legal docs, email, projects large and small - these are unique files that can represent years of work. Without a backup, these files may be lost forever. The programs they were created with can be replaced, as can the Operating System and all the hardware that they run on, but personal files and the data they contain exist nowhere else. That's the target data. Naturally, we will first try a full-on batch recovery in hopes of restoring a complete startup volume, but if that's not possible and we're forced to limit recovery to target data, the process becomes much more complicated.

Initial tests on arrival include an overall check of machine's general condition using a variety of tools and tests. We look at drives, ports, cables and connectors, ops, OS and settings to see if something besides drive failure may be at fault. Information is collected and system specs are noted. Further analysis may include more extensive diagnostics, especially if issue is intermittent. An estimate for repairs will be provided as soon as specific issues are isolated and identified.

In the case of a possible hard drive failure, removing and testing the drive independent of your machine is best. We will immediately attempt to retrieve data if possible and must therefore be prepared with a proper recovery volume prepped and in place. If an nCity shop volume is used for recovery purposes, you'll be given the option of reimbursing the shop for said volume and taking possession of it*, or watch your data be erased from our shop drive (overwritten) after successful, client-verified data copy to a new drive. If we cannot recover your data we will know in short order and discuss other options for data recovery with you. If test results are inconclusive, we'll get into more extensive and detailed testing (extended analysis, below).

*in the unlikely case that recovery volume contains more than one partition, all partitions except the one containing client data will be overwritten prior to volume leaving the shop.

Extended machine analysis:
Hard drives (or SSDs) aren't the only things that may prevent proper operation; other failures may prevent startup or mimic drive issues. Tracking down computer problems may be as simple as resetting PRAM or running updates; or it may require testing machine's logic board, video, power, internal connections, ports, components and/or cooling. Software tests may involve OS operation and errors, data structures, settings and even device drivers. We'll discuss upgrades, System prefs and specs as necessary, check accounts, security settings and permissions, if indicated. We will need your passwords (or your presence) in most cases where target data recovery is required; password may also be necessary to allow certain directory/OS repairs and updates.

Any given course of action may include copy, scan and/or repair processes that may take a very long time to execute with precision (often run overnight). Larger volumes = longer times. Time charges apply to supervision and monitoring as necessary, but not to unsupervised run time.

A given system's size, age and hardware/software configuration dictates selection of tools used in troubleshooting. Initial diagnostics are virtually guaranteed to find and fix a variety of minor errors on any computer; only the second run of a diagnostic will produce a "clean" test result - that's just the way it works. Any serious irregularities should be quite apparent. Regular maintenance is always a good idea, and an occasional checkup doesn't hurt.

Specific diagnostics:
This entails a more focused look at errors unearthed and problems encountered in testing. In the event of a failed hard drive, a replacement should be configured and installed, and the process may then move to data recovery. Other hardware faults typically point to replacement of a sub-assembly, card, connector or other internal gizmo. Operational (software) errors and issues are a far more common complaint than hardware failures and comprise the bulk of analysis and test activity.

Problems, of course, range from temporary to terminal; we try to be more than reasonable in both extremes where a quick adjustment is all that's needed, or in the case of hardware failure when all we can do is dispense bad news. For the vast majority of cases in between, a diagnosis and estimate for corrective measures is presented (following initial system exam), and options are suggested for client's consideration before proceeding. Policies regarding data recovery and privacy are posted, and we do ask that clients read and understand this information as it pertains to the problem at hand.

Physical damage, mechanical failure
Attempting to rescue information from a crashed or damaged drive can be a long and complicated endeavor, and there are no guarantees when trying to recover data. We will try every avenue at our disposal, but we do not work for free; attempting data recovery comes with a price tag whether the attempt is deemed successful or not. Prior to attempting recovery, we have no idea if a block of data contains useful files or corrupt gibberish, but the attempt or recovery takes just as long in either case. When severe mechanical failure prevents data access, diagnosis is usually quick and clients may be referred to the legendary heroes at DriveSavers.

