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How Do I Get Files From an Old Hard Drive?

Recovering the past.

A Typical Hard Drive
(Image: canva.com)
If you've got an old hard drive and you want to get data off of it, there are several approaches.
I’ve got an old machine that won’t boot any more. How do I get files from the old hard drive inside?

There are a few ways to accomplish this, assuming that the hard drive itself still works.

I’ll share my preferred approach and mention a couple of others.

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TL;DR:

Getting files from an old hard drive

There are a few approaches to accessing files from an old hard drive:

  • Install it in an external USB drive enclosure.
  • Use a USB-to-drive transfer cable.
  • Boot from a “live” USB and copy the data to a USB stick or external drive.

Solution 1: Make it an external drive

When faced with this issue, I almost always do this:

  • Remove the drive from the machine in question.
  • Place the drive in an external USB enclosure.
  • Connect the drive to a working PC.
  • Copy whatever I want from the drive.

In many cases, I’ll make a backup image of the drive in case there’s ever anything I want later, and then reformat the drive. Now I have a nice general-purpose external drive I can use for whatever I like, on any machine I like.

External drive enclosures are not terribly expensive and give that hard drive some added life, in addition to getting your data.

Solution 2: A temporary USB interface

If I don’t want to bother with making the drive an external drive I can use later, a USB-SATA cable1 is a useful tool to have on hand.

Using this cable:

  • Remove the drive from the machine in question.
  • Connect the cable to the drive.
  • Connect the drive to a working PC.
  • Copy whatever you want from the drive.

It’s essentially the same approach as an external enclosure, but without the box. It’s a temporary connection to get what I can off of the drive.

When I’m done, I wipe the drive before discarding it.

Solution 3: Boot from something else

If taking the hard drive out of your machine seems too daunting, and if the machine is still basically working — meaning whatever is preventing it from booting normally is a Windows or software problem — then booting from a “live” USB stick2 is another good approach that will allow you to copy the data off the drive.

A live USB contains a complete operating system ready to run without needing to install anything on your PC. You boot from it instead of your internal hard drive. Once it’s up and running, you have all the tools you need to examine the internal disk and copy things from it — presumably to another USB thumb drive or external disk.

Most live USBs contain a version of Linux. The good news is that they can be freely downloaded and installed on your own USB memory stick. Once booted, the file management programs are similar to Windows’ own File Explorer, and easy to navigate.

Caveat: When it won’t work

The approaches described above won’t work if:

  • The drive is encrypted. Unless you have a decryption key, you may not be able to access what’s on it no matter what you do.
  • The drive is damaged. Exactly how far you get will depend on the extent of the damage. You may not be able to access the content at all, or you may only be able to access some of the data before encountering errors. A data recovery service may be able to help for a fee if you believe it’s worth the expense.
  • The drive is part of a RAID array. The problem here is that on-disk RAID formats are typically proprietary and can only be accessed using the same RAID controller that created them. Booting from a live USB may sidestep this issue, but approaches that involve removing the drive almost certainly will not.

Prevent the issue

No Ask Leo! article on disk management would be complete without talking about backups.

In the scenario I’m talking about above, I’m assuming that you just have a drive, or a computer with a drive, and nothing else. For whatever reason, that drive has the only copy of data you care about. Or perhaps you simply want to explore what’s on the drive to see if there’s anything of note on it.

You can avoid this scenario in the future for any drive by backing up regularly. That way, when the time comes, you won’t need to play the games I’ve described above, and can simply get your data from your backups.

Do this

If you see yourself needing to do something like I’ve described above, a USB-SATA cable is a pretty inexpensive and convenient tool to have on hand. You can access the contents of any drive you happen to have laying around, and then decide whether it’s worth turning it into an external drive to keep using.

Also, back up so you’ll never find yourself backed into a data recovery corner like this in the first place.

And, of course, subscribe to Confident Computing! My weekly email newsletter is full of articles that help you solve problems, stay safe, and increase your confidence with technology.

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Footnotes & References

1: If you have a very old machine, it’s possible you may encounter an IDE or PATA interface on the drive, rather than SATA. USB-to-PATA cables do exist, and I even have one that does both PATA and SATA. Just make sure you have the right one. This article includes photos of the interfaces.

2: In the past, there were “live” CDs and DVDs, but most have migrated to downloadable USB images since not all machines have optical drives any more.

7 comments on “How Do I Get Files From an Old Hard Drive?”

  1. What is the best way to transfer files from an older computer if the computer is an all-in-one computer and you don’t have access to take the drive out. The old computer still works, I just want to update.

    Reply
    • Assuming the machine still works, then however you like to copy files. If the machines are networked together you can copy directly. You can copy to a USB stick or to an external drive. You could make an image backup and mount that backup on the new machine. Lots of options.

      Reply
  2. Wouldn’t it be so nice if Microsoft took this very common scenario into consideration, and made a version of Windows that could fully (and preferably automatically) “reinstall” from the same hard drive on a different (but compatible) computer, without losing any of the user’s other data in the process…!?

    Reply
    • It’s not Microsoft’s fault. The problem is with the drivers. Different machines have different peripherals, and you need to have the proper drivers to get that machine running. Apple has less of a problem because they control the hardware and the software, and if you move the drive to a similar Mac, it will often work.

      Reply
    • Would be nice, but a) they want you to upgrade Windows at the same time, which typically happens when you get a new machine, and b) it would probably cost money, since Windows can’t legally be transferred from machine to machine. You’d need to purchase a new license.

      Reply
  3. When using a USB-SATA cable, would you need a separate power supply for the hard drive? I seem to remember doing this and using the old computer’s power cable to power the hard drive..

    Reply

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