Technology Explained

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

James Bruce 20-02-2013

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 When you find yourself running out of hard drive space, you can either delete something or add some more space. Read More and considerations for dealing with IDE 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 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 10 Without Losing Your Data Using this option allows you to reinstall Windows without losing the files, personal data and programs you already have on the system. 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

Related topics: Computer Maintenance, Hard Drive.

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  1. Keith Swartz
    February 21, 2013 at 9:59 pm

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

  2. Ruth H
    February 21, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    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.

  3. Pat
    February 21, 2013 at 11:59 am

    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
      February 21, 2013 at 12:01 pm

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

    • Guy McDowell
      February 21, 2013 at 4:05 pm

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

  4. Kirby
    February 21, 2013 at 7:45 am

    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.

    • Kirby
      February 21, 2013 at 7:46 am

      BTW, you should make sure that the motherboard could support both IDE and SATA connections.

      • Guy McDowell
        February 21, 2013 at 4:04 pm

        Are you sure you're using the term CPU properly? Little confusing for newbs.

    • James Bruce
      February 21, 2013 at 8:46 am

      Not the safest method, but whatever works!

  5. Anonymous
    February 20, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    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
      February 21, 2013 at 4:03 pm

      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.

  6. Doc
    February 20, 2013 at 10:20 pm

    Have one of those IDE/SATA adapters, and one thing I've noticed is that the AC power adapter doesn't provide 3.3V (the orange wire) that some newer SATA hard drives need. Several drives including my WD Raptor 74GB won't work with it. I bought a SATA dock to take care of that problem.

    • James Bruce
      February 21, 2013 at 8:47 am

      Hmm, very odd. Thanks for the tip!

  7. Bryan Price
    February 20, 2013 at 9:57 pm

    I have a docking station, I also have the cables. And every one of them is unable to access a 1.5TB drive. Direct connection to the PC is the only way to go with it, evidently due to the size of the drive. The issue with the drive is that it has issues (and none that show up in the S.M.A.R.T. report) causing the computer to time out from 5 to 30 seconds.

    Nothing like plugging the drive in, hearing it spin up, and the computer doesn't even realize that somethings connected.

    Copying the information off (regardless of how bad things get) is on my to-do list. Then, I will promptly execute my data protection on it by bashing it with a hammer.

    • James Bruce
      February 21, 2013 at 8:48 am

      Interesting. The largest drives I have are 1tb, so I've never experienced that issue. I wonder if there's something unique about the structure of hardware in a 1.5tb drives...

      • Bryan Price
        February 21, 2013 at 2:20 pm

        Yeah, I do think it has something to do with the size of the drive, and and being over 1 TB is a tipping point. The dock is a bit old, but the cables I tried are fairly new, although being as cheap as they are, I guess you get what you pay for.

        • Guy McDowell
          February 21, 2013 at 4:02 pm

          Interesting. I don't think the cables would be the issue so long as they aren't broken and their well secured. It seems like it might be something in the formatting of the drive not jiving with the drivers in the dock or computer.

          That's where I'd start my look. Good info though! Thank you.

        • Bryan Price
          February 22, 2013 at 2:00 am

          There is still some circuitry to change the USB signal to SATA, and I think that's where the issue is. I thought I still had the dock box, but I can't find it right now. I'm pretty sure when I bought it it said that it was only good for up to 1TB.

          Hmm. Googled the part number. It is supposed to handle up to 2TB.

          It may be the drive itself not allowing the dock and cables to work with me.

  8. Anonymous
    February 20, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    I use a SATA to USB converter. I got one for $12.99.

  9. bob patterson
    February 20, 2013 at 9:41 pm

    I've used an IDE enclosure to hook up a hard drive long enough to copy all the needed data onto another drive. The enclosure is a very convenient was to temporarily connect to old drives.

  10. Mike Case
    February 20, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    My favorite solution is just build your own computer and install hot-swap bays (which takes care of SATA). I have a couple of external enclosures for PATA/IDE.

    • Victor Ong
      February 20, 2013 at 11:44 pm

      That's why I've been doing!

    • James Bruce
      February 21, 2013 at 8:49 am

      I used to do that, but they don't save much time when dealing with bare drives since you have to crack open the enclosure and screw them in... eugh.

  11. Bob
    February 20, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    Although I do have a docking station I do use the cables from time to time and have never had a problem whether 2.5, 3.5 or ide or sata. Have recovered quite a lot over the years since I bought the cables.

  12. Ryan Dube
    February 20, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    James - love your comic book font in those first few photos. :-)

    I have about 4 or 5 old hard drives piled up with data (family photos) I've been needing to recover from them and never had the time. You've convinced me bite the bullet and go out and buy a docking station.

    • James Bruce
      February 20, 2013 at 8:39 pm

      It's the new comic sans!

    • Eric Montgomery
      February 20, 2013 at 9:54 pm

      The docking station is a great way to deal with SATA drives. Between recovering data from client computers and using my old laptop drive (I'm rocking a 512SSD now) for my own backups, my docking station from NewerTech ( keeps it simple and quick. :)

    • Guy McDowell
      February 21, 2013 at 3:59 pm

      Yep, docking station is the way to go.

      That's a system used even at the enterprise-level for daily back ups, like we used to do with tapes.
      OR, if you've got some time and relatively little money on your hands.....
      180TB Storage Pod -