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

If you’ve been using PCs for a while, you likely have an old hard drive (or three) from previous computers sitting around. If you ever need to get at the data on an old drive, there’s easy way to do so without mounting the drive inside your PC.

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. If you ever need to get the data off an old drive—or just want to check the drive and maybe erase it before disposal—you could always crack open your PC and mount the drive inside. But that’s a lot of work to solve a temporary need. There are much better solutions around these days.

Find an External Dock or Adapter

There are different styles of gadgets that let you connect a hard drive as an external drive. If you’re looking to make a more permanent external drive out of an old hard drive, you can buy a full enclosure. After mounting your drive in the enclosure and buttoning things up, you’ve essentially got an external drive you can connect however you want. You can find drive enclosures for as little as $10.

The trouble with an enclosure is that it takes almost as much time to mount the drive in an enclosure as it does to mount the drive in your PC. If you’re looking for something that lets you easily connect old drives to your PC temporarily, you can use a dock or a simple adapter.

On the more expensive side of things, you can pick up a dock for around $30-40 like this Anker USB 3.0 dock. The beauty of a dock like this is that you can leave it connected to your PC and just plug in an old hard drive whenever you need access. Some docks even let you connect two hard drives at once. If you routinely work with old drives, a dock is well worth the price. The only problem is that hardly anyone makes a dock that supports both IDE and SATA connections anymore. So, if you need to work with really old IDE drives in addition to SATA drives, you may have to pick up a second dock.

If you only occasionally need to hook up an old drive—or even just need to do it once—you’re probably better off with an adapter. Historically, such adapters were on the flaky side, but improvements in both Windows and the hardware itself has yielded dependable functionality at really reasonable prices.

The model we like is the Sabrent USB 3.0 to SATA/IDE Adapter ($23). It’s reliable, speedy, and, comes with its own molex transformer so you can power the drives. This is where many of the adapters you find out there fall short: they provide a cable, but you’re expected to provide the power via an old PSU or something. 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. Best of all, this adapter supports both SATA and IDE drives.

Connect the Hard Drive

Deciding on the hardware you want is the trickiest part of this whole endeavor. After you get the hardware, all you need to do is connect the drive to it, and then connect the hardware to the PC.

If you’re using a dock, it’s super easy. Connect the dock to your PC just like you would connect an external drive. Drop the hard drive into the slot and turn the dock on.

If you’re using an adapter, you’ll need to use the appropriate side of the adapter (it has a side for 3.5 IDE, 2.5 IDE, and SATA). Plug the adapter into a USB port on your computer, plug in the power via the molex adapter unit, and then turn on the switch on the power cable to provide power to the drive. Below, you can see how the adapter looks when correctly hooked up to an IDE drive.

Note: If you’re using an IDE drive, you’ll need to make sure the jumpers on the drive are set to the Master setting.

Access Your Data

When you power on the doc or adapter and the drive spins up, it should automatically 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. Below, you can see the drive (our M drive) detected right along side an actual external drive (the L drive).

If you open the drive, you should all the old folders and files.

Note that, when opening folders—especially folders on old hard drives that had Windows installed on them—you might run into a warning message stating that you don’t have access permission.

This just means that the folder or file had permissions assigned by the previous operating system. You can go ahead and click “Continue” to have Windows assign access permissions to the account you’re currently signed in with.

Assigning the permissions can take a little while, depending on the size of the folder. You should only need to do this once. If the simple permissions prompt shown above doesn’t work (or you don’t even get the prompt, 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 are really three possible problems:

  • It’s an older IDE drive and you didn’t set the jumpers properly
  • The drive’s file system is unreadable by your operating system
  • 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 $20-40, 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 were mounted right in the computer case.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.