Saturday, July 5, 2014

How To Recover Data From a Dead Computer

2.5 inch laptop IDE drive with USB adapter
2.5 inch bare laptop IDE drive with USB adapter
I've seen it happen with friends and acquaintances. They are working on a novel, or a big presentation or something big, and then suddenly their computer craps out. Now, these people all usually have one thing in common: at the time their computer crashed, they did not have a current backup. This article is for those people. Since I'm a software guy, I look at hardware with all the fascination of a toaster as long as it's working. So if your data is backed up, revert to the backups unless you have some compelling reason to recover the data.

Send it Back?

At this point you are probably thinking that since you have a brand new laptop with a 5 year warranty and all the extra coverage you can buy. That might be great for keeping your hardware working, but it won't protect your data. When you send a system back, you can definitely request that they recover the data on it. They may even charge you an extra fee to attempt to recover your precious data. They'll even sound really positive and upbeat about it. But in my experience, about 100% of the time they will make no attempt and just apologize that they were unable to recover it. I've seen it happen too many times in my career with too many people, most of the time knowing the data was recoverable. The irony here is that most of the time when you ask them to recover data, they just assume you are saying the hard drive is bad and they give you a new one, which obviously doesn't have any of your data on it. So when you get it back, it's too late to run any kind of data recovery software because your data is somewhere else.

Equipment Check

Philips Screwdriver: Before you start, you are going to need a couple things: a good Philips Screwdriver to start with. Lately I like the Wiha brand. You get what you pay for, but either way most people can dig up a Philips screwdriver. Note for a laptop that it will be a much smaller Philips like a #0.

Flathead Screwdriver: Sometimes you may need a flat head screwdriver or the flat of a pocket knife blade to lift a laptop drive enough to slide out.

USB Adapter: There is a special type of cable adapter which turns a bare hard drive (laptop and desktop) into an external USB drive. You are probably already familiar with external USB storage devices like those little flash drives and portable hard drives. If not, then maybe you are out of your element here. With this cable, you can turn any bare drive into an external USB drive you can then plug into any computer or device capable of reading a USB storage device. This means you can even recover your data from a smart phone or tablet!

As an alternative to the adapter, you can also get a docking station that sits on your desk and lets you drop in any bare desktop or laptop hard drive. It's a neat device, but unless you handle a lot of bare hard drives, you probably don't want it sitting on your desk.

Do It Yourself

Your valuable data resides usually in a single place on your computer: the hard drive. These days that drive can even be solid state and you may have an SSD drive with no moving parts. Both are functionally the same: small boxes inside your computer which store your data. If your computer stops working, your hard drive may still be fully functional. This article will assume that your computer has failed but left the hard drive intact, which is usually (but not always) the case.

If your hard drive turns out to be damaged, you still have a few options, but this discussion is beyond the scope of this article and may be addressed in future posts.


The two main types of drives you will find in most computers are IDE and SATA. I won't bore you with details, but suffice it to say that SATA is newer and faster and will usually be found on any system newer than 2004-ish. For the purposes of this article, it really doesn't matter which, because hopefully you will buy the adapter that does both.

You can still find this older style IDE-only adapter below for cheap. I use it for old laptop drives and have long since lost the power supply it came with.

IDE to USB Adapter

I've had this kit below for several years and will pretty much read any drive.

IDE to USB/SATA Adapter With Power Supply 1

IDE to USB/SATA Adapter With Power Supply 2

Below is a bare IDE laptop drive from an older laptop I chucked in the trash.

2.5 Inch IDE Laptop Drive

Below is a desktop SATA drive. You can tell a SATA drive by the small cables.

3.5 Inch Sata Desktop Drive

Below is an older IDE drive, which you can tell by the big ribbon style cable.

3.5 Inch IDE Desktop Drive

Pull the Hard Drive

So now you have the proper equipment and you know what you are in for. Let's get the hard drive out.

The only thing resembling a difficult part of this task is pulling the hard drive from your computer. This may be daunting to some folks who have never done it, but keep in mind that all modern desktop and laptop computers are designed so that components like the hard drive are easily accessible. This is not the case for smaller devices such as tablets and phones, but for actual computers, the hard drive is almost always going to be easy to get to with just a screwdriver.

