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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


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 How to Physically Install a Second Internal Hard Drive How to Physically Install a Second Internal Hard Drive Read More and considerations for dealing with IDE How to Install a Second IDE Hard Drive on Older PC's How to Install a Second IDE Hard Drive on Older PC's Read More or SATA drives 5 Things to Consider When You Install a SATA Hard Drive 5 Things to Consider When You Install a SATA Hard Drive Before you install a SATA hard drive, here are a few things to consider so you don't mess anything up. Read More . Having more than one drive is immensely useful when it comes to re-installing Windows How To Reinstall Windows Without Losing Your Data How To Reinstall Windows Without Losing Your Data Read More . 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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