The recovery disc rip-off

The days of finding Windows discs nestling at the bottom of a PC box are fast coming to an end.

Current practice does away with backup discs, with vendors instead taking the cheaper option of installing recovery software on a hard disk partition, leaving the buyer with no physical copy of the operating system they paid for.

“Six years ago, you’d have got a proper copy of XP, then the manufacturers moved over to recovery CDs, and now you get no CD at all,” said Peter Snow, senior technical support director at PC Recovery. “Now it’s on a partition and there is no media if it goes wrong, unless you’ve created a disc yourself.”

System backups on a hard disk partition have one obvious and significant drawback – if the hard disk fails, so does the partition, and along with it goes the backup software supplied by the manufacturer.

“Hard disks can and do fail in the first year,” said Nabil Shabka, CEO of zuuMedia, which runs PC maintenance company Computer Repair UK. “And they will all fail eventually – it’s a matter of when, not if.”

Burn a disc

The PC firms rely on end users to burn a copy of the recovery partition on good-quality media, and store it somewhere safe for the day that disaster strikes. “We recommend to all our customers that they burn a recovery disc,” said a spokesperson for high-street retailer PC World. “Our own Advent systems remind the customer to burn the disc every few days.”

In the real world, however, consumers aren’t as diligent as they should be. “Lots of people ignore the warnings,” said David Smith, director of independent maintenance company Help With Your PC. “They don’t do it during setup and then it’s forgotten.”

In many cases, you can’t even pay extra to get physical recovery media when purchasing a new machine. Although manufacturers such as Dell will supply discs for free, if you ask, PC World told us flatly that “we don’t sell recovery media”.

The manufacturers’ line that partitions are adequate for consumers rather flies in the face of the alarmist advice on Acer Direct’s website. Beneath an offer to buy backup media for £15 the company says, “a recovery disc is the single most important accessory to have with your new laptop”.

“You may need to use it in the event of a virus, programme corruption… and without it your laptop could be rendered useless, leaving you with an expensive repair bill. With this product you can save yourself the hassle of having to create your own backup discs and restore data.”

If worst comes to worst, most manufacturers will supply a recovery disc after the event of a hard drive failure. “Charges vary depending on manufacturer and warranty, but are usually free or for a small charge during the first year,” claimed the PC World spokesman.

Beyond that grace period, the attitude is very much that if you haven’t burned a recovery disc and then suffer a hard drive failure, there’s an opportunity to profit. Despite not offering a recovery disc at point of sale, PC World (via The TechGuys) will sell you one for £35. Others charge even more.

“I’ve had a lot of people that have had this problem,” said Smith. “One customer recently found his hard drive had gone, but by the time he’d paid £50 for the recovery disc, paid for a new hard drive and paid for the labour of installing the device, it made more sense to buy a new machine.”

Waiting it out

Even getting hold of a recovery disc can be a pain. Acquiring an Acer recovery disc, for example, involves a significant amount of hoop jumping that could leave you without a computer for three weeks. When we called Acer support to order a disc we were told by the call-centre staff that we’d have to be redirected to the billing department. Once a disc had been paid for, Acer said it would send out a form to be filled in and returned to the company.

“When we receive it we’ll send you out a disc in 14 business days,” the operative said. And all for only £50 – for software that you have already paid for.

The danger of data loss aside, frontline computer maintenance experts have also criticised the way many manufacturers set up the recovery partitions, because it’s common practice to split the hard drive in two, rather than simply allocate a partition big enough to accommodate the 5GB to 10GB of recovery files.

“We’ve had a lot of people that think they’ve filled up their hard drive, because the partitioning is done lazily,” said Shabka.

Robbed of recovery discs, then robbed of hard disk space. What will PC manufacturers take next?