Recover Data From Your Dead Computer

taking a hard drive out of a laptop computer
What You'll Need
Small screwdriver
Anti-static bag
SATA connector
Gloves (optional)
What You'll Need
Small screwdriver
Anti-static bag
SATA connector
Gloves (optional)

Sitting down at your computer one day to find out it won't boot up is one of the most frustrating modern experiences. For years you scan and upload millions of pictures, songs, videos, and documents, and then one day they're suddenly gone forever!

If you call a repair shop, they'll probably tell you they can investigate the situation for an upfront diagnostic fee, then potentially retrieve your data for a significantly larger price. If the job is especially tricky, getting those files back can cost anywhere from $250 to $2500 as of this writing. But what if you could do it all yourself?

The tough truth is that not all files will be recoverable, but in many cases you can get them back, with much less investment upfront.

Find the Right SATA for Your Hard Drive

A serial advanced technology attachment (SATA) can plug right into your hard drive, allowing access to it through another kind of connector (usually USB). With a little quick research, you can find the proper 7-pin SATA to USB cable for around $15 as of this writing.

sata hard drive connector cord

On some older computers, the drive will use a 44 pin IDC connector instead, but the process is basically the same for both.

Remove Your Hard Drive

Warning: Before attempting this, make sure your computer is turned off and disconnected from any external power sources.

Open your computer's case—in desktops this can be as simple as tugging a lever, in laptops it will probably require disconnecting a series of tiny screws.

Your hard drive may be labeled as such. Most are rectangular, book-shaped objects, and tend to be stored near the front of the case.

open laptop with tools

Find the ribbon-like connector holding your drive in place, and gently work it out (some may be glued in place, so work gently and carefully to disconnect them). You may need a screwdriver again for this step, but most newer computers have a snap lock mechanism of some kind. Now find the power source of the drive and unplug it using whatever latching device it contains.

All computers are different, so just use caution while disconnecting their internal elements. Nothing should require excessive force to separate.

It's a good idea to put your drive directly into a static-proof bag when you get it out. This will reduce the danger of damage from moisture and ambient electricity.

Connect to a Functional Computer

The content of the drive can be accessed on a working computer by connecting to the computer’s USB port with the USB to SATA cable. Your drive should appear in the file architecture as if it were an external hard drive like a USB stick.

Some folders, such as system files, may be inaccessible, but they're probably not what you're looking for in this operation. Find the pictures, videos, or documents you need, and start drag and dropping them onto your functional machine. If your hard drive was partitioned, it may show up as multiple drives.

exposed hard drive

Don't get greedy and try to do this all at once. Take the time to work in small batches so you don't run the risk of losing access to everything.

If you're not dragging and dropping, use the "move" option instead of “copy,” to reduce confusion. You don't want to lose your place and start duplicating your work.

The whole process could take a while, but should go smoothly. When it’s done and you want to remove the drive from the USB port, don’t forget first to right-click the drive letter and select “Eject."

If your drive appears and disappears throughout the operation, you can try sealing it up and leaving it in the freezer for a few minutes. The cold can sometimes jolt things into place. Don't try this, though, unless you're getting desperate. The moisture could be dangerous to your files, and the precious memories they contain.