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Why won't my files open even after they've been transferred to my new PC?


Recently I needed to purchase a new computer. I arranged for all of the data
from my old computer to be placed on an external drive. When I open a file, it
says that there is information there, but the programs will not run.

It is my assumption that the program, which was originally on a C drive is
looking for information on a C drive instead of E where the information
actually is.

Is there some way, other than purchasing the programs again that I would be
able to make them work?

It really all depends on what you specifically mean by “open a file”.

Placing all of your old hard drive’s contents on an external drive is an
excellent approach to moving from one computer to another.

But it’s not the only thing you need to do.


Documents and Data

If by “open a file” you mean you have a document – say a Microsoft Word document – which you locate on your external drive and double click on, then Microsoft Word or some compatible program that understand’s Word documents must be installed on your new computer.

“… data files work just fine from old hard drive, as long as you have some program installed on the new computer that knows how to open them”

It’s not enough that the Word program files might be on the old, now external drive. The program actually needs to be installed on your new computer – which typically means installed on the new computer’s hard drive.

If you have the original installation media that you used to install Word onto your old computer you can just use that again to install it on this new computer.

Remember, Word here is just an example. I have no idea what kinds of data documents you might be working with. The concept applies though: your external drive contains your data files, and to open them you likely need a program installed on your new computer that knows how to work with whatever type of file it is you have.

And yes, if you don’t have the original installation disks for the programs that were installed on your old computer, you do need to go out and get replacements. Remember, though, replacements don’t have to be the exact same program – using Word as my example, that “.doc” file can also be read by the free Open Office Suite. It has its pros and cons, but it is free and might be a viable alternative. What alternatives work for you will depend once again on exactly what types of data files you’re working with.


If by “open a file” you’re attempting to run a program – perhaps you’ve found Word.exe on your old drive and are trying to run it from the old drive, then no – most of the time that will simply not work.

The rule of thumb is that if a program needed to be “setup” when it was first installed on your old computer then it will need to be set up again to work on the new. That means you’ll need the original installation media in order to perform that setup.

That’s why getting and keeping the original installation media is so important.

In short: data files work just fine from old hard drive, as long as you have some program installed on the new computer that knows how to open them. Program files typically do not work, and usually have to be reinstalled on the new computer.

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10 comments on “Why won't my files open even after they've been transferred to my new PC?”

  1. As far as possible, I download setup files and store them in the same subdirectory as the program they install, along with any textfiles containing any relevant license or activation codes, or what-have-you. This way, if I ever transfer programs from one drive to another — or if for any other reason I need to re-install the program — the means is right there.

    I first simply Cut the Install Program (and activation code files, if any, of course!) from the program’s subdirectory (because there’s a really good chance that a re-install might start by deleting everything in that directory anyway) and Paste it to my DeskTop; then I double-click the Installer and run it from there, re-installing the program. I first try a “repair” install (i.e., installing “on top of” the previous installation) and if that doesn’t fix whatever is amiss, I can still delete the whole dang subdirectory and try it again with a fresh install.

    Afterwards, of course, I Cut-&-Paste the Installer (and any other relevant files) right back into the correct subdirectory.

    Another thing I try, is not installing — I try to see if it is possible to run a program by simply saving its files to a subfolder in the Program directory and creating a shortcut to its main executable, but not formally “installing” it — i.e., will it run “portably”? In an astonishing number of cases, the answer to this question is “yes”; and if you can get away with this, not only do you save yourself from a bit of unnecessary Registry Rot, but there’s also very a good probability you’ll be able to simply copy the entire subdirectory over from your old drive into a corresponding location on a new drive and, assuming the operating system is the same (or at least compatible) the program should continue to work just fine.

    In other words, if you have a program, “C:ProgramsTestProgTestProg.EXE” on WinXP Machine1, you should be able to copy the “TestProg” subdirectory into “C:Programs” of WinXP Machine2, and there’s a high degree of probability that a shortcut to “TestProg.EXE” on Machine2 will work there just the same way as it did on Machine1… IF, but ONLY IF, it worked correctly, without installation, on WinXP Machine1.

