How do I get data off of the hard drive in a dead computer?

Extracting data from hard drive in a dead computer isn't typically all that hard - unless it's the drive itself that caused the problem.

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My computer has died on me. I can’t get it to boot up. I need to take the hard drive out and pull my files off from it. How do I retrieve the files from the hard drive in a dead computer? Thanks for any help you can give me.

This is a pretty common scenario. Depending on what caused the computer’s demise, there’s a relatively good chance you can retrieve the information off that hard drive.

Of course, if it’s the drive itself that caused the failure, things get a little more interesting.

There are several approaches to this problem. I’ll start with my favorite: not needing to do it at all.

Get your data from a recent backup

By far, the simplest solution to this problem is not needing to solve it at all.

By that, I mean that a good backup strategy can actually almost eliminate the need to try to recover the hard drive in a dead computer.

Using another computer, or after the dead computer has been repaired:

  • Restore as much as you want – potentially the entire system – from your most recent image backup. This is why I like taking image backups every day. With that simple action, you’d be no more than one day out of sync with your work.
  • Restore the last-minute changes from the online service that you’ve been using for more-or-less continuous backups. I use DropBox for this. Simply do your work in a DropBox folder, remember to “Save” periodically, and even if the machine dies completely, the work in progress will have been saved online.

Unfortunately, the reality is that most people don’t have a comprehensive backup plan in place. And, occasionally, there are other reasons – like a last-minute change that was important, but not yet saved on-line – that might still require retrieving data off the dead drive.

So we’ll give that a try.

Repair attempts

If you can boot the machine into safe mode, then the place to start is to run CHKDSK /R on the drive. That will scan the disk for surface errors that can cause the disk to become inaccessible.

If you can’t boot at all, or if CHKDSK doesn’t help, it might be worth trying SpinRite to see if it can repair the drive. (If not, you can get your money back.) SpinRite boots from its own media and can perform a lengthy pass on the drive to attempt to both diagnose and possibly repair errors on the disk surface.

If those options simply don’t work or don’t help, then it’s time to try something else.

Get an external drive enclosure

Perhaps the most flexible way of dealing with a hard drive in a dead computer is to purchase a USB hard-disk drive enclosure. These are almost identical to any of the external USB drives you might purchase, except there’s no drive inside.

You need to get the correct-sized enclosure for the physical size of your drive.

Different HD Drive Sizes

Two common hard disk drive sizes.

Current drives are either 3.5 inches or 2.5 inches wide, and the enclosure must match.

The enclosure must also support the correct interface used by that drive: IDE/EIDE/PATA, or SATA:

Two Hard Drive Interfaces

The two hard drive interface types: SATA, left, and IDE (aka PATA), right.

You can determine which you have simply by looking at the drive after removing it from your system. SATA interfaces are most common on newer machines, and can be identified by the flat connector style, whereas IDE connectors consist of two rows of pins.

Then, it’s a relatively simple matter of installing the drive into this drive enclosure. Not only do you have a way to access the drive, but it’s portable – you can access your data on whatever computer you have available.

After you’ve recovered the data you care about, that drive can often have a very useful second life as an external drive.

Perhaps you can use it to create the backup strategy that might have saved you from this pickle to begin with.  :-)

If the drive fails to work in the external enclosure – perhaps it shows up as “unformatted” when you connect it to another computer, or doesn’t show up at all – then it’s probably time to consult a technician or data recovery service.

External Hard DiskPermission Denied!

When moving a drive from system A (which had a problem) to system B (where you’re trying to recover the data), you may connect it to system B only to find that, although you can see that the drive is there and has files,  you’re not allowed to see any of them!

Not to worry.

As long as you can log in to system B with an account that has administrative privileges, you’ll be able to take ownership and/or change the permissions associated with the files, so you can read, copy, backup or do whatever you like with them.

This actually applies to any drive moved from one system to another, whether it’s  installed internally or externally, and regardless of the reasons you’ve moved it. The permissions on the drive are relative to its original system and must be adjusted for the new system.

Rather than duplicate how to do so here, I’ll point you at this article which has all the steps: How do I gain access to files that Windows says I don’t have permission to access?

Preparing for the inevitable

Hard disks die. It’s a fact of life. Cynical folks would say that they have a tendency to die at the worst possible time.

The best approach is to prepare for this certainty by backing up. Nothing can protect you better.

