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Replacement hard drive: how can I copy files from a failing drive to its replacement?


My son’s hard drive is having serious problems. I was wondering how hard it
is to install a new hard drive and copy files from the old hard drive. My
husband is an electrical engineer and has installed a hard drive on one of our
computers before. The main thing I don’t know about is if we will be able to
copy his files from the old hard drive. He has a lot of music files that he has
recorded and doesn’t want to loose them.

Replacing a hard drive isn’t terribly difficult, and I’ll point you at a
couple of articles I’ve found on line with step by step instructions.

But your question raises a couple of important issues that I want to touch
on first, that I think everyone needs to be aware of.

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You haven’t been backing up, have you?

It actually frightens me how many people – or even businesses – use their
computer(s) and simply assume it’ll always work. Or that data will always be

As someone who’s spent many, many years working with this technology please
trust me when I say: it doesn’t always work, and data is not always
recoverable. And that’s as true today as it was 25 years ago. Perhaps even more

So why do I jump on you about backing up?

Because if you had been backing up, you wouldn’t have needed to ask the

Besides not having to worry about losing files in general, a good,
up-to-date backup is one way to transfer data from one drive to another.

So let’s kill two birds with one stone.

Go out and purchase a USB external hard drive. They’re big, they’re not
particularly expensive, and they often come with really good backup software
included. I happen to have three Maxtor drives that I’m very happy with.


“Regardless of exactly how you do it, though, please
start backing up. You won’t regret it.”
  1. Plug that drive in to your computer as it exists today, still with its old
    failing hard drive, and copy everything you want to save to the external

  2. Now, unplug that external drive, and set it aside.

  3. Go ahead and replace the internal hard drive with a new one.

  4. Build out your machine once again using your new internal hard drive. That
    means installing Windows, and your other applications, as needed.

  5. Plug in the external drive once again, and copy over whatever files you
    wanted to retain. In your case, copy back all those music files.

You’re Not Done

Now, install that backup software that came with the drive (or get a good
backup package, see the links below), and set up a daily or weekly backup of
your computer to your external hard drive. Once that’s in place, your computer
could die completely, and without warning, and you’d still have all your

Regardless of exactly how you do it, though, please start backing
up. You won’t regret it.

Note: I should also mention that one could leave the old failing drive
installed, and move it to be the secondary drive. Then you could copy directly
from it to the new drive without requiring the external drive. I avoid that
here because the drive is failing – I don’t want to risk messing around inside
the computer until the data has been copied off and safe on the external drive.
And of course the failing drive is no good as a backup drive after we’re done,
because it’s failing. Getting that external drive is an important step to
staying backed up in the future.

Do this

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31 comments on “Replacement hard drive: how can I copy files from a failing drive to its replacement?”

  1. Maxtor drives can use a utility called “MaxBlaster” (available FREE from Maxtor’s website). This utility will copy a drives contents from one drive to another COMPLETELY – Including the operating system. No further installation or re-installation of software is necessary.

  2. While I agree that the Maxtor utility might be of some use, I have often found that doing a complete rebuild is the best option (and I think Leo would agree). If you have to go through all this trouble to begin with, why not start out with a clean and uncluttered machine. One can only “wash” Windows so many times before a reinstall is needed anyway. The day to day activity just clutters it up too much.

  3. There have been some recent articles regarding hardware that is thrown away or recycled. Whether you’re planning to throw away or give away your old hard drive, just make sure all data from it is erased or encrypted. There is a way that people are able to access the old data so just for future reference, don’t just toss the thing once you’re done copying the files from it….

    Second”>″>Second Hand Drives yeild First Class Data

  4. keith almond is right maxblast does do drive to drive transfers works like a charm i use it all the time ive transfered my operating systems +music and movies once or twice a year to larger hard drives from a forty gig to 300 gig and so on……..

  5. In response to Mark’s point: Since the hard drive is failing anyway, the only fail-safe way to destroy the data on a hard drive is heat, and lots of it. Your oven might go hot enough, but if you’re really paranoid, find a blacksmith.
    I’ve heard microwaving does a good job too.

    When it comes to getting the data off, there’s a program called ddrescue available on Linux, that is supposed to read as much data as possible from a failing drive while minimising wear on the drive (ie so it doesn’t fail completely halfway through the copy).

  6. TW: No – Don’t microwave it if you like your microwave…

    But the data recovery places charge a pretty penny for what they do. If all you want to do is discourage prying eyes, a .22 long rifle (err… in the drive, not the prying eyes) will probably do it.

