Uh-oh, your computer isn’t booting anymore. Maybe it’s a problem with Windows, or maybe the computer’s hardware is fried. If you have important files trapped inside your malfunctioning computer, this guide will help you recover them.

There’s no guarantee your data is recoverable. If your computer isn’t working because the hard drive died, there may be no recovering the files — not without some sort of expensive professional data recovery service, at least.

Boot From a Linux Live CD (or Windows Installation Disc)

If your computer’s hardware has actually died on you and that’s the reason it’s not booting, this method won’t work. However, the computer may not actually be dead — its Windows installation may just be damaged. If this is the case, you can recover your files by booting from a Linux live CD or even a Windows installer disc.

Just insert the Linux live CD or Windows installer disc into the computer and start it up. If it boots from the disc and takes you to a Linux desktop or a Windows installation environment, you know that the computer’s hardware isn’t completely broken. If you’re just interested in recovering the files, you can connect a USB stick or external hard drive and copy the files to the removable media device. Your files will then be saved from your dying computer.

This is simple to do with a Linux live CD, as you’ll be given a full Linux desktop that you can use for copying files. If you have a Windows installation disc, you can use a trick to pull up a file management window and copy files off the computer’s hard drive.

This method may even work if your computer’s hard drive is dying. If you’re lucky, the computer may not be able to boot Windows but you may be able to recover some important files off of the drive from the Linux live CD or Windows installation environment.

RELATED: The 10 Cleverest Ways to Use Linux to Fix Your Windows PC

Pull the Hard Drive and Put it In Another Computer

RELATED: How to Turn an Old Hard Drive Into an External Drive

If your computer won’t boot a Linux live CD or Windows installer disc, its hardware components may have died on you. There’s some good news if this is the case — while the computer’s motherboard, CPU, memory, video card, power supply, or any number of other components could be damaged, the computer’s hard drive may still be working properly. If this is the case, you can open up the computer, pull the hard drive, connect it to another computer and get the files off of your hard drive using the other computer. (You could also put it in an external enclosure, if you have one, but if not, you should be able to put it in a new PC without any extra hardware.)

First, a warning: This can void your warranty, particularly if you’re doing this on a laptop that isn’t designed to be opened. But if you have a desktop that you can easily open and work on, or you have an old laptop that’s out of warranty and didn’t have much life left in it, you may want to go ahead with this process anyway.

RELATED: Hardware Upgrade: How To Install A New Hard Drive, Pt 1

The basic process is simple, but you’ll ideally need to be comfortable working with the insides of a computer. First, ensure the main power switch at the back of the computer’s case is shut off — or better yet, just unplug the computer from the power outlet. Next, open the computer’s case and locate the hard drive. Disconnect its cables, unscrew it, and pull it out of the case. For more in-depth information, consult our guide to installing a new hard drive — you’re basically going through the process in reverse.

You’ll then need to connect the hard drive to another computer. You can do this by inserting the hard drive into the other computer or using an external drive bay. If you have laptop hard drive and need to connect it to a desktop PC, you can get drive bays designed for laptop hard drives that will allow you to safely connect the laptop’s hard drive to another desktop. Power on the other PC, booting its standard operating system from its main hard drive, and copy the files from your old computer’s hard drive.

This process is fairly simple on desktops with cases you can open, but it’s much harder on laptops — especially closed laptops that aren’t designed to be opened at all. If you’re not comfortable doing this with your computer or you have a closed laptop that you’re not comfortable opening, you may want to contact a computer repair shop or a service desk at a big box store to help you with this process. They can pull the hard drive for you and hopefully recover the files. Assuming your files are valuable and you’re willing to pay, this is always an option.

To avoid scares like this one, be sure to always have backup copies of your important files. If a computer’s hard drive dies, you should hopefully be able to shrug it off. Sure, you’ll have to go through the trouble of setting up a computer again, but your critical data files should be in more than one place so they’re preserved when a computer gives up the ghost.

Image Credit: Bruce Turner on Flickr

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Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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