Prepare well, and when (not if) your hard disk dies, it’ll be an inconvenience, not a disaster.

Play

Comments

  1. Alex Broadbent

    Sometimes hard drive failure is due to overheating chips. I learned that freezing your drive and then quickly placing it in a disk enclosure can net the time to you need to retrieve your important files.

    • steven

      I have heard of the freezing the hard drive for a while, but is it freezing the Drive or refrigerator. Also, how long do I do it?

      • Reid

        The freezing technique actually worked for me once. I could get data off the drive only for a short period of time while very cold. I put my drive in a zip lock bag, then placed it in the freezer for a good hour. Even did it for much longer (overnight) and it still did the trick. This is the after-all-else-fails attempt, though, and as such, is a long shot.

  2. Me

    If you know how to open up a computer you could also just plug it in as a secondary drive, Id think. Though I dunno how that’d work out.

    That’s definitely an option, though not all machines have a place for a second drive, and not everyone feels comfortable doing this. I like the USB option because it’s fairly simple, isolated and in the long run more flexible.

    Leo
    22-Dec-2010

  3. james w. chupp

    I had a hard drive refuse to boot up…..I purchased a new drive and loaded it as a master and made the old drive a slave. When the new drive booted the system it asked if I wanted to install the system from the slave. Now the system is up and all else is on board.

  4. Hyrum

    Even easier to use than an external drive enclosure is a SATA/IDE to USB adapter. This adapter plugs into the hard drive’s SATA or IDE connecter (either 2.5″ or 3.5″ size) and then into a USB port on a working computer, allowing you to copy off the files you want. You don’t have to bother with installing the drive in an enclosure, and it gives you the flexibility to attach almost any drive with it’s various interfaces. They can be purchased for $20 or so from most any parts supplier, such as Newegg.

    • Shan

      I have a USB to SATA adapter cable and I need to make a windows image of the failing hard drive in my laptop onto my sons laptop so i can then copy it on the the new hard drive I need to install into my laptop. Or can I simply connect the blank hard drive to my laptop and create the image Either way, what are the steps I need to take to accomplish this? Thanks

      • Mark Jacobs

        You can create the image on the blank hard drive using the USB-SATA adapter, then copy or move it to your son’s laptop. You’d then remove the drive from his laptop, connect it to your machine with the adapter and restore from that. What I would do is get a removable hard drive and back up and restore using that.
        It’s not only the easiest way, but this would allow you to take regular image backups of both computers. You mention that your hard drive is failing. If it had already failed you’d be up the creek without a paddle. Regular image backups could prevent that from happening.

  5. Sandy Coulter

    I believe that when connecting a PATA drive externally, you have to make sure that the jumpers are set to Master/Single. It will not work if jumpers are set to cable select or Master w/slave.

  6. Darrell Thomas

    hi what i did was get a copy of ubuntu 10.04 or 10.10 and run this from boot up as you dont need a hard drive to run ubuntu from disk and it dont need to be installed then i recovered my files from the hard drive and i put the files onto flashdrive you can download ubuntu free of charge from http://www.ubuntu.com/ you can download the desktop version or the netbook version thanks from darrell thomas

  7. Michael D

    I work for a HD manufacture and your best bet is to have your data Backed Up. If your data is backed up a single hard drive failure is never an issue. We get that call all the time, and with the price of drive’s being so cheap now, there is no reason not to backup.

  8. Michael Horowitz

    I would start by booting to Linux. All Windows users should have a Linux Live CD or a bootable copy of Linux on a USB flash/thumb drive. This is just one of many reasons for having a copy of Linux around. Windows XP users will find Mint very familiar to use, its based on Ubuntu but looks more like XP.

    If Linux can’t see the drive or files, then move on to the more difficult and expensive options.

    As for a hard drive enclosure, there is a similar option – a usb cable. For around $20 you can buy a cable that connects an internal hard drive (that’s been removed) to a USB port. The one cable works with both 2.5 and 3.5 inch hard drives and works with both IDE/PATA and SATA drives. For 3.5 inch drives it offers electricity too, 2.5 inch drives don’t need this.

    This isn’t a long term solution, just a temporary way to access a hard drive designed for internal use only. You just need to be careful not to touch the live exposed circuit boards. Lesson learned the hard way.

  9. albert

    if I replace a hard drive[sata-750mb],do i have to load the new hard drive with a windows7 [or other] with a disc?

    Typically, yes.

