Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

I would start by getting a hard drive connector cable, which is essentially a USB enclosure without a box. They're usually multi-connected at the drive end and can plug into old drives.

I was reading a post of yours on data recovery from dead drives and it jogged my memory about three of my computers in storage. Long forgotten. These are my computers from my legislative days in the 1980s. No telling what secrets are contained on them. Two are 386 boxes, Gateway, both purchased in the mid-80s and the other is a 486, a Dell from the early 90s that have data on drives (MFM or RLL) that are 10MB, 20MB, respectively on the 386s and an unknown capacity on the 486. The first Gateway I purchased I thought would never fill up a 10 MB drive so about a year later when Gateway came out a machine with a 20 MB drive, I figured I had to have that one as my older drive was full. In those days, those were about $3,000 machines. So, suggestions on trying to recover data from these drives if the machines will not boot? I don't believe the USB housing approach would work. Or would there be a way to do so with modifications? I'm a long-time electronics hobbyist so if there's a way to modify it, I still have my welder soldering irons and a functional HeathKit VTVM. Any issues with LCD monitors on them? Wondering if a low-resolution form the old video cards will work if I can get the machines to boot?

In this excerpt from Answercast #63, I look at some easy methods for getting data off old hard drives.

Old computers

So let's address that last one first. The LCD monitors will work just fine. Things may look kind of fuzzy I suppose, but the display will be just fine. The LCD monitors these days can still handle the old 640x480 I think it was. That was the minimum resolution on some of the oldest machines - or actually the maximum resolution on some of the really old machines.

So, LCDs? Sure, give it a try. You should be just fine.

Connecting to the hard drives

On the hard drives, what's interesting is that even back then I believe, the interface that was used for those hard drives to connect them to the motherboard was still IDE. In fact, that's when it was still called IDE, instead of PATA (Parallel ATA) as opposed to SATA (Serial ATA).

So I would start by getting (from your local computer shop or Amazon or wherever) what is essentially a USB connector without a box. They actually have them. They're usually multi-connected at the drive end. I have one in my basement.

What's interesting about it is: it's a cable. It looks like a glorified cable with USB at one end and this kind of big black connector thingy at the other. On that connector thingy are IDE connectors and SATA connectors. What that means is that you simply take the drive out of your machine and (without putting that drive into a box of any sort) you connect up this cable and run the drive.

My guess is that if those drives are working, that approach will work just fine. And while you're at it... that's kind of a handy cable to have. It's nice to not have to actually put a drive in a box if all you're trying to do is recover some data from it.

So, I'll try to make sure to put a link to an example of one of those devices for this AnswerCast segment and you'll be able to see what this really is. But that's the approach I would take.

I honestly believe that even those old huge 10MB and 20MB (and by huge, I mean physically huge; they're actually significantly thicker, if they're the ones I'm thinking of, than our current drives)... I would be really surprised if those didn't just plug in and work and allow you to copy off the data that was stored on them. Or at least, run something like a secure delete; if in fact you're trying to delete some of those long forgotten secrets.

End of Answercast #63 Back to - Audio Segment

Article C5946 - October 22, 2012 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

October 23, 2012 9:59 AM

I've done this dozens of time in the past.
We must not forget that these old drives also have to be powered. So, the user still has to open his (or her) machine to find an unused molex power plug. Of course, this is not possible if you're using a laptop.

Don't forget to place a piece of paper under the old drive to offset any chance of static transference from metal or fabric.

October 23, 2012 11:36 AM

If all the reader wants is secure delete, they a drill and metal drill bit is all that is required.

Mark J
October 23, 2012 12:57 PM

It was good that you mentioned the need for a power supply. Many USB hard drive cables come with power supplies. The cable in the ad Leo linked to in the article didn't come with one, but there was an offer on that page for a SATA/PATA/IDE Drive to USB 2.0 Adapter Converter Cable for 2.5 / 3.5 Inch Hard Drive / Optical Drive with External AC which would do the trick.

Mark J
October 23, 2012 1:18 PM

In this case getting the data off the drives, means recovering it from the drives and into another location.

October 23, 2012 2:19 PM

Related problem.

I want to transfer off old drive - problem one of the pins in the parallel connector has been yanked loose from the driver board - don't know were to solder it back.

How to connect THAT HDD to computer.

Dave M
October 23, 2012 4:28 PM

@ George

A couple of things you can try. First, just plug the connector in and see what happens. It may very well work. The worst that could happen is you would get an I/O error of some sort. If this fails, get a good light and probably a magnifying glass. Figure out where the broken pin would plug in to your new connector and carefully push it in a little. Then carefully plug the connector on the back of your drive and hope the broken pin makes good contact with the place where it broke off (a vigorous cleaning with some contact cleaner wouldn't hurt here). Failing these two attempts, you're probably going to be sol - it would be pretty well impossible to solder that broken pin back onto the board.

October 23, 2012 4:35 PM

I've never done this so I don't know how hard it is but I've read about others doing it. IF you can find an identical drive, same make, model, capacity and all, swap the driver board. You just might be in luck. Worth a try if the data is valuable.

Ernest Bernardo
October 23, 2012 10:03 PM

I'm older than most living programmers and recall buying pre-IDE drives with interfaces more akin to those on floppy disk. Mid 1980s.

A quick search yielded the above link with photo and description of MFM and RLL drives. I had a Seagate ST-225.


October 24, 2012 9:27 AM

My first hard drive was 120 mb, so these drives must be at least 20 to 25 years old. Is there really a need to transfer the data that you haven't looked at in 20 to 25 years?

I'm with Ronny. Drill a few holes. Or take a hammer and bash the living daylights out of it. Or take out the screws to open it up and physically mangle the platters inside.

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