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How do I replace my system hard drive without installation media?

Question: Hi, Leo. My problem is this – my main drive failed today. It doesn’t seem to be spinning. There is power going to it as the light flashes for a few seconds. The error message says to install the boot media and in the BIOS, the hard drive is not even showing. It’s just the C Drive and all of my important stuff is on my external drives, which I do backup regularly. Hence, I’ll be replacing it soon. However, the computer only came with recovery discs. I’ve already tried reformatting the new drive using the recovery disc but it just keeps going back to the “Windows is loading files” screen. I changed a hard drive a few years ago but I had a startup disc to boot from. This machine does not have a boot disc. It’s Windows 7 and if I remember correctly, my other replacement used Windows XP.

You might be in a bit of a pickle.

There a number of things I gleaned from your question. Most of them are bad news. A possible glimmer of hope: you said you have your important stuff on external drives that you back up regularly. If you meant that you’ve been doing full system image backups, you’ll probably be fine.

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Backups to the rescue?

When you say you back up regularly, how do you do so?

If you’re doing a full system image backup, which is what I recommend folks do (at least periodically), then to put it bluntly, you’re golden. You can replace the drive, boot from the backup software rescue media, restore the image backup; and you’ll be off and running.

But if you’re not doing that, then the news is grim.

If the disk doesn’t spin, time to pack it in

If the disk isn’t spinning, then it’s dead, absolutely dead. You can’t reformat a drive that doesn’t spin.

The fact is, you and I can’t even recover data. A data recovery service perhaps could, but you and I cannot.

Most of the recovery discs, like the ones it looks like you have, rely on a pristine copy of the operating system that’s stored on a hidden partition on that hard drive disk. That means that the recovery discs you have in hand have no chance of working.

Your Disk is on Fire!Options

You have two options. Some manufacturers will send you a true installation disc if you contact them with this problem. Some will only do it, of course, if you’ve actually bought the replacement hard drive from them. Contact the manufacturer of your computer, or the retailer from whom you bought it, and see what options they’re willing to provide.

You could get lucky. If you don’t, then your only one real option is to get the installation media yourself.

In your case, that means purchasing a copy of Windows 7 retail and installing it from scratch once the drive has been replaced. Of course, you can also consider another operating system like Linux, which is free. But to get back to something close to what you started with, you’ll need a Windows installation disc.

And I strongly recommend that you start a periodic image backup of your machine to avoid disasters like this in the future.

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16 comments on “How do I replace my system hard drive without installation media?”

  1. Hi Leo
    There may be another option for this individual. I have used iso downloads of Windows 7 both retail and OEM. Dell for example provides some iso’s for Dell products. If this can be found another computer, or a patient friend, could download the file, burn it using ImgBurn or a similar tool, and then install it on a new drive. I have done this more than once for my clients. If someone he knows has a retail full or upgrade disk, it can be used to reinstall if he doesn’t need an OEM. Of course, either way the original valid product key will need to be used. Does that make sense?
    Thanks for all your great articles.

    • Download the OS from Digital River. Burn it to a cd and install it and then activate it with the product key that came with the computer.

      • This 1) Assumes a registration key came with the computer (not all do), 2) that the person still has it or can read it and 3) that all they need is Windows 7 Retail, since that’s the only version available. OEM keys will not activate the retail download.

  2. I didnt see any mention of removing the HD from the system to verify it was compleatly dead.
    Checking the drive in this manner would verify it as totally dead and not some problem with
    cables or motherboard.
    If I am missing something here please let me know.

  3. You say that data cant be recovered by you and me from a no spinning drive, but thats not true. I once had a hdd with the same problem due to a burned chip / board. I bought another disk of the same brand / model, changed the chips and it worked again. Not great but i recovered the data

  4. I replaced my system hard drive after making a full backup and tried to ‘recover’ booting with the recovery cd, but Macrium Reflect could not find the disk where I saved the back up. How can one prevent something like this to happen?

    • For your immediate issue, try the “other” rescue disk – when you created it you were given the option of creating either a Windows or Linux recovery disk. Try the other one.

      In the future, this is one of the tests you perform before you need to restore. Boot from the rescue media and make sure it can see your backup device.

  5. In older times, hard drives had at least one shaft bearing on the outside. Several times, I had a drive that was not turning reliably but by placing a drop of light oil on the bearing, the drive was repaired. I used one for two years after adding one drop of oil. Today the bearings are inside a cover but I suppose the same problem must be happening so if the cover is removed, try oiling the bearing.
    I have also freed up the read head when it had overshot and was stuck on the side. It sometimes worked.
    You might think you need a clean room for these operations but I never found a problem just opening disks in a room. Blow off any dust you can see, if there is any.

  6. I accidently compressed my boot manager file so now I can’t start my Dell mini 10. If I remove the HD , format it, then reinstall will the unit looks for a Bootable disk say on a portable cd ?

  7. I have recovery disks and when I install a new SSD drive I couldn’t recover my windows from it (Windows XP). What I can do next. And I have another laptop (newer one) on which hard drive also die presently and I do not have recovery disks. Originally it comes with, if I good remember with windows 8 which I update two years ago with Windows 10. What I can do in this case?

    • For for the XP machine you might be out of luck. If you can find Windows installation media you can install anew, but if you have to go that route, why not install a more current version. I hope you have everything backed up that you wanted to save.

      For the Windows 10 machine you can download an image of the installation disk, which includes recovery tools:


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