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Recovering Data From a Non-bootable (dead) Computer

If you’re like me, your computer is a container for everything from your DVD and music collection, to family photos and financial documents. And, if you are one of the estimated 75% of users who don’t backup their data regularly, a computer crash can cost you time, sanity, and potentially lots of money. The good news is, there is a high likelihood that you will be able to recover most, if not all, of your important data.

For the purpose of this article, there are three reasons your computer won’t boot.

  1. The hard drive is suffering from a hardware malfunction.
  2. Another piece of hardware has failed.
  3. The software on the hard drive is damaged.

If your computer (or specifically the hard drive) is clicking when you turn on your computer, scenario one is almost a sure bet. This is the most catastrophic possibility. You should turn off your computer and seek professional help from a data recovery company such as Disk Doctors [1]. If you can’t boot your computer due to one of the latter two reasons, you can be relatively confident YOU can recover your data. The following instructions will work for laptops or desktops and with SATA or IDE drives.

Things you will need:


  1. The first thing you need to do is remove the hard drive from the non-booting computer. Be sure the computer is off, but leave it plugged so as to maintain a ground connection and counter static shocks. If you don’t have experience opening computers, consult someone who does. You need to carefully disconnect the power and data cables from the hard drive, remove and screws attaching the drive to the case, and then slide it out.
  2. Now that you have the hard drive out, inspect it for damage. Look for burns on the circuit board or damaged pins on the connectors that may indicate a more serious problem.
  3. Assuming the drive appears to be in OK physical condition, place it within reach of your working computer. You should have received a power cord with the IDE/SATA to USB adapter you bought. Connect this to the hard drive and a power outlet and you will hear the drive spin up. Once the drive has power to it, be careful not to move or bump it.
  4. Wait about 5 seconds to ensure the drive has been completely powered up, then connect the IDE/SATA to USB adapter to the hard drive. Make sure you use the appropriate connector (the smallest is for SATA drives, the medium one is for laptop IDE drives, and the largest is for desktop IDE drives) and that your orient the connector properly. The SATA connectors are “keyed” so you can only plug them in one way. The IDE connector on the IDE/SATA to USB adapter has a blank spot that most align with the missing pin on the hard drive’s connector.
  5. Now plug the USB cable into the working computer. Wait a few seconds for the computer to detect the new drive. Windows XP and above should install the hardware automatically. If you are prompted for drivers, use the CD included with the adapter.
  6. Once the new hardware is installed, open up “My Computer” on the working computer. Here you will see an icon for each drive connected to the computer (such as CD drives, the working computer’s hard drive, floppy disk drives, etc). You should also see an icon for the non-booting computer’s hard drive. Double-click on this icon and you can browse and interact with all the files on the drive.

If you have enough space on the working computer, you can simply copy everything off of the non-booting computer’s drive for later sorting. You can alternatively go through the drive and copy only files you need. Some common storage locations for important files are inside of “\Documents and Settings\[User Name]\My Documents” and “\Documents and Settings\[User Name]\Desktop”.

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