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Hard drives spend most of their time in the computer they were originally shipped with, but as computers age and user needs change they may eventually be replaced by a better drive, placed in storage, or moved to a new PC.

This may, in turn, leave you with a need to free up disk space without booting into the Windows on the computer a drive was originally used with. Taking care of this is easy if you have the correct tools.

The Hardware Path

Failure of a computer, or corruption of Windows, can be one reason why you need to free space on a drive. In this case your issue is not with booting into Windows generally, but rather booting into Windows with the specific drive or computer you own.

You can free up space rather easily be installing the drive in another computer, as Windows will simply detect the drive. However, installing the drive can be a pain. This is doubly true if you don’t have a desktop handy, as most laptops have space for just one drive.

satatousb

Fortunately, there’s a solution. What you need is a SATA/IDE to USB adapter. This device effectively converts the internal drive into an external one; you can even plug it in to a Windows computer that’s already running and immediately access the files. The adapter typically sells for $20 online.

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While connecting a drive in this way is generally plug and play, there’s one potential pitfall to note. If the drive you’re trying to access had Windows installed, it will be a bootable drive. Many computers ship from the factory set to boot from USB before booting from the hard drive. You may need to change this settings in BIOS, or you can make life easier by just connecting the drive after the PC you’re using to read it boots.

diskmanager

Problems are rare, but it’s possible that you may run into a hitch. In this case you should do a Windows search for Disk Management, a tool that can show you all the drives connected to a PC External Drive Not Recognized? This Is How to Fix It in Windows External Drive Not Recognized? This Is How to Fix It in Windows Read More , as well as all partitions on them. You can also use Disk Management to reformat and re-partition a drive How To Shrink & Extend Volumes Or Partitions in Windows 7 How To Shrink & Extend Volumes Or Partitions in Windows 7 In Windows 7 and Windows Vista, resizing your volumes or re-partitioning your hard drive has become a lot easier than in previous Windows versions. However, there are still a few pitfalls that will require you... Read More if you’re not actually concerned with the data on the disk, and merely want to free up space for use with another PC.

The Software Path

Perhaps you have another reason for not wanting to boot into Windows. Maybe you hate Microsoft, your installation of Windows is not working with your hardware, or you don’t have a valid copy.

Whatever the case, it is possible to delete data from the drive without access to a Windows PC. You can do this using Linux, which can read the Windows file system.

usbinstaller

If you don’t have access to a Linux computer, you will need to make a boot USB drive that can run the operating system. The easiest way to do this is to follow Ubuntu’s instructions for making a bootable Ubuntu USB. If you for some reason want a different method try making a bootable USB with Linux Live USB Creator Linux Live USB Creator: Easily Boot Linux From Your Flash Drive Linux Live USB Creator: Easily Boot Linux From Your Flash Drive Read More . Note that you’ll need access to a Windows or Linux computer to do this, and you’ll also need a USB drive with at least two gigabytes of free space.

Once you’ve made your bootable USB, you’ll have to actually boot from it. As already mentioned, some PCs ship from the factory set to boot from USB first, so you’ll just need to insert the flash drive and restart. If that doesn’t work, however, you’ll need to enter BIOS and change the boot priority, so that USB is first. Check our article on accessing BIOS How To Enter The BIOS On Your Computer How To Enter The BIOS On Your Computer Inside the BIOS you can change basic computer settings, like the boot order. The exact key you need to strike depends on your hardware. We have compiled a list of strategies & keys to enter... Read More if you’re lost. Also, when prompted if you’d like to try Ubuntu or install it, choose the trial.

ubuntuhomefolder

Once Ubuntu is operating, you should find accessing your files to be simple. On the toolbar to the left you will see an icon called Home Folder (it should be the third from the top). Click on it to open Ubuntu’s file browser. Once open, you should see your hard drive (or drives) listed on devices to the side. You can read and delete files because Ubuntu reads FAT32 and NTFS From FAT To NTFS To ZFS: File Systems Demystified [MakeUseOf Explains] From FAT To NTFS To ZFS: File Systems Demystified [MakeUseOf Explains] Do you really know what your hard drive does whenever you read a file from it or write one to it? Our hard drives can now store massive amounts of data, and that massive space... Read More without issue.

Conclusion

You can, of course, use both of these methods in conjunction by connecting an internal drive to Ubuntu via the aforementioned SATA to USB adapter. This works without issue. Ubuntu will automatically detect other USB drives, even when they’re also running off USB.

On a related note, these methods reveal a rather obvious flaw in hard drive security. A Windows login password can keep people from accessing your computer, the files on the drive can be read easily enough. Users concerned about security should utilize hard disk encryption How To Make Encrypted Folders Others Can't View with Truecrypt 7 How To Make Encrypted Folders Others Can't View with Truecrypt 7 Read More to protect important data. You can also set a BIOS hard drive password; however, this will render the drive inaccessible via USB, it can make recovery more difficult in the event of drive failure, and it does not protect data while the drive is in use. Encryption is easier and more flexible.

