Can you take a hard drive out of a computer and retrieve data?

Quick Answer

Yes, it is possible to remove the hard drive from a computer and retrieve data from it. The hard drive stores all of the computer’s data, so by connecting the hard drive to another computer you can access the files. However, there are some caveats to this process.

Overview of Computer Hard Drives

A computer’s hard drive is the primary storage device that holds the operating system, software programs, and data files. Hard drives come in two main varieties:

HDD (Hard Disk Drive)

– Uses magnetic platters and a read/write head to store and retrieve data.
– Less expensive per gigabyte than SSDs.
– Slower performance than SSDs.
– More likely to fail due to moving parts.

SSD (Solid State Drive)

– Uses flash memory chips to store data.
– Faster read/write speeds than HDDs.
– No moving parts so less likely to fail.
– More expensive per gigabyte than HDDs.

The data on a hard drive is stored in digital binary code of 1s and 0s spread across the platters or memory chips. To retrieve this raw data, the drive needs to be connected to a computer that can interpret the binary code into usable files and folders.

Steps to Retrieve Data from a Hard Drive

Here are the basic steps involved in removing a hard drive and retrieving the data from it:

1. Remove the hard drive

– Open the computer case and locate the hard drive. In laptops you may need to remove the keyboard and bottom panel to access the hard drive bay.
– Look for cables connecting the hard drive to the motherboard and power supply. These will need to be unplugged.
– There will also be screws securing the drive, which need to be removed. Make sure you note the location of the screws for reassembly.
– Once unplugged and unscrewed, you can now slide the hard drive out from its bay.

2. Connect the hard drive to another computer

There are a couple options for connecting the hard drive externally to retrieve the data:

– **Hard drive enclosure** – This is a special external casing that you mount the bare hard drive into and provides power and data ports to hook up to a computer.

– **USB adapter** – There are USB to SATA/IDE adaptors that allow you to plug a bare hard drive directly into a USB port on a computer.

– **Mounting in another computer** – You can mount the hard drive like a secondary drive in a desktop computer to access the files directly.

3. Access the files on the external drive

Once connected via USB, enclosure or mounted in a computer, the external hard drive should appear just like any other storage drive. You can then:

– Browse and copy files manually to another location such as your desktop PC.

– Use data recovery software to scan and restore deleted files.

– Run a full backup of the drive to capture all data.

Important Considerations

Here are some important factors to keep in mind when retrieving data from a hard drive:

– **Don’t tamper with original drive** – Once you remove the hard drive, be careful not to tamper with it in any way until all needed data is recovered, otherwise you risk damaging and losing data.

– **Use the right tools** – Hard drive enclosures and USB adapters make connecting the drive easy without having to mount it in a desktop computer. Purchase a reputable brand from an electronics store.

– **Connect SATA to SATA/IDE to IDE** – When using USB adapters or enclosures ensure you match connections properly, i.e. connect a SATA drive to a SATA adapter and IDE to IDE.

– **Check readability** – If the drive has failed in some way, you may not be able to access the files. Trying mounting it in a computer directly rather than USB adapter if files are not appearing.

– **Attempt data recovery** – If the drive isn’t being read properly, use data recovery software to scan the platters and reconstruct files from the raw data.

– **Consider professional data recovery** – For mechanical failures, you may ultimately need professional recovery services which dismantle the drive in a lab environment to access the platters.

Retrieving Data from Common Hard Drive Issues

Hard drive not detected by computer

If your computer is not detecting a connected hard drive it could be caused by:

– Damaged data cables – Try another SATA cable if using internally, or a different USB cable if external.

– Disk controller failure – The disk controller electronics may be damaged causing the computer to not recognize the drive.

– Dead hard drive – No spin up sounds from a mechanical failure indicates complete drive failure.

Try connecting the drive to another computer. If still not detected, consider professional data recovery services.

Hard drive spins but won’t read data

If the hard drive is spinning but not reading any files, potential causes can be:

– Corrupted file table – The file allocation table keeping track of data clusters may have errors. Try data recovery software.

– Seized spindle – Mechanical failure of the platter spin motor can prevent data access. This requires professional repair.

– Failed read/write heads – Damage to the heads that read/write data on the platters can prevent access. Another reason for professional data recovery service.

Hard drive recovery after deleting files

If files have been accidentally deleted:

– First, stop writing new data to the drive. Adding data could overwrite deleted files.

– Use data recovery software to scan the drive and restore deleted files. Look for undeleting and deep scanning features.

– Recovery success depends on how much new data has been written since deletion. The less the better.

Deleted files are recoverable until overwritten by new data because the underlying raw data remains on the drive.

Hard drive recovery after reformatting

If a hard drive was reformatted:

– Stop writing new data to the drive immediately.

– Use data recovery software with deep scanning abilities to look beyond the new file system for previous files.

– Recovery success rate will depend on how much data was rewritten after reformatting.

– If drive was completely overwritten by reformatting, no data may be recoverable.

Best Data Recovery Software

Here are some top data recovery programs for retrieving files from hard drives:

Software Key Features
EaseUS Data Recovery Free version available. Restores lost partitions and recovers files from formatted drives.
Stellar Data Recovery Deep scanning recovers lost files even after reformatting drive.
Ontrack EasyRecovery Advanced scanning options for severely damaged drives.
R-Studio Powerful recovery algorithms to repair corrupt or deleted files.

Be sure to research software reviews and only download from the official company website to avoid malware.

Sending Out for Professional Recovery

For significant hard drive problems that prevent access to your data, consider professional recovery services. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

– **Cost** – Professional recovery can range from $400 to over $1000 depending on drive damage and desired data.

– **Time** – The process often takes several days for diagnosis and recovery procedures. Plan for at least a week without the drive.

– **Success Rate** – Reputable companies have dust-free clean rooms and advanced equipment that can salvage data from even seriously damaged drives. No guarantees though.

– **Replace vs. Repair** – Weigh the cost of recovery vs simply replacing the failed drive if the data is not absolutely critical.

Leading professional recovery firms include Secure Data Recovery, DriveSavers, Ontrack, and Gillware. Look for companies with a strong reputation and high success rate.

Preventing Data Loss

To avoid needing hard drive data recovery in the future:

– **Backup regularly** – Maintain copies of important files on external drives or cloud storage in case of failure.

– **Check drive health** – Use disk utility software to monitor hard drive for impending problems.

– **Secure handling** – Be extremely careful handling drives, especially when transporting them. Impact or drops can damage components.

– **Consider RAID** – Use multiple drives in a RAID array to both increase storage and provide fault tolerance if a single drive fails.

– **Replace older drives** – Upgrade to new drives after 3-5 years of use before age increases risk of failure.

Following best practices for drive care, backups, and RAID storage can help minimize reliance on data recovery needed from drive failures down the road.


Recovering data from a computer hard drive is usually possible by removing it and connecting it to another computer using either a USB adapter, external dock, or by mounting directly in a desktop. Once connected, the files can be manually copied off or accessed using data recovery software if deleted or otherwise inaccessible. However, hard drives that do not spin up or have mechanical failure require going to a professional recovery service to reconstruct the data. To avoid being in a position of needing data recovery, be sure to backup data regularly and follow hard drive handling best practices. With proper care and backups, even a dead drive does not have to spell disaster for your important files and precious memories stored on your computer.