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How To Copy Data From A Laptop

Tina Sieber 23-07-2013

Laptops have a particularly short lifetime. If they have not been physically damaged by the time their hardware is hopelessly outdated, they have certainly suffered some serious wear & tear and have probably driven their owner nuts with slow response times and other bugs. Not surprisingly, the average laptop is replaced within less than three years.


While it is possible to upgrade laptop hardware How To Upgrade Your Laptop In a Flash: Add a New Hard Drive & Increase RAM Laptops are not as easy to upgrade as desktops. Many components are simply soldered on to the motherboard and others, though technically replaceable, are restricted by technical skill and cost. There are, however, two upgrades... Read More , e.g. add more RAM How To Upgrade A Laptop's RAM, Step By Step Is your laptop old, slow, and has the hardware never been upgraded? Working on a slow computer can be a real drag. Before you buy a completely new one, however, you should consider ways to... Read More , or even fix an overheating laptop How to Fix an Overheating Laptop: 3 Key Tips and Solutions The greatest threat to your laptop is overheating. Here's how to cool down your laptop and prevent it from getting too hot. Read More or repair a broken laptop screen Busted - How To Deal With a Broken Screen On Your Laptop Over the past couple of years I have traveled a lot and took my work with me wherever I went. I worked from the most ridiculous and beautiful places all over North America and Europe.... Read More , one day the time will come when that is just not possible or worth it any more. This is when you will want to copy your data from your old laptop to a new device. How you can do this essentially depends on how much data there is to back up and whether or not the old laptop is still booting. And the methods I describe below work equally well when you just need to copy data for any other reason.

Best Case Scenario: Laptop Is Booting

So you decided to move to a new device before it’s too late or you just need to copy some data. The source laptop is booting perfectly fine and you cannot (be bothered to) remove its hard drive. Great, this will be easy!

Option 1: Cloud Storage

If the laptop has Internet access and in case you don’t have to copy a large amount of data, cloud storage solutions like Dropbox, Google Drive or SkyDrive are a great solution to quickly transfer data to the cloud and later download them to another device.

Sync To SkyDrive


  • cross-platform compatible
  • does not depend on external hardware
  • can be used without installing a third party application

We have previously compared the three major cloud storage provicers Dropbox, Google Dive, and SkyDrive Dropbox vs. Google Drive vs. OneDrive: Which Cloud Storage Is Best for You? Have you changed the way you think about cloud storage? The popular options of Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive have been joined by others. We help you answer which cloud storage service should you use. Read More . We also showed you how to get the most free cloud storage space How To Get The Most Free Space On Dropbox, Box, SkyDrive & More - The Complete Guide Cloud storage services offer a minimum amount of free space to everyone who signs up, but you can often get more. You can upgrade your cloud drive with gigabytes and gigabytes of free space in... Read More .

Option 2: External Drive

Should you not have access to an Internet connection (that is fast enough) to copy data, this is probably the simplest solution. You will need an external drive large enough to hold the data you need to copy. This can be an SD card, a USB stick, or an external hard drive.

External Hard Drive and Laptop

Check whether the laptop has the necessary ports or you can bring an external card reader. If you want to use an external hard drive, be sure the file system What A File System Is & How You Can Find Out What Runs On Your Drives What is a file system and why do they matter? Learn the differences between FAT32, NTFS, HPS+, EXT, and more. Read More is compatible with the laptop’s operating system; FAT32 is pretty much universal and NTFS (Windows) will be readable on both Linux and Mac computers (but not writeable). I have also discussed the file systems FAT32 and NTFS in this article on how to format a USB drive How to Format a USB Drive and Why You Would Need To Formatting a USB drive is easy. Our guide explains the easiest and fastest ways to format a USB drive on a Windows computer. Read More .


If you are migrating from Windows to OS X, Apple provides a tool which you can install on your Windows laptop that makes the process very simple.


  • quick & easy
  • no Internet connection needed
  • secure

Option 3: Network / LAN Share

When both the source laptop and the future home of the data are on the same network, you don’t need cloud storage or hardware to transfer data. You can simply set up a network share between the two devices.

