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How to Get Data Off an Old Hard Drive (Without Putting It in a PC)

You saved an old hard drive (or three) from previous computers and now you’d like to get at the data on it. Is there an easy way to access the data without cracking open your current computer and mounting the hard drives inside?

Dear How-To Geek,

I have a pile of old hard drives sitting in a file cabinet in my office. Some are real old (20GB IDE drives from the early 2000s) and some are more recent (100-200GB SATA drives from circa 2008-2010). I’ve been pretty good, over the years, about transferring old data to new computers, but before I totally dismantle some of these older drives for security purposes (and to get at the cool magnets inside!) I’d like to take one last look at them. Is there an easy way to do this without the huge hassle of opening up my current PC and installing the drives the traditional way? I don’t even think my new computer has an IDE port inside to hook the oldest drives up to!

Sincerely,

Disk Disposing

Ahhh the hassle of old hard drives. There’s hardly a geek around, or even casual computer owner for that matter, that doesn’t have a few old drives squirreled away. When it comes time to check them before disposal, it is, as you note, a big pain. Sure, you could open up your computer case and hook the drives up to your existing hardware, but we prefer to avoid mucking around inside our case (and risking an electrostatic discharge in the process) unless we’re doing serious work like upgrading components. That doesn’t mean plugging those old SATA drives into the SATA headers on your motherboard (and powering a bit of power from your PSU) won’t work, but there are much better solutions around these days.

On the expensive side of things, you can pick up a hot swap dock for around $30-40 like this Anker USB 3.0 dock. The only problem is that hardly anyone makes a dock that supports both IDE and SATA connections anymore (neither the product sample we linked to nor it’s competitors do). If you’re doing a lot of work with bare SATA drives, the dock makes sense; for your application, and most home users, the dock is overkill.

Sabrent USB to SATA/IDE Adapter

What you want is an adapter/converter cable that allows you to mount the HDDs like you’re simply attaching a portable HDD or flash drive to the computer. Historically these adapters were pretty flaky, but improvements in both Windows and the hardware itself has yielded dependable functionality at really reasonable prices. The model we use around the office is the Sabrent USB 3.0 to SATA/IDE Adapter. It’s reliable, speedy, and, handily, it comes with its own molex transformer so you can power the drives. This is where most of the adapters you find on eBay, Amazon, etc. all fall short: they provide a cable but you’re expected to provide the power via an old PSU or such. The Sabrent model packages both the adapter and power supply together so you’re not left trying to figure out how to power your drives (and hoping you have an old PSU stashed along with all those old drives).

Acquiring the hardware is the trickiest part. Once you have the hardware, all you need to do is use the appropriate side of the adapter (it has a side for 3.5 IDE, 2.5 IDE, and SATA), make sure the drive jumpers are set to Master (if the drive is old enough to use a jumper system, modern SATA drives rarely use jumpers), plug the adapter into a USB port on your computer, plug in the power via the molex adapter unit, and then turn the switch on the power cable on to provide power to the drive. Here’s what a drive looks like hooked up correctly to an IDE drive:

 

Once the power is on and the drive spins up, it should appear in Windows as a removable drive the same way a brand new off-the-shelf external hard drive would, no software or drivers needed. Here’s the drive detected right along side an actual external drive:

Here’s a peek inside the drive, and old Windows desktop drive, where you can see all the old folders and such are easily accessible:

When opening folders, especially folders on old hard drives with Windows previously installed, you may run into a message like this:

You’ll see this error/prompt when you attempt to open a file/folder that had file permissions assigned to it by the previous operating system, but for which no currently valid permissions exist. You should only need to click this once for most situations (such as opening a user directory of an old Windows account). If the simple permissions prompt seen above doesn’t work (or you don’t even get the prompt to apply the permission, but an access error instead), check out our primer on Windows file permissions to learn how to manually edit the permissions and get to your files.

If your drive does not appear, and you’ve properly connected both the power and data cables, there’s usually only three culprits: 1) it’s an older drive and you need to set the jumpers properly, 2) the drive’s file system is unreadable by your OS, or 3) the drive is damaged. Remember, what you’re doing to the drive with the data/power adapter cable is essentially mounting it as you would with an internal drive (but without the hassle of cracking open the case). If your computer can’t read the drive under those circumstances (because the drive has an incompatible file system or is physically degraded/damaged), then it won’t be able to read it over the USB setup either.

Barring that, though, it’s as simple as plug and play. For $20 you have a hassle free way to check your drives, retrieve old data, compare it to your backups, wipe the data, and otherwise interact with the drives as if they’re mounted right in the computer case.


Have a pressing tech question? Shoot us an email at ask@howtogeek.com and we’ll do our best to answer it.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 02/12/14

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