    Leo
    22-Dec-2010

  10. Duane Ferguson

    I agree with previous comments recommending booting into a Linux environment from a ‘live’ CD. I generally use Puppy Linux for this task. It’s quick to load, runs entirely within your PCs available RAM, and allows full access to everything on your hard drive.

  11. Jim de Graff

    A co-worker has had some success with failed drives in laptops by removing the drive, super-cooling by spraying it with an inverted duster (aerosol) cleaner (inverted so that the contents spray out as a liquid), then remounting the drive and taking a drive image before it fails again.

  12. Jim

    I had a drive fail on me to where my PC couldnt “see” it even as a slave drive [SATA drive]. I heard it running so I used Get Data Back and I was able to save my files, granted, it dont work everytime, I have had drives that ran but the software just didnt see it either, its all trial and error, but I have had good luck with doing it this way.
    Remember, IDE drives do have to have the jumper set in “slave” mode (no jumper for Maxtor).
    Albert, yes you will have to reload an OS on a new drive unless you have backed your old drive up, you can then run a restore from the saved disk image.

  13. Faisal

    I think my problem is above a little bit.my HDD(250 g SATA)was making some vioces(i thought interesting)and on day boom,pc says no boot media nothing,i contacted my mechanic,and he says buy the new one.The HDD media is corrupted and cannot be repaire.does anybody have a khnowledge to how to recover data from dead HDD.
    Please

  14. Raymond Cote

    If the drive is OK, I use an USB IDE/PATA or SATA drive adapter. It works with desktop or laptop drives and turns them into external drives. It only costs about $20 and I use it for drives I have removed from older computers.

  15. GREG JACKSON

    RE: Hardware to accomplish task.
    Overstock.com has been selling a kit for only $7.62+$3 s&h (vs $30-50 elsewhere). Kit USB 2.0 Item #: 12338551 includes USB to IDE / SATA cable adapter, SATA Data cable, AC adapter, AC to IDE power converter, IDE to SATA power cable
    Suggested applications: 2.5-inch IDE hard disk / 3.5-inch IDE Hard Disk / SATA Hard Disk / CD/CD-RW ROM / DVD/DVD-RW ROM
    Supports Windows ME/2000/XP/Vista and Mac OS
    BUT-NO INSTRUCTIONS!
    Pass this on, I’m sure they can’t last long thanks to my big mouth.

  16. peter leg

    use the failed drive as a slave on another computer download free PC doctor recover data or something like that and transfer your data works most of the time

  17. James Combs

    Yes I have a external hard drive which is a cube which had a ussb cable hook to it. When I hook the cable to my computer, the power light will still come on but my computer will not pick up the cube drive, it just want read it as if they are no drive hook to it at all. I change the ussb cable but still no good, as if it can’t read the drive at all. My system has “XP” on it but I don’t really know how large the external hard drive is.

    What I need to know is can I still get the data off of the cube drive and unto a nother new external turn drive?

  18. Richard

    I’m in this unfortunate situation myself, and I’m intrigued by the idea of getting an external disk drive enclosure and moving the drive to it! But is that possible with a RAID array? If so, what would be the procedure… or is that self-explanatory once I’ve bought an enclosure for a RAID array (assuming such a thing exists)?

    I forget which kind of RAID I have by number, but it’s two physical drives, and the kind where data on one drive is *not* duplicated on the other; instead each drive holds unique data and the array’s total available space is the amount available on the drives added together. Though it’s fast and capacious, I realize this is probably the least secure type of RAID, since it requires both physical drives to be working. But I have no particular reason to doubt they are; there’s still hope. My problem is that I was getting numerous blue screens and could not keep the computer running long enough to access my data and move it to safety.

  19. Randy Kincaid

    If you have a drive the computer can not find or can not deal with in any way
    It is very possible that the controller board on the drive has gone bad and the rest of the drive is good.
    You can get a new or used controller on Ebay. A screw driver is all that is need to change the board.
    It is best to get the same revision number of the controller. If you can’t find the exact one don’t worry about it.
    I have done this 3 times now with great results.
    You can keep using the repaired drive, but I would not recommend it. Just get the data off and use a new drive.
    Remember that hard disk are built on price not quality. Plan for them to fail at the end of the warranty. Sometime I think they have a built in timer to know when to fail.