Windows Network and Sharing Center


In Windows, home network file sharing How To Enable File Sharing On Vista Without Any Password Read More is very simple. To make it even easier, we have written a whole guide on home networking in Windows Everything You Need to Know About Home Networking Setting up a home network is not as hard as you think it is. Read More . If you need something that works across platforms, try Nitroshare to share files on your network between multiple operating systems Nitroshare: Easily Share Files On Your Network Between Multiple Operating Systems It's not hard to set up home networking, including file sharing, in Windows and OS X Lion includes a quick file-sharing feature between Macs. If you want to quickly share a file between computers running... Read More .

Mac users can do this between OS X machines using Finder’s in-built AirDrop feature Share Files Easily Between Computers With AirDrop & Two Similar Applications [Mac] How often have you sent an email to yourself, simply to move a picture or document between computers? Often, the only obvious alternative is clear overkill, like setting up a temporary FTP server on your... Read More .


  • fast
  • convenient
  • no hardware needed

Option 4: Direct Ethernet or USB Connection

If you don’t have a network set up, there is a hardware solution to directly transfer files from one laptop to another computer. What you need is a Ethernet crossover cable. This cable looks like a regular LAN cable and has the same connectors, but the wiring is different, allowing you to send data between two machines.


Custom Ethernet Cross-Over Cable

James has previously demonstrated how to make your own ethernet crossover cable How To Make An Ethernet Cross-Over Cable Ethernet cabling has been standard in networking installation for years. It’s the fastest way of connecting PCs together - to your router or a central switch. Sure, you could go wireless, but the truth is... Read More , but don’t despair as you can buy one at a shop too. Microsoft has provided step-by-step instructions on how to connect computers using a crossover cable.

EasyTransfer Cable

When you want to migrate files from Windows XP or Windows Vista to Windows 7, consider using the Windows Easy Transfer tool. In combination with an EasyTransfer USB cable, transferring files becomes a breeze.


  • fast
  • convenient
  • no home network needed

Worst Case Scenario: Laptop Is Dead

If the laptop no longer boots, you may still be able to recover the data, provided the hard drive still works.

Option 5: Live CD / USB

A Live CD The 50 Cool Uses for Live CDs Live CDs are perhaps the most useful tool in any geek's toolkit. This live CD how-to guide outlines many uses live CDs or DVDs can offer, from data recovery to enhancing privacy. Read More or Live USB essentially is an external operating system that runs from a CD or USB stick. Live CDs typically run Linux, but you can also create a Windows Live CD How To Make Your Own Windows Live CD Read More or install multiple bootable operating systems on a USB stick How to Install Multiple Bootable Operating Systems on a USB Stick Want to install and/or run multiple operating systems from a single bootable USB stick? You can with these tools. Read More . All of these live media give you access to the data on your laptop hard drive when the operating system is no longer working. Combined with the methods above, especially using an external drive, you can then copy the data to a safe location.

Live CD Backup

For more information, read our article on how to back up data from a computer that won’t boot How to Back Up Data From a Computer That Won't Boot When your computer won't boot, your data might still there. Here's how to install Linux on a bootable USB flash drive to recover your files. Next time keep a backup though. Read More and refer to our Live CD guide for how to copy or restore data using a Live CD / USB The 50 Cool Uses for Live CDs Live CDs are perhaps the most useful tool in any geek's toolkit. This live CD how-to guide outlines many uses live CDs or DVDs can offer, from data recovery to enhancing privacy. Read More .


  • fool proof
  • no hardware needed
  • earn geek credit

Option 6: External Enclosure or Adapter

Last but not least, you can remove the internal drive and transfer it to an external enclosure. In other words, create an external USB drive from the old laptop drive 3 Ways To Breathe New Life Into An Old Hard Drive It's in the human nature to collect stuff and in the digital age we mostly collect data. For a long time, the storage capacities of hard drives seemed to increase too slow to match user... Read More . If you don’t really need an external hard drive, a cheaper alternative is to only get a laptop hard drive adapter. This method requires some skill, as you need to remove the hard drive, identify its connector, i.e. SATA or IDE, and get a suitable USB adapter or enclosure. But it’s really easier than it sounds.

