“It won’t boot, but I have critical data that must be saved!”
If that’s what you’re saying right now, and you don’t feel confident enough to use advanced data recovery techniques, this article is for you.
Data recovery: arm yourself
First, relax. Even if Windows won’t boot, your data is probably fine. Don’t listen to anyone that tells you to reformat the drive or reinstall Windows. That’s for after you rescue your data.
What’re you going to need to save your data? You’ll likely need a screwdriver and a jump drive (aka “flash” or “thumb” drive). If you’ve never opened up your case before, you’ll need a little bravery.
You’re also going to need an external enclosure for your hard drive. Yes, you’ll probably have to buy one. It’s less than $30 for a decent one. I’ll tell you more about how to pick one shortly. Lastly, find another working computer. You’ll only need to borrow it long enough to copy your files, so anyone’s will do.
Getting your hands dirty
Now, open up your busted computer’s case. If you have a desktop, that usually means removing the side panel. If you have a laptop, you’ll probably need to flip it over and unscrew the bottom – make sure you find all the screws! In either case, it should come apart fairly easily (sometimes it comes strait off, sometimes it will slide off) once you have it disconnected.
Next we remove the hard drive. The hard drive is the rectangular, flat box with a (usually) metallic top (see image below). In a laptop, it’s 2.5 inches wide. In a desktop, it’s 3.5 inches wide. You may have to unscrew it from where it’s mounted, or there may be release levers. The cords should unplug with a firm pull (don’t yank). Be careful with the drive – dropping it more than a foot onto a hard surface will very likely lose your data forever.
Identify that data connection
Take a look at the cables you just unplugged from it. We need to know if it has an ATA or SATA connection. Here’s how to tell the difference.
ATA: Connection is long (about two inches) and flat with a notch in the middle. It has lots of individual pins in it. If you see a plug with four big pins, that’s the power connector – look at the other one. If you have an older computer, it probably has this connection.
SATA: Connector is short (about half an inch) and flat with no pins – it’s just a flat connector inside. If you have a newer computer, this is probably the connection.
An ATA laptop drive will look slightly different, as shown in the first picture. An SATA laptop drive’s connection will be identical to the SATA example above.
Buying the enclosure
Now that you know what type of drive you have, get the external enclosure for it. This is going to turn your internal hard drive into an external one, which you can then plug into ANY other computer to get all your data off. Go to Newegg and search for “external enclosures”. Find one that’s under $30, has USB 2.0, is the right size (2.5 inch for laptops or 3.5 inch for desktop), and has the right connection inside (SATA or ATA).
If you need to get this data ASAP, splurge for some faster shipping. If you need it today, head over to your local computer store armed with that info (size, connection, USB 2.0, and cheap) and see if they have one available. It’ll probably cost more.
Now the easy part: just copy
With your new external enclosure, hook the hard drive up inside the enclosure just like it was inside your system. Then, plug the USB cable from the external enclosure into the working computer you’re using to move the files. Plug your jump drive into the same computer.
Go to My Computer. Both drives should show up. Open the one that is the external enclosure, and copy/paste all the files onto your jump drive.
All done? Disconnect the drives, put your hard drive back into your computer, and go ahead with reformatting or reinstalling Windows. When you’re done, you can copy all the files from your jump drive back onto to your fresh and stable system.
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