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

If I were in your shoes, I would open the box, take out the hard drive, and put it in an external USB enclosure.

Hi, Leo. My very dear aunt passed away this summer and I've been asked by her family to try and retrieve her photos and any other important docs off of her computer. However, when I start it up, I get to the Windows start up screen and the PC immediately reboots. It's an older Compaq machine running Windows 2000 Pro. I tried to start it in safe mode and got the same result. Granted, I plugged in all of my user interface tools: keyboard, mouse, etc., which had never been on this machine before. Any suggestions as to what to do would be greatly appreciated. I understand that there are several years worth of grandchildren photos on this PC and we'd really like to retrieve them. I'm thinking my only option might be to crack open the case and pull out the hard drive and put it into a docking station, but I don't have one and I hate to buy one if there's a way around that.

In this excerpt from Answercast #59, I look at two simple ways to access old pictures from a computer that won't boot.

Data from an old machine

Well, actually, in your situation, it's unclear what you mean specifically by "docking station," but what I'm going to recommend sounds very similar to that.

If I were in your shoes, I would open the box, take out the hard drive, and put it in external USB enclosure. They're not that terribly expensive and after you're done (after you've gotten everything copied and appropriately backed up), you've got a nice little external hard drive you can use for other purposes.

Point being here that obviously, your aunt hadn't been backing up. If the pictures are only on that hard drive, then they haven't been getting backed up.

USB drive

So the thing to do is like I said, put it in an external drive. Make a USB drive out of it. Connect it up to another computer and immediately start copying all those files off.

Then, immediately start backing up. Those sound like pretty important pictures. The scenario you've descried is actually incredibly common - where people have someone who has passed away or who have left a computer behind that has a problem or a computer on which is the only copy of something important.

Most often, it is in fact photographs. That's why I so frequently stress the importance of backing up or making copies of things.

But a USB enclosure... it's not going to be terribly expensive and it really does sound like the quickest and most expeditious way to solve this problem.

Boot from a Live CD

Now, if you really, really, really, really don't want to do that, the other approach that I would take would be to boot the machine from a Linux Live CD.

Grabbing something like Ubuntu Linux (or any of the other Linux distributions that supply what's called a "Live CD") will allow you to do two things:

  1. It will allow you to boot the machine from the CD. That means that nothing on the hard disk is required. The boot process will happen entirely from the CD; it will load an operating system from the CD.
  1. There you'll be able to run Linux's file manager, explore the hard drive, and presumably be able to see and copy off those precious pictures.

You can install or insert a new external USB drive or some other device (probably USB based) and then copy those pictures to that other device using the Linux Live CD.

You'll need that external drive, so it sounds like you're gonna end up with something like that anyway unless you're willing to go through a lot of copies with a flash drive that you already have.

But that's the other approach. Basically, it's to boot from something else that allows you access to the hard drive, at which point you can copy things.

Article C5894 - October 8, 2012 « »

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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?

Joe F
October 9, 2012 9:31 AM

Hi Leo,

I know you're not the Linux expert, (neither am I!), but I am having trouble following your instructions for using a Linux live CD that you have mentioned several times in this and your other articles. Whenever I try to copy files to another drive, be it HDD or USB, I keep getting "access denied" when trying to write to the drive. I have tried both Ubuntu and other flavors of Linux, but get the same error. IT's easy enough to mount existing partitions, but I am never asked for login credentials. Very annoying! What am I doing wrong?

Thanks for the great articles.

Bill Chubb
October 9, 2012 9:47 AM

Is this an option for a laptop?
My oldest [86 years] and dearest friend has clogged up his trusty laptop with music tracks and too many photographs. Eventually it became impossible to boot and, to make matters worse, the laptop monitor cracked [I think in his frustration he attempted to teach it flying lessons!] so that I can't do any diagnostics. I tried hooking up a remote monitor but his laptop screen settings needs adjusting - on screen... and no can do. He has photos which he would really like to recover so I'd be pleased to know if I can remove the hard drive and access as a remote [external] drive.

October 9, 2012 9:52 AM

For those who have trouble dealing with Linux, I have an alternate suggestion.

1. Download the Macrium WinPE .iso from my Skydrive. {url removed -copyrighted program}

2. Burn the .iso to a CD - e.g. with ImgBurn

3. Load the system from the CD - you have to change the BIOS boot order to load from the CD.

4. Make an image of the partition that contains your files with Macrium on that CD and store that image on an external disk (USB stick is also possible if it is big enough).

5. Attach the disk with the image that you took to any running Windows system and mount the image which will result in a mounted VHD.

6. Now you can open that VHD in COMPUTER and copy your files.

If you are not familiar with Macrium, here is a tutorial:

Mark J
October 9, 2012 12:19 PM

It's not difficult to remove the hard drive from a laptop. It usually consists of removing 2 screws on the bottom of the laptop and 4 screws holding the drive in place. The HD enclosure is a different size than that of a desktop computer, and requires a 2.5" enclosure.

chris faulkner
October 9, 2012 5:18 PM

A must have for everyone for such an eventuality is Hirens Boot DVD, It's possible to boot up into a Mini XP or Win7, once into your chosen Mini OS you will have various software available for recovering your files from your unbootable hard drive to a USB or even to burn to a DVD.
I'm pretty sure it will handle a Win 2000 drive.

Mike W.
October 14, 2012 4:50 PM

@ Joe F

In Linux you may need to "mount" the external drive in order to read/write to it.

November 1, 2012 7:04 AM

Hi Everyone!

I actually submitted this question and I'm so thankful for the response! It took me a while to get the adapter I needed (shipping error... long story!), but I finally received it, pulled out the hard drive and hooked it up to my machine. It worked like a charm! All the pictures and other important documents have been removed, copied to a Seagate external drive and handed over to my cousins (my aunt's daughters).

We are so thrilled to get these pictures off of this machine! Thank you so much to Leo for answering my question and for the great discussion that resulted.


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