My recommended approach.
A working hard disk formatted for use by any prior version of Windows can certainly be read by Windows versions that come later.
Of course, you’ll have to open the box, extract the drive, and do something with it.
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Moving your old computer's hard drive
- You can almost certainly remove the hard drive from an older machine and attach it to a newer machine.
- You may be able to install it internally if the interfaces are compatible.
- Consider instead placing it into an external enclosure to make it a USB drive.
- You will not be able to transfer installed applications or Windows itself.
Installing the drive in another machine
This is a fairly common approach used by computer geeks. We’ll take a hard drive from an old computer and install it as the second drive in a new one. What used to appear as the C: drive on the old computer might now appear as the D: drive on the new one. Once it’s set up, copying files from old to new is easy and fast.
This approach comes with a bonus. Once you’re done copying the files you want to keep, you can leave the old hard drive in the new machine, reformat it, and use the extra disk space for whatever you like.
The downside is, you need to be somewhat computer-hardware literate to install the drive. It does mean opening up your PC and connecting the old drive in the right way in the right place. There’s no “one way” to do it; it varies based on the type of computer and hard disk you have.
A more flexible approach: the external drive
A more flexible approach I prefer instead is to take the drive out of the old computer and install it into an external USB drive enclosure.
That’s essentially what external USB drives are: hard drives in an enclosure, providing power and a circuit board to provide the USB-to-hard drive interface.
There are two things you need to know before purchasing an external USB enclosure.
- The drive size.
By size in this case, I mean the physical size of the drive. The external enclosure you select needs to match the physical size of the old drive you’re about to put in it.
- The interface.
There are two primary disk interfaces these days: SATA (on the left, above) and IDE (on the right). Almost all drives on newer machines are SATA, and even when they’re not, newer machines include SATA interfaces. Particularly on very old machines, you may run into IDE. The external drive enclosure you get must match the drive you have.
Once you’ve installed the drive in the appropriate type of enclosure (a screwdriver is really the only tool you’ll need), all you do then is connect it via USB to any computer (and perhaps to power) and you’ll be able to access the data on it.
What you can’t do
I want to caution you about transferring software. You can’t.
Any program that required running a setup program to be installed on the old machine will need that setup program run again to install it on the new machine. This is not something typically available on the hard disk you just moved — you’ll need to get, or download, the latest setup for the software you want1.
Similarly, this doesn’t work for Windows at all. Windows is, itself, configured for the specific hardware it’s used on. Your old machine’s configuration is different than your new machine’s. Even if you could just copy it over somehow, its configuration would be unlikely to work properly. Much like an application, Windows must be set up properly for the machine it will run on.
Some skills required
Regardless of whether you install the hard disk in a different computer or into an external enclosure, you will need to be comfortable opening up the old computer to disconnect and remove the drive. Then, depending on your choice, you’ll need to install the drive in its new home.
If that sounds like too much, perhaps it’s time to find a technician (or at least a techie friend).
It’s usually a fairly quick and easy operation for someone who knows what they’re doing.
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Footnotes & References
1: Rarely is the setup program left on the old machine, and it even if it is, it’s rarely in a state that would allow you to just run it and set up the program elsewhere. You need to re-download it, or find your original installation media.