Accessing An Old Hard Drive Without Taking Apart Your Computer: Here Are Your Options

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accessing old hard driveIf your old computer breaks and it’s just not worth repairing, the problem arises of how to access your data. Getting the drive out of the old PC is usually pretty easy, even on a laptop, but trying to then transplant that drive into a new machine presents a whole new realm of problems. Is there is a spare drive slot? Will opening the new machine up invalidate the warranty? What kind of connection does it have? Is it going to interfere with my other drive? Well today, we’re going to look at ways of accessing that old data without tearing apart your new machine.

First Things First: SATA or IDE, 2.5″ or 3.5″?

Once you’ve extracted the old drive, the first thing you need to do is identify the type of drive it is. 2.5″ drives come from laptops, and are typically less than 1cm thick – 2.5″ refers to the width of the drive. 3.5″ drives come from desktops and are about 3cm thick.

If you have an SATA type drive, your life will be easy. These use the same connections on both desktops and laptops – the slim black plugs power and data plugs – so any SATA cable will work with them.

accessing old hard drive

If you have an IDE drive – these are 2 long lines of pins – things are a lot more complicated and costly. For a start, there’s also a small 1.8″ IDE that was in use; to read from these, you’ll first need a 1.8″ to 2.5″ adapter, and then a 2.5″ to 3.5″ adapter, along with whatever other method you then choose to access the IDE drive listed below.

accessing hard drive

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For a regular 2.5″ IDE laptop drive, a 2.5″ to 3.5″ adapter may be necessary, or you can go straight ahead and buy a specific enclosure.

Note that some drives taken from laptop will often have proprietary clips, enclosures, movement dampers or connection adapters on them that must be removed before they can be placed into an enclosure or used with standard plugs.

accessing hard drive

Cheap and Easy: Cables, Cables and More Cables

Perhaps the simplest solution and strictly only for temporary arrangements is to use a cable that converts to USB. Rather than trying to source a specific type, just get one of these al-in-one connection kits that’ll handle both IDE and SATA including a separate power adapter for either type. They’re a little fiddly, not entirely reliable in my experience, but they are cheap and handy to have around.

accessing hard drive

Cost: $10-$20 for the complete set

In case you’re wondering, eSATA is a special type of SATA connector designed for external hard drives that your new machine won’t necessarily have; I’ve rarely seen them in fact. Even if you did, most don’t provide power, so you’d also need a separate way of powering your old drive. To be honest, it’s best to just forget eSATA; it’s a silly connection that will likely be dead soon.

Permanent Conversion: Drive Enclosures

When you buy an external hard drive, you’re actually just buying the drive and an enclosure in a package deal; the enclosure is just a swanky case and USB adaptor anyway. So if you have an old drive, you can just buy an enclosure, thereby turning it into a “proper” external USB hard drive. Just match up the size and type of connection when you buy.

Alternatively, if you already own an external drive, you can safely take it apart and temporarily swap out the drives just to access the data; of course, they’ll need to be the same type of size, but there’s nothing too complicated to ripping one open. the only tip I can offer is to slide the drive away from the connector first, and don’t just lift it out immediately, since the connectors can be quite fragile.

Cost: Free (if you already own one) to around $20

accessing hard drive

The Ultimate: External Docking Station

If you regular find yourself swapping around and accessing old bare drives, you’d be wise to invest in one of these drop-in drive caddies. There are a variety of models, but most will accept both 3.5″ (desktop) or 2.5″ (laptop) sized drives. Models are available for IDE or SATA type drives, and some can even handle two drives at a time, allowing you to copy easily from the old to a new drive without storing masses of files temporarily on your internal drive.

accessing old hard drive

Personally, I have about 6 SATA drives of varying sizes with old backups and rarely used data on them that I access with a docking station; they’re as convenient as any plug and plug USB hard drive and significantly reduce the number of cables and storage space needed, as well as simplifying matters when family throw a broken machine at me that needs fixing. If you only need to access one drive though, a docking station might be a bit costly.

Cost: $25-$50

These are all the ways I can think of, though if your new machine is a desktop you may want to look at our guides to physically installing a second internal drive and considerations for dealing with IDE or SATA drives. Having more than one drive is immensely useful when it comes to re-installing Windows. Do you have any other tips for dealing with old hard drives?

Image Credits: Shutterstock – PATA drive, SATA drive, laptop drive, drive enclosure, drive docking station

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Comments (28)
  • Keith Swartz

    For the novice this is a “Must read”! Thank you so much for putting this in words!

  • Ruth H

    I took the old drive out of my old HP and put it in my new Dell. Works fine. All the files and photos which are backed up on a Maxtor and a small portable external drive are readily available. I had my son standing by if needed but here’s your kicker, I am 76, female and have been working with computers since my old Kaypro II. If I can do it you youngsters can do it.

  • Pat

    How is removing your hard drive NOT taking apart your computer?
    Anything beyond opening the case, for most individuals, is “taking apart your computer”

    • Muo TechGuy

      Th article is about accessing an old hard drive, not extracting one from an old computer.

    • Guy McDowell

      For most laptops, popping out the hard drive is almost as easy as popping out the battery.
      Nonetheless, point taken.

  • Kirby

    I just use the appropriate data cable to transfer files from one CPU to another.

    Place two CPUs side by side. Plug one end of the data cable to the HDD / SSD you want to transfer from and plug the other end to the motherboard of the other CPU where you want to transfer data to. Make sure both CPUs have power that is delivered to the two drives. Presto. Transfer the files, shutdown, and unplug.

  • Anonymous

    I think I would rather go all the way and get the docking station like Ryan. I think its a better bet. About a month ago I was on a mission to extract data from an old drive. I was going to use the first option here, but I will definitely go with the docking station. Thanks

    • Guy McDowell

      If it’s a once a year thing, the cables are the way to go. Especially if you can’t say no to helping friends with their computers.

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.