SATA vs. IDE Cable

For help with the disassembly, you can refer to an article of mine where I show how to remove a laptop hard drive for recycling Disposing Of An Old Laptop - What To Recycle, What To Keep Laptops are a treasure trove of parts that can live more than one life. Whether they continue a life as spare part or become the subject of a DIY tech project, you can get a... Read More in a video. In an article on how to 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 , I provided some general safety instructions and show you what SATA and IDE connectors look like. And if you are still unsure, feel free to drop a comment below or ask us on MakeUseOf Answers.


  • upcycle your old drive into an external USB drive
  • demonstrate your geekiness
  • aquire some tech skills or apply existing skills


There are many ways to copy data, whether or not the computer is still booting. So don’t freak out when your laptop suddenly won’t boot. Not all is lost!

Keep in mind though that hard drives eventually die 5 Signs Your Hard Drive Is Failing (And What to Do) Since a majority of people today own laptops and external hard drives, which get dragged around quite a bit, a realistic hard drive lifetime is probably around 3 - 5 years. This is an extremely... Read More . That’s why you should back up These Guys Didn't Back Up Their Files, Now Look What Happened If there is anything I learned during those early years of working with computers (and the people that use them), it was how critical it is to not only save important stuff, but also to... Read More ! Windows 8 has a built-in Time Machine Did You Know Windows 8 Has a Built-In Time Machine Backup? We sometimes forget with all the focus on Windows 8's new "Modern" interface, but Windows 8 has a variety of great desktop improvements. One of them is File History, a built-in backup feature that functions... Read More and there are many more ways to backup & restore your files in Windows 6 Safest Ways to Backup & Restore Your Files in Windows 7 & 8 By now, we're sure you've read the advice over and over: Everyone needs to back up their files. But deciding to back up your files is only part of the process. There are so many... Read More .

Which method do you use to quickly transfer files form one machine to another? And if you ever had to recover files from a dead device, what did the trick? Please share your stories with us!

Image credit: External Hard Drive via Shutterstock

Related topics: Cloud Storage, Live CD.

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  2. jelabarre
    July 26, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    for option 1 ("Cloud Storage"), you say "can be used without installing a third party application". Yet your screenshot shows a file manager link to use precisely one of those 3rd-party applications to copy files. Yet for "External Drive" you don't list that as an advantage. Perhaps it was supposed to be listed the other way around?

    My preferred solution is usually the external drive enclosure. It's what I used just this week replacing the hard drive in my wife's laptop; probably the 2 most difficult parts were mounting the eCryptFS home directories, and finding which bad files/directories I should have rsync skip.

    • Tina Sieber
      July 26, 2013 at 3:31 pm

      Cloud Storage can be used without third-party apps (other than a browser), but of course it is much more convenient to use it with a desktop app.

      I added three advantages for each method, there certainly are more.

  3. Daniel J
    July 24, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    I know this isn't appropriate here but I just saw this

    What do you think?

  4. Mac W
    July 24, 2013 at 10:17 am

    Make backup clone often, at lest every month. Use sync service (dropbox, sugarsync ...) for folders I use often, incl desk folder. If anything happen I can install the clone and sync the latest changed files with the sync service.
    Another good thing with clones - if using more than one computer you can bring the disk with the clone and have access to everthing

  5. Dipak G
    July 24, 2013 at 3:43 am

    good idea...thanks for

  6. Pooky J
    July 24, 2013 at 3:36 am

    And you don't actually explain how to share files directly from a laptop using WiFi without connecting to a router, man.

  7. Jay Reiter
    July 23, 2013 at 11:34 pm

    Get a mac, use migration assistant, connect the two macs together, start the migration, go have a cup of coffee and slice of apple pie. Come back after washing your dishes and Bob's your's done, applications, passwords, everything.