For many years, I’ve recovered data from defunct computers for my customers. But while the pandemic is on, and my fieldwork is on-hold, this service is one of the few things I cannot offer remotely. So, I think it’s time I describe this process in detail, in case some of you are comfortable doing it yourself.

DISCLAIMER: Please do not open up or dissect any computer if you are not comfortable with such. BlueScreen takes no responsibility for any breakage or loss you encounter while entering the chassis of any computer, using this information!

So your computer doesn’t boot. The files are usually still sitting there on the hard drive, waiting for harvest. The first step is to free to the hard drive from the useless computer. Most desktop towers have a easy slide-away side panel, while All-in-One and laptop computers can be more complicated. YouTube is your friend, if you cannot figure out your way inside — simply Google for “hard drive replacement” and then type out the make and model number of your computer. You might also go to your computer manufacturer’s website and look up the manual on your device.

With desktop computers, you’ll typically only need a Phillips-head and flathead screwdriver. And some desktop are tools-free, meaning you’ll be able to find and pop out the hard drive using only your fingers! But with laptops, you might need smaller tools, and with Apple computer, you’ll need very specialized screwdrivers (Apple often uses Pentalobe screws, to discourage laypeople from fixing their own computers). You can always use Amazon to find such tools, after searching for “laptop tool repair kit”.

With the right tools and instructions, let’s say you’ve freed the storage drive from the computer. Now what? Then, you have to find the right adapter, so that you can connect the drive via USB to another working computer.

Identify the connector on your drive: a SATA connector looks like this, and an old-school PATA connector like this. Some higher-end laptops have special SSDs inside that look like a stick of RAM. Once you know what type of drive you have, it’s time to head on over to Amazon or Newegg, and seek an adapter.

Search your favorite technology-selling website for “SATA to USB adapter” or something similar (‘PATA’, or ‘M.2 SSD’, depending on your type of drive) and you’ll quickly find something that can attach to your bare drive. This adapter fits the majority of drives out there. And if you want, you can also search for “SATA to USB enclosure” (or something appropriate to your drive), if you want to permanently change your drive into an external, reusable device.

Once you’ve obtained your adapter and connected your drive, you simply connect it to another working computer with the included USB cable. In most cases, the drive will pop up immediately on your screen! Use File Explorer or Finder to locate your files and drag them onto the computer or other storage drives. If you go into the Users directory and double-click your account name, you’ll probably find Documents and other important file folders.

In some rare cases, this doesn’t work. You get the correct adapter, everything connects perfectly, the File Explorer window appears and… nothing is there. If the computer shows an empty drive or offers to initialize the unreadable partition (DON’T!), then it could just be a problem with the Boot Table at the beginning of the drive. Sometimes this gets scrambled, but the files may still be there. As a last-ditch effort, try connecting the drive to a computer with a different operating system (Windows, MacOSX, Linux). I have had many instances where a Windows computer told me there were no files on my drive, but a Linux system revealed 25GB of photos sitting there, waiting to be copied off.

If after all of this, you still see no data, then perhaps the drive is truly dead. Electrical surges, drops, reformatting, disintegration of internal ball bearings, old age & other flukes can defeat the above methods. You still have a further option, but it will cost you. There are many data recovery labs that use special techniques and equipment to recover data from broken storage media. It can cost hundreds of dollars, but they are the true miracle workers. If you’re ever in this kind of need, I can recommend Gillware — they’ve done reliable great work for my customers.

If you are attempting this process, and hit any snags, please reach out to me! I’m happy to advise or answer quick questions to get you back on track.