  20. James Mountain

    Hi Leo, I have a problem where I’m being told that my old Dell desktop had for the 2nd time the motherboard died. The price to fix was about what I paid for the computer. When I bought this the motherboard failed and Dell had me send it back,and it worked about 6 months when the motherboard failed again but this time Dell said to bad we already fixed that problem once already. Computer essensals said it would cost over a couple hundred,and they were notorious for motherboard fallers now to the problem ,Dell doesn’t seem to be compatible with there connections and I’ve got a perfectly Google hard drive,vidio card that I can’t hook up on my Sony Vaio laptop to get the info off. The computer will not boot up. I was wondering what possibly could be done, any ideas what I can do?

    • Tim Jensen

      Hi James,
      It sounds like you are saying that there is connector incompatibility between the HDD that was in your Dell and your Sony Vaio. To me this is saying that one or the other has a proprietary connector on it or in it.
      One time I encountered a HDD with a proprietary (non-standard interface) connector on it. When I took a closer look, I found that it was just another connector – I took it off to reveal behind it a standard micro-IDE/PATA connector. Take a closer look at your harddrive. It may be shrouded in a metal shield or jacket – if this looks to be the case, then try taking it off. Be sure that you are not removing assembly screws from the bare drive. Try comparing your drive to pictures of bare drives on the internet … err, see Leo’s pictures above. YOU DO NOT WANT TO disassemble your bare drive (usually those screw heads are very uncommon looking TORX or other – don’t touch those). If you cannot see any circuitry on any face of the drive then there is a sheild – if there are any Philips screws, take ’em out. Bare drives usually have circuitry on the bottom side.
      If your drive looks normal, then it is probably your Sony Vaio that is proprietary. Rather than try to plug your Dell HDD into the Sony Vaio, do what Michael Horowitz suggests and get a “USB cable” – more specifically a USB to SATA or PATA (depending on your drive type) converter. Then, just plug into your Sony’s USB.
      Good luck.

  21. Reid

    Per Leo’s comments about an external drive enclosure, those of you who are inclined to troubleshoot your own hard drive issues would be well served owning a hard drive dock. Just search Amazon for “hard drive dock usb 3″ to see a whole list of options. One that holds both 3.5″ and 2.5” drives is preferred. Having one on had is beautiful when things go wrong. Note that they will almost all have the SATA interface. If you’re dealing with an IDE drive, you can acquire a USB hard drive adapter/converter. Something like this would suffice for both, http://www.amazon.com/C2G-Cables-30504-Serial-Adapter/dp/B000UO6C5S, but the docks are much cleaner for a few dollars more.

    • Charles R

      Yes, I have several of the docks (SATA only) and they are also great for using internal drives as external. I use these for my backups too. I have one dock that has slots for 2 drives, can be used to hold 2 external drives, and, is also a duplicator which will copy one drive to the other without a computer. Easy way to install a new system drive, just remove the old one and clone a new one from it in this dock. This particular dock is a CAVALRY.

    • I own a cable pretty much like that as well, and yes, it can come in handy. It’s this one: http://go.askleo.com/ama/B000JJM2GW

      I prefer the full enclosure approach for people that don’t do this often because when done they’re typically left with a quite useful external drive for just the cost of that enclosure.

  22. Judith Ring

    My HP All-in-One died; it won’t even turn on. I had a backup account with iDrive, which I had accessed only a few days before. When I tried to get the files from iDrive to put on my new computer, it wouldn’t accept my key and I can’t get the files. Is there any way to find out if it’s just a power failure or if the disc is also bad? I’m not computer savvy, so would it just be better to take it to a technician?

  23. Charles matter

    I have a similar situation. The USB controller on my old Dell precision 360 isn’t working.. so all of the USB ports are dead.
    I’m wondering if I hooked an ethernet cable from machine to machine.. could I empty orr copy the hard drive from old machine to new machine ?
    Or.. would this set off a chain reaction that would fry the internet ? :-)
    CDM
    NYC

    • The easiest is to connect both to a router to set up a local area network, and use traditional file sharing to copy things across. Should work great.

  24. Roy

    I use a network attached drive on my router for both back ups and storing clients recovered data.
    My computer has both IDE and SATA cables extended from the back to attach problem drives. Data can then be moved.
    Though I have a USB harddrive enclosure I seldom have to resort to it.
    Puppy linux on my flashdrive allows me to boot most computers.

    Very good article Leo.

  25. John Tyler

    It looks like all the comments apply to PC’s. Does anyone know what the solution would be for an old MAC Book Pro?

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