    But neither a .22 nor a campfire seems to clean a drive beyond OnTracks recovery… for that, it appears you need special equipment like a cross-country UPS truck with no padding in the packaging. [Page 2:,1895,1911132,00.asp ]

    A blacksmith’d probably do… probably just a little “quality time” with a sledgehammer will work just as well.

    Me, I just put it in the trashcan with the garbage and cat litter (used). If the want my secrets that badly…

  7. I use a drill press and drill a few holes through the device, making sure to hit the platters. Voids the warrantee though :-).

  8. The last time I replaced a hard drive with a new one I had a problem with windows and some other programs in the process. WD has a program that said it would transfer everything from one hard drive to another and it did, but windows and some other programs still needed to be re-installed. Don’t want to go through this hassle again. Is there a way to just copy and use the new hard drive?

  9. Alan, if your hard drive is failing then it might not be a good idea to ghost it, but ther is an option if you dont want to install any programs over again. Symantec Ghost is a good example of a program that creates a image of your hard drive. It can then be completely restored on a new hard drive or even on a whole new computer. Im too lazy to give u a manual, but google it and ull get alot of hits :)

  10. Will backing up also back up the programs or just files? I have several old programs that I no longer have the install disc. I would like to copy my old drive to a new drive …OS, programs, files. Is it possible?

  11. Will backing up also back up the programs or just files? I have several old programs that I no longer have the install disc. I would like to copy my old drive to a new drive …OS, programs, files. Is it possible?

    Does leo know about XSS attacks?

  12. Worthless advice. Replacing a hard drive should not involve reinstalling Windows – it should involve copying an image of the old drive to the new drive. Otherwise, even with backups, you will have literally days of reconfiguring to do to get the computer back to its original state.

    Yes, we know about backups. Different topic.

  13. STEP 1 ABOVE SAYS, “Plug that drive in to your computer as it exists today, still with its old failing hard drive, and copy everything you want to save to the external drive.” BUT IF YOUR HARD DRIVE DOESN’T WORK, HOW EXACTLY DO YOU GET THE FILES TO TRANSFER OVER? DOES IT JUST AUTOMATICLY TRANSFER ALL THE FILES? I’M ASKING BECAUSE I HAVE A HARD DRIVE THAT GOT SPYWARE ON IT AND IT DOESN’T ALLOW ME TO LOG IN.

    That’s not a “Failing Drive”, which is what this article is about, that’s a malware problem. You either need to address/remove the malware first, boot from CD-based operating system (Knoppix, Ubuntu Live CD or others) so that the malware doesn’t start up, or take the hard drive and install it as the second/slave drive in another computer.

    – Leo

  14. I did the same thing to backup my computer but now I have a new problem. I can tried to restore all the information to my new internal hard drive and I can’t. It just sits in my new drive as a complete file and I can’t find it on my computer. I have have links, pictures, password and other restore that just sits in my new hard drive. What do I need to do now?

  15. Just connect the broken hard driver and new driver (with the fine OS) into the same PC (most PC support the two hard driver), then copy the file.

  16. I have a laptop and the internal hard drive wont work it wont even log on windows and i was just wandering if i could buy a external hard drive, install windows on it and use the laptop with the external hard drive

    It may be possible, but it’s often complex, problematic and slow. You’re better off replacing the internal drive.


  17. Microsoft recently sent out some automatic udates that crashed lots of computers causing the blue screen of death and in my case, my PC no longer sees my CD and DVD drives. My question is this… If I remove the two IDE drives (80 and 60 gig)and replace them with a single 500 gig SATA hard drive, how do I install my windows OS? I have an original windows xp disc, but as i said, no disc drives are seen. I have an external 500gig drive that has the WinXP files on it.

  18. My laptop broke, there was something wrong with the power sysytem and it was pretty old, so we took the harddrive out and now I am trying to use it as an external drive, all the files are there except the desktop file! can anyone tell me where I should be looking please. When I try to go to Documents and settings folder, first of all it shows that this folder is empty and if I double click it, it tells me access is denied.
    Any help is appreciated.
    Thank you

  19. Is anyone aware of a method that will eliminate step 4? (Build out your machine once again using your new internal hard drive.)
    Someone should produce a bit-by-bit duplicator on a bootable CD…

  20. I have an old tower whose motherboard isn’t working. Is there a way to copy the old internal drive to an external drive?

