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

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 off my hard drive? Thanks for any help you can give me.

This isn't too uncommon a scenario. Depending on what caused the computer's demise, there's a pretty good chance you can retrieve the information off that hard drive.

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

There are several approaches to this problem, so I'll outline my favorite.

Get an External Drive Enclosure

Perhaps the most flexible way of dealing with this scenario 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.

About the only things you need to make sure of are to get the correct size enclosure for the physical size of your drive, and to get an enclosure that supports the correct interface used by that drive: EIDE/PATA or SATA.

"Perhaps the most flexible way of dealing with this scenario is to purchase a USB hard disk drive enclosure."

Then, it's a simple matter of removing the drive from your dead system, installing it into this drive enclosure and suddenly not only do you have a way of accessing the drive, but it's portable.

In fact, after you've recovered the data you care about and backed up or whatever else you need to do with what's on that drive, it can often have a very useful second life as a portable external drive.

If The Drive Doesn't Work

The above assumes that the drive itself is not the cause of your system failure. Perhaps your computer's motherboard died, or something else unrelated that you're electing not to repair.

If the drive's the problem, however, life gets more complicated.

If, after installing the drive in an external enclosure you can't access it at all (not permission denied kinds of errors, I'll talk about those next), then perhaps the drive it self is the cause of your problems.

I'd put it back in the original machine, boot into safe mode if you can and run CHKDSK /R on it. If you can't I'd seriously consider purchasing a copy of SpinRite to see if it can repair the drive. (If not, you can get your money back.)

If none of those options work, you're either looking at contacting a technician, a data recovery service, or you may just be out of luck.

Permission Denied!

When moving a drive from system to system, particularly if the drive is "the" system drive, and particularly if it's been formatted with the NTFS file system, you may connect up the drive only to find that you can see that it's there and has files - you're just not allowed to see any of them!

Not to worry.

Rather than duplicate the information here I'll point you at this article: How do I gain access to files that Windows says I don't have permission to access?

As long as you can login with an account that has administrative privileges, you'll be able to take ownership and/or change the permissions associated with the files such that you can read, copy, backup or do whatever you like with them.

This actually applies to any drive moved from one system to another - installed internally or externally. The permissions on the drive are relative to its original system, and must be adjusted for the new system.

Article C4684 - December 19, 2010 « »

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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?

Alex Broadbent
December 21, 2010 8:13 AM

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.

December 21, 2010 8:25 AM

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.

james w. chupp
December 21, 2010 9:04 AM

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.

December 21, 2010 9:07 AM

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.

Sandy Coulter
December 21, 2010 9:24 AM

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.

Darrell Thomas
December 21, 2010 9:24 AM

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 you can download the desktop version or the netbook version thanks from darrell thomas

Michael D
December 21, 2010 9:56 AM

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.

Michael Horowitz
December 21, 2010 10:00 AM

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.

December 21, 2010 10:48 AM

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.

Duane Ferguson
December 21, 2010 12:11 PM

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.

Jim de Graff
December 21, 2010 12:26 PM

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.

December 21, 2010 12:30 PM

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.

December 22, 2010 11:00 AM

I think my problem is above a little 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.

December 22, 2010 11:57 AM

As I said I use Data Get Back from Symanatic but a good free one I have used is found here software for home use

December 26, 2010 12:02 PM

If you suspect something more than just a software problem, the first thing to do is to make an image of the drive. dd-rescue is a good/free way to do it. P2 eXplorer can mount dd files too.
Here is a good howto:

Raymond Cote
January 11, 2011 9:35 AM

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.

January 11, 2011 8:03 PM

RE: Hardware to accomplish task. 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
Pass this on, I'm sure they can't last long thanks to my big mouth.

peter leg
January 17, 2011 2:39 PM

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

James Combs
March 10, 2011 7:31 AM

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?

March 24, 2013 11:06 AM

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.

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