Advice from an Apple tech: How to recover a mangled Windows drive with OS X

wilbur the yellow lab

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You can learn a lot from your mistakes—especially when they’re big ones involving accidental damage to a family member’s computer.

On a recent trip back home to Rhode Island, I wound up volunteering to update my sister’s PC laptop to Windows 7 and to give it a full scan for malware. Nothing too over-the-top, just the usual babysitting of progress bars with no expectations of anything going wrong.

It was only when I decided to combine this project with taking the family’s yellow lab (Wilbur) for a walk that things went completely wrong. In the midst of the malware scan, with the hard drive running flat out, the overexcited pooch’s leash got tangled with the laptop’s power cord, sending the laptop over the side of the table and bouncing sideways off a chair before I could catch it.

All attempts to successfully boot into Windows 7 from that point on proved futile; I knew it was time to repair the damage I’d inadvertently caused if I ever wanted to be on speaking terms with my only sibling again.

windows permissions screen

Sorry, you don't have permission.

Upon extracting the hard drive from the laptop and putting it in an external USB carrier, I booted into the Windows 7 partition on my MacBook Pro and began trying to nurse the files back onto an external hard drive under Windows. With each attempt to do this, Windows returned an error message stating that I lacked sufficient permissions to copy files and folders to the external hard drive.

Having given it a shot from the Windows side, I booted back into my OS X partition, opened the recovery folder I’d created on the external hard drive and began cleanly recovering files from my sister’s hard drive over to the folder.

Despite having to nurse the files over one at a time (given the damaged state of the hard drive), the recovery process went about as smoothly as you could ask for. Yes, it would have gone faster had the hard drive not taken an unfortunate spill and was in better mechanical condition. But there were no error messages about permissions, and it was much easier to harvest the data from a Windows partition using OS X.

windows file copy

Copying Windows files from the damaged hard drive is slow but at least it works.

So there you have it: Mount a Windows-formatted partition on your Mac and you can get around pretty much any and all permission requirements Windows might hurl your way if you’re ever trying to get someone’s data/life’s work back.

It may not be the most revolutionary discovery, but it did allow me to get my sister’s work back after a pretty foolish accident and it will allow her to look at me and not think, “There’s the idiot who sent my IBM laptop crashing to the ground, destroying my hard drive and losing years of work in the process…” Which should make Thanksgiving and the holidays much easier this year.

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