  2. A few years ago I was using an IBM ThinkPad laptop running windows 98 with an external hard drive. When the old laptop failed I got a desktop running Windows XP. Plugged the external hard drive into the USB port and *groan* nothing. The hard drive was formatted using Windows 98, Windows XP could not find anything on it. After trying several things unsuccessfully, I decided that the data was only recreational anyway, so I would format the big external drive with Windows XP. *groan again* XP would only format that part of the disk that was not used! So I went from a several hundred gig hard drive to a few Kbytes. I don’t recall exactly what XP said about the files on the external drive, but the problem was incompatibility of windows versions.

    Actually I believe there was some other problem at play. There’s no windows version issue when it comes to filesystem formats. Windows XP understands everything that 98 did.

  3. I am assuming you also transferred a copy of the registry ???. The programs directory, windows directory, documents directory AND the registry must be copied before windows knows whats happening.

  4. With later versions of Windows, Vista forward, moving your files to a new PC may result in the loss of so-called Windows “permissions.” For example, a member of my family received an error message from her laptop OS that she should back up hard drive files immediately. We did so, using an included utility from the PC’s maker, H-P. We were forced to reinstall the Vista OS, reformatting the hard drive on the machine, but we had that backup of my family member’s files. I restored them all on her laptop after a getting the OS back up. Word processing files and other personal files opened up as normal, but almost all of her digital photos would not. I eventually figured out that under Vista, the photos were for some reason perceived as belonging to another user (the one, no doubt that we had destroyed when we reformatted the hard drive and reinstalled the OS). I also found that I could adjust the permissions of each of these JPG files by going to file properties and wading through three or four popup windows, making some non-intuitive choices which after trial and error changed the file to a readable/editable state. Ah, but this process took a couple minutes per file, my family member had hundreds of image files. Then I went looking for batch routines and utilities that could operate on the whole lot of them at once. I found several such help programs but none succeeded in batch-altering the images. We’re still going through them, one by one, and adjusting their permissions, as we have time. Ridiculous!

    I suspect that unless the new PC or repaired PC has an exact one to one match of owners (as defined under Windows), permissions will be a problem. Why in our case this only affected image files and not other user documents and files I am still trying to figure out.

    I’ve actually got an article on file permissions in situations like this: How do I gain access to files that Windows says I don’t have permission to access?


  5. I learned 20 years ago to not only always keep installation media, but also programs downloaded from the Net. Keeping them on acouple of external HDs has saved my butt a dozen or more times. Who wants to purchase programs you already bought?

  6. May I suggest you also consider setting up a folder to have the setup files on it … as well as a download folder. if possible download the setup file and copy that file to the setup folder … then rename the setup file to it’s current version for instance say you use AVG you can download the setup file … rename it AVG number Setup and then copy that to your setup folder. Click on the setup program and setup the AVG version on your hard drive … this works in most cases …

    it is my experience that Windows 7 has a few quirks one has to get used to, but in my opinion doing this especially in transfer of old hard drive contents to new hard drive or new system it would be wise to reinstall most of the programs from a CD or the copy you downloaded from the internet. Where possible copy the download in its original place downloaded to this setup folder. Do not RUN it from the INTERNET.

    Another thing I do is keep all the tools in one folder called My tools. Inside this folder I have sub categories like AV tools, Download Tools, Chat tools, internet search tools, office tools, Maintenance and security tools … after I get the icon of the tools on the desktop I move it to the appropriate folder in the tools section! I keep the desktop clean from 50 icons or more to a few that I use frequently

  7. Leo, you are right about having to have the original copies of the “Word” app, but he is not dead in the water yet. If he has a friend that is Windows savvy. They could transfer the old registry (back up the new registry on a thumb drive or a 3.5 disc first) from the new external to the C:> hard drive and the “Word” app to the C:> drive. Then once this is all done successfully open “Word” and the “options” and reestablish “Word” where to find the files on the external drive and to save them there.

    No way would I ever recommend that kind of registry juggling. There are simply too many things that could go very, very wrong.


  8. so what is some file “*.doc” work fine with admin user , but other user “limited” not working, i already copy the files from admin user to other, but it doesnt run.

    hope to hear from u.

  9. My files have been transferred from old pc to new laptop, but when I try to open them, I get a message saying files failed to open because they are corrupt. What does this mean, and how can I get round it?

    It means that either the contents of the files have been damanged, or – perhaps more likely – that they’re being opened by the wrong program on the new machine. Double check that the files copied without error, and that they’re being opened by the correct program. I’d need the exact steps and the exact error messages to say more.



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