  21. After travelling and taking my laptop along (it was in hand luggage, so it wouldn’t be too bashed about, but with it being a small plane they took it away somewhere else :( ) it’s now making a lot of noise, it started today, and I shut it down hoping it may be the fan. Turned it on again later today, a few minutes it’s fine then the noise is back up again. I notice the noise is in time to the harddrive light flashing so i’m assuming it’s the hard drive failing. I plan to use your advice above, so I can keep the rest of the data I don’t have on the other computer. I wondered though, how long do you think i’d have to get data transfered? Minutes? Hours? Days? I’m guessing it probably depends on the individual hard drive though so it’s maybe not something you can answer for me.Before it dies completely that is. I won’t be turning it on again until I have an external hard drive to put it on, as I don’t want to be using and damaging it further.

    It does sound like the fan, but you’re right be take precautions. At a minimum I’d backup the hard drive as soon as possible. Unfortunately there’s no telling from the sound (or anything else for that mater) how immanent a failure might be. Could be seconds, could be years. That’s why regular backups are so darned important.


  22. I use a maxtor usb (150GB) to image my wife’s computer. Works great, only problem is once in a while that image file is corrupt and i have to load all programs and reload all data files which takes longer. So make sure you validate the file when you take an image of your hard drive. If it’s corrupt, you may have to re-image the drive again. According to the internet, this happens with all imaging programs including Acronis.

  23. Hey, I have ordered a replacement hard drive for my Dell today as mine is failing. You will shake your head but I hadn’t backed up my system (I have ordered and external USB Hard drive to remedy this in future) but in the meantime I am trying to back up to disk, it has been running for 4 hours and has been stuck at 27% for 3 after failing twice at earlier stages. Is there another way to back up?

    I have backed up all music and documents to USB just not the system bits – I have just purchased Word 2010 and really don’t want to loose it. I have a purchase key and it was a download purchase – will this be redeemable to the new hard drive when I install it?

    I think I am waffling slightly but if I cant back up and just reinstall the system using the disks that came with my computer will it all be good to go?

    As you can tell I am not the greatest technically.

    Thank you for your help.

  24. As the failing hard drive still works fine after booting I would think there should be a way to create a bootable system hard drive with all ones data and programs there. I have the new hard drive 2TB and the USB enclosure. So far I have found ways to make it bootable as external drive and of course how to backup data. I have not discovered how to make a replacement hard drive for the one that is failing. I do regular data back up but that would still leave much work to do to reinstall all the programs I have.

  25. my laptop motherboard is fried and i need to remove the contents of my hard drive before i send it back for repair.. i was told there is an adapter i can hook up via usb from the hard drive to another computer so that i can copy the files to that computer.. is there such an adapter? i can’t seem to locate it..thanks!

    This is but one example on Amazon: USB 2.0 to IDE and SATA Adapter Cable with Power


  26. Hi Leo,
    Thanks for the post, I should have known better… However, what does one do when the HD simply stops working or gives you an error message that it’s failing, you should back up your files but then it won’t let you, it keeps rebooting? To make matters worse I have a Raid 0 (4 additional drives) that I can’t gain access to…

    I’ve managed to remove the main HD and I’m transferring its data through an IED/USB Cable but how do I retrieve all my Raid 0 data?

    I don’t have the original Win XP discs to re-install on a new drive, so another question I have is; is it possible, using the IED/USB Cable to transfer everything, including the OS, from the old HD to a new HD?

    Sounds like I’m SOL but I had to ask.

    Any help, advice will be welcomed

    Jose Antonio

  27. I understand backing up all your data on an external hard drive before replacing a failing hard drive, but I don’t have any of the windows operating disks to reload on the new internal hard drive once I replace it. Is there a way to save ALL of the data on the external hard drive, then boot from it after I replace the internal hard drive? Or do I create a separate boot disk on CD to boot from after replacing the internal hard drive?
    Thx in advance

    The typical approach is to take a system image using a tool like Acroni True Image or others, then use a boot CD made or provided by the tool you used to then restore the system image to the replacement hard drive.


  28. Firstly I think your answer to the lady (original poster) is absolutely discusting – What a dick!
    You automatically assume and belittle her by telling her she’s being naughty by not backing up her data when her original question was “how hard it is to install a new hard drive and copy files from the old hard drive” mainly because the present hard drive is having problems.
    How do you know she wasn’t just fed up with the old hard drive crashing or playing up and wanted to replace the data on it onto a new internal drive – without the expense of having to buy an external hard drive too?
    Maybe she also wanted to know how to copy everything from the old hard drive including the operating system because she doesn’t have the windows installation cd like many don’t – as it comes preinstalled.
    I’m sure she could have told herself what you discribed?

  29. My computer is making some noise it is not a buzz, but more like pulsing noise.
    I don’t have anything in the h. d. everyting I do I save it on an Maxtor external hard drive.
    Eventually that computer is going to die, when that happens, it would be better to buy another computer or replace the hard drive. My c. is about 4 or 5 years old. Thank you


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