The process
Be prepared for some down time. Bring your computer to our shop - leave all cables and peripherals at home - and we'll see if we can get it up and running. This allows us to eliminate computer issues that might mimic a drive failure.
  • Mechanical failure is the first determination. If the drive passes mechanical tests, data recovery or copy can proceed following a quick analysis (as outlined above).
  • Bare drives may require installation into a compatible host machine or a bridgeboard to allow data access. Shop minimum charge applies, even if you "just wanna see if it mounts."
  • A secondary storage volume will be required if copy/backup is to take place, usually a replacement hard drive of similar or greater capacity. This volume will most likely either replace (failed) internal drive or become an external backup.
  • In extreme situations, we may be forced to ignore OS and commercial application software and only target irreplaceable (unique) target files. Admin account owner's presence is required.
  • A signed, written agreement is required prior to attempting volume recovery. This agreement explains the process in greater detail and - basically - absolves nCity of any knowledge of, or responsibility for, whatever data may or may not be present or recovered from client volume.
Possible outcome
Despite having complete confidence in the quality of tools at our disposal, there are so many variables that data recovery must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Because we have no knowledge of the subject drive or device (beyond the fact that it isn't working), our only approach is to treat it accordingly and make no assumptions as to its current or prior condition, and no assumptions regarding viability of its contents. It might have a damaged or overwritten directory. It could be so severely fragmented that its remaining X% of free space has no two contiguous blocks. Or, we may never be able to identify the exact cause of failure. Drives with huge blocks of data (identified by software as a "partition") may turn out to contain only a massive quantity of zeros; nothing to recover here, even though the drive showed 50% capacity. Because of these and other factors, predicting the _viability_ of whatever data may be recovered is impossible.

Volume contents
The goal is to move all data between volumes in one operation (known as a batch copy). We're not concerned with individual files or what they may contain, only that the volume's entire contents gets to where it belongs and remains reasonably intact. The number of files, file size or condition may cause difficulties, and the names of some files may appear during virus scans, batch copies, file tests and such, but even these are treated as containers without regard for content. It is in the best interest of all parties involved that the actual contents of a volume (and the individual files it may contain) is neither viewed nor discussed beyond the most general of terms. Please read nCity's Privacy Policy regarding volume content (located on our Home page).

Blinking question mark on startup
This usually means the Operating System cannot be found, and causes range from simple to severe. If you've ignored repeated warnings that your "startup disk is almost full" (or turned off the warning), you've run out of storage space and it's too late now for any easy fix. If it happened suddenly, out of the blue, it may indicate a hardware failure or it might've been caused by OS damage/corruption. Either way, data recovery may be required and it's time to bring it in for analysis - especially if you have no backup. You _do_ have a proper, complete backup, right?

Blank screen on startup or wake from sleep
Workarounds include turning off Energy Saver in System Preferences; manually selecting sleep then waking machine a few times (closing and opening laptops will work, too); press power button to produce shutdown dialog box, then cancel shutdown; and, checking your screen resolution in System Preferences -> Displays pane. If this problem is persistent, there may be something else going on.....

Kernel Panics
These may be related to a specific application or utility program, a corrupt Operating System file, or they may be symptomatic of a hardware issue. In other words, a KP is vague enough that it could be caused by most anything. You'll know a KP by its black dialog box saying you need to restart, repeated in four languages. If a restart doesn't solve the problem, we'll do our best to track down the cause.

Strange screen on startup, no desktop
Machine's PRAM probably needs to be reset. Shutdown machine by holding power button down for five seconds until it goes off. Wait a few seconds, press power button to startup, then _immediately_ press and hold the key combination Command+Option+P+R until you hear two startup tones, then release keys; your machine should restart normally. If not, you may need to bring it in for service.

Lots of spinning beachballs, slow ops
This cursor has a legitimate purpose, indicating the OS is busy processing some command, but when you see it too often or for too long it can mean trouble. It may be a sign of insufficient RAM, a full or malfunctioning hard drive, a bus error, illegal command, missing file or a variety of other things, really. If it only happens in relation to a particular program, blame the program and go from there.

Abnormal Startup tones
If you hear a series of beeps on startup, it usually means one or more RAM DIMMs may be loose, failed or out of spec. Remove any third-party RAM and try restarting. If all installed RAM is original equipment, try removing one DIMM at a time between restarts until failed RAM is identified.

Machine refuses to boot from OS DVD/drive or OS installation fails
System disc may be obsolete (older than installed OS), disc or drive may be defective, keyboard might not be working/connected, video card or bus error may be at fault. See if the drive appears as an option in the Startup Disk pane of System Prefs. Sometimes a DVD can be repaired, so if the disc in question is an appropriate, known-good OS disc - or at least it used to be - it might be worth taking to a video store to be polished.

One giveaway symptom of a corrupt/defective install volume is installer app has a generic "dog-eared page" icon. Another check is to boot from any available System, then open the suspect volume's window; an alias should appear named "Install OSX." Select the installer alias and choose "Show Original" from File Menu; if this results in a disk error, the OS volume is kaput.