Desktop: I'ts usually much easier to pull a drive from a desktop computer. As you are looking at the computer from the front, you will want to remove the left panel. Now look at that panel from the back of the computer and it will usually be held on by 1 to 3 Philips screws. One of those screws might be a thumb screw you can take off with just your fingers, and in some cases it's just one thumb screw holding that left panel on. Either way, take off whatever screws are there and try to slide the panel toward the back. Since there's so many different brands of computers, the panel could be different: it could swing out or fold up or there may not be a separate panel.

With the inside of the case accessible, you should see some sort of "cage" or mounting bracket with a hard drive in it. If it's a newer SATA drive, it will have two little cables coming out: a power cable and a data cable. Very carefully remove both these cables to start with. If it's an older style IDE drive, it will have a much larger ribbon cable and an older style power connector. Same concept: very carefully disconnect the drive.

Now the only left is to physically dismount the drive. The problem is that some manufacturers have wonky rail mounting and other ways to make it easy to remove the drive, and they are all different. Most of the time the drive will be mounted with 2-4 Philips screws, and in some cases you will need to remove the right panel to get to those mounting screws. Some manufacturers will mount the drive in such a way to remove it without taking both panels off. What you need to do is spend a few minutes just looking at it and most of the time it will be obvious how to remove the drive. Keep in mind that this is not rocket science, and most computer repair technicians are not who I would characterize as rocket scientists. So bear in mind when you are looking at the mounting, that it's designed for a kid at McDonald's to easily remove it--don't over-think it.

Laptop: It seems like every laptop is slightly different, but functionally the same. You take off a back panel which exposes the hard drive and you unmount it. Once the drive is exposed, you will usually only find one or two screws securing it. From that point, on most laptops, the drive will just slide out of its little dock and then pop out of the case. Be very careful with any connectors because they are usually much more fragile on laptops.

Below is a photo of my wife's HP Pavilion laptop, with the hard drive circled. To take the hard drive out of her laptop, there's just one screw holding the sliding back panel. Once the panel is off, the drive comes out easily.

Recover The Data

Getting the bare drive out is the hard part. Once you have it in your hands, you can now recover the data by hooking it up to an adapter. For some configurations like the IDE laptop drive below, you don't need the power supply that comes with the adapter since it gets its power from the USB port. Larger desktop drives will need the power supply plugged in.

The setup below is like a geeky portable drive. It's only 80GB but that's still lots of photos.

2.5 Inch IDE Laptop Drive with Adapter

Once you have the adapter plugged in, your setup acts just like any USB storage device. You can copy data from the drive, format it--do whatever you want. At this point you should consider buying a proper portable drive to backup your data. I like the smaller ones that have a laptop drive inside because they don't need a separate power supply to lug around, though they are usually not as fast as their bulkier desktop cousins.


I know people who carry old computers from city to city, year after year because it has some old photos or documents on them and they still haven't gotten around to doing anything with it, and their procrastination doesn't allow them to just send it to me. Usually I have the drive out in a minute or two and copying data to something easy to access, like a drop box account. It's normally very painless to get your photos from a dead system. Usually it's some high failure component like the computer's power supply, motherboard or CPU. Every once in a while the hard drive itself fails and at that point you're pretty much screwed for easy recovery. There are data recovery shops out there which can pretty much work miracles when it comes to recovering your data from a damaged drive, or even a piece of a drive platter.

But most of the time, the drive can be dismounted and your files copied just like any other storage device. You can even buy a portable laptop or desktop sized enclosure and turn your orphaned drive into a proper external storage device!


  1. All your files are still stored on the hard drive. They're just invisible or inaccessible.You can recover them with data recovery software.
    I used this one to recover files from my infected laptop and it worked. Anyway, you can download it and scan your hard drive for free to preview whether you can recover your data. Hope this help!

  2. The process mentioned here for data recovery from dead hard drive is quite enlightening. But, I have found a software named as Remo Recover which helps in recovering files from dead hard with great ease. I would like your suggestion about this tool..