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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.
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.
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.
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, as well as all partitions on them. You can also use Disk Management to reformat and re-partition a drive 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.
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. 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 if you’re lost. Also, when prompted if you’d like to try Ubuntu or install it, choose the trial.
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 without issue.
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 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.