What tricks have you used to read a hard drive without booting into Windows? Is there another version of Linux you prefer to use for this task? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

  1. PALEOLITH
    April 11, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    Is disabling secure boot on a Windows 8.1 PC with GPT and UEFI the only way to boot Linux on a CD or stick drive?

  2. Larry
    April 11, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    I used the adapter and it let me view the drive ok. When I was through I looked for it
    in the "Safely remove" window. It wasn't there. I shut down the computer as it was the only way I could think of to protect the drive. It didn't. On reboot the drive was no longer accessible. Neither Easeus or Paragon could find the partition.

    I don't kn ow what caused the problem, but I was able to reformat it and use it again.
    I use Linux now with no problems.

    • RPJ
      April 13, 2014 at 8:51 am

      Thanks John. So the issue is having two copies of Windows. It is not so much about freeing up disk space as adding disk space (or recovering old files) as a boot problem from by adding another drive which already has a copy of Windows installed. Got it... I think. I gave up with Windows some time ago but seem to remember that I could select the boot drive in the BIOS. Would this not overcome the PC's inability to decide what to do when presented with two bootable discs?

  3. RPJ
    April 11, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    I feel really stupid as I do not understand the issue as described. I am sure that it is a real problem but I do not know what Matt Smith is talking about. Mind you I have only read it twice and cannot be bothered to read it again.

    • John W
      April 13, 2014 at 12:43 am

      If you remove a slightly faulty main C drive out of one Windows computer and connect it to another computer already running Windows itself, the PC "sees" 2 boot drives - 2 copies of Windows - and can make it difficult to retrieve
      files that you need off the dodgy drive.
      One trick is to connect the iffy dive via a USB adapter, the other is to use it with a Linux computer.
      Now you can retrieve your data files, wipe the drive clean and re-use it. Or you can put it back in the first PC, reinstall Windows and use the PC again.
      None of this works if the drive is physically damaged or mechanically faulty.

    • John W
      April 13, 2014 at 12:53 am

      Hi Matt, good info, but I thought the title a bit misleading.
      Freeing up a disk space off an old boot drive is very useful, but your article is much more use to folk who have already tried Windows recovery and are still in trouble. It's a classic case of needing a computer to fix a faulty computer. Best thing is, you can boot Ubuntu off USB and use it to fix the Windows system drive in your elderly relative's PC.
      This is why, when you are invited to tea with your Great Aunt (who you hope has put you in her will) you should always carry Ubuntu on a USB stick.

  4. Antonio N
    April 11, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    I actually have that device and I must admit, it works great. Even if you think your hard drive is failing and Windows isn't booting up that cable will allow you to grab important information and put it into another device.

  5. Warren B
    April 11, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    Actually, instead of the adapter, I've used what is called a HDD enclosure, but it only works for laptop drives. It will take a laptop HDD and simply make it into a USB HD.

    So recently, I had the issue of my father-in-law not being able to get at his files from a laptop that failed. I popped the drive in an enclosure, booted into my laptop which is dual-boot Linux Mint/Windows and recovered all of the files he wanted using Mint. Then I simply booted back into Windows (albeit I didn't have to, but I am a student and I had HW I had to do in a software program that only runs in WinOS, yes there are such softwares, although Wine is getting close to figuring them out) and formatted the drive. Now I have a clean, external USB 500gb HD that will run far faster than any most external USB drives on the market.

    • gmnelson2009
      April 11, 2014 at 4:20 pm

      1. an adapter can be used for temporary emergency access for various drive types (however the drive is naked/unprotected). I used this option when i upgraded my laptop HDD for more space to clone my system and data to the new drive.
      2. an enclosure is a more permanent solution for re-use of a drive removed during an upgrade or from a failed computer.
      3. enclosures are not only for laptop drives, they are available for different drive sizes and interfaces (but each is only for one type). I have used enclosures for both 2.5" and 3.5" SATA drives.

    • Warren B
      April 11, 2014 at 9:47 pm

      As far as the adapter, it doesn't matter how you are accessing the drive, if the files are in your main user directory in Windows, and not installed on the original machine, you will have to use something like Ubuntu to get those files. Windows simply won't allow you into that directory otherwise.

      For the 3.5" SATA Enclosure, I have looked for those at one time, knowing that they existed for the 2.5" drive, but I never could find one. I looked on Amazon, EBay, Craigslist, and just a general search on the internet. That was about 3 months ago. So, if you guide me to where I might find one now, I would appreciate it. My desktop is maxed out on number of drive bays, and there are some files I would like to get off that old drive before simply wiping it clean.

  6. dragonmouth
    April 11, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    Not just Ubuntu, Justin. All Linux distros have had that capability for years.

  7. Mike
    April 10, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    Matt, you may want to update the last few sentences before the conclusion. Ubuntu can also write to FAT32 and NTFS file systems. Windows would only have a problem reading the drive if you had reformatted it and used a file system such as EXT3.

    • Justin P
      April 10, 2014 at 11:49 pm

      Yep, Ubuntu's been able to write to FAT and NTFS drives for years. I'll remove that paragraph right now.

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