How can I pull data off a hard drive?

There are a few options for pulling data off of a hard drive. The method you choose will depend on whether the hard drive is still functioning and whether you have access to the computer it came from.

Using the computer the hard drive came from

If the hard drive is still installed in the computer it came from and the computer is functioning, the easiest way to access the data is simply to boot up the computer and copy the files you need to an external device like a USB drive or external hard drive. Here are the steps:

  1. Boot up the computer and log in if necessary.
  2. Attach an external hard drive or USB drive to the computer.
  3. Browse to the files or folders you want to copy on the computer’s hard drive.
  4. Select the files/folders and copy them (Ctrl/Command + C on a PC/Mac).
  5. Open the external drive and paste the files into it (Ctrl/Command + V).
  6. Eject the external drive safely once the copy is complete.

This allows you to access the data without having to remove the hard drive from the computer. Just be sure the hard drive and computer are functioning properly before attempting this.

Using a hard drive enclosure or dock

If you have the hard drive removed from the computer already, you can use a hard drive enclosure or dock to connect it to another computer and access the data. These enclosures and docks plug into your computer (usually via USB) and allow you to insert the hard drive and use it like an external drive.

Some key advantages of using an enclosure or dock:

  • Allows you to access data from a bare hard drive without having to install it in a computer.
  • Works with most standard hard drives (SATA and IDE).
  • Relatively inexpensive; enclosures start around $10-15.
  • Easy to swap different drives in and out of the enclosure.

To use a hard drive enclosure or dock:

  1. Obtain a hard drive enclosure or dock and connect it to your computer (via USB, eSATA, etc).
  2. Open the enclosure and insert the hard drive securely.
  3. The computer should detect the hard drive and automatically mount it as if it were an external drive.
  4. You can then browse the files and copy them to your computer or another external device.

Connecting the hard drive internally

If you have access to a desktop computer, you can open up the case and connect the hard drive directly to the motherboard SATA ports and power supply. This will essentially let you access it as a secondary internal drive.

To connect a hard drive internally:

  1. Open up the computer case and locate unused SATA data and power ports.
  2. Connect the hard drive to the computer’s power supply using an open SATA power cable.
  3. Connect the hard drive’s SATA data cable to an open SATA port on the motherboard.
  4. Screw or mount the hard drive into place if needed.
  5. Close up the computer case and turn on the computer.
  6. The BIOS and operating system should detect the newly connected hard drive.
  7. You can access the data like you would with any other drive.

The main requirements are open SATA ports, room to mount the bare drive, and the appropriate cables. This method avoids having to use any external enclosure or dock.

Using a USB to SATA adapter

USB to SATA adapters are a simple option for accessing data from a SATA hard drive. They allow you to plug the bare drive directly into your computer’s USB port.

To use a USB to SATA adapter:

  1. Purchase a USB to SATA adapter that’s compatible with your hard drive (SATA I, II or III).
  2. Plug the flat SATA connector end into the hard drive.
  3. Plug the USB end into an open USB port on your computer.
  4. The drive should be detected and show up like an external USB drive.
  5. Browse and copy files as desired.

USB to SATA adapters are very affordable, extremely easy to use, and convenient for accessing data from bare drives quickly. Just be sure to get the proper SATA version for compatibility.

Using a SATA to USB cable

SATA to USB cables work similarly to USB to SATA adapters, but are an all-in-one cable solution. They allow you to plug a SATA hard drive in at one end and connect it directly to your computer via USB.

To use a SATA to USB cable:

  1. Obtain the proper SATA to USB cable for your hard drive’s SATA version (I, II, or III).
  2. Connect the SATA end securely to the hard drive’s SATA data and power ports.
  3. Connect the USB end to an open USB port on your computer.
  4. The computer should detect the hard drive and mount it as an external USB drive.
  5. Access and copy data from the drive as needed.

SATA to USB cables provide a streamlined way to access bare drives. However they are less flexible than adapters since the SATA interface is fixed to the specific cable.

Using a forensic disk adapter

Forensic disk adapters are a special type of USB adapter designed specifically for accessing data from drives in a “read-only” mode to prevent data corruption or alteration. They can be very useful when trying to recover data from a failing drive.

Some key advantages of forensic adapters:

  • Read-only access minimizes risk of data damage.
  • Bypass damaged file systems and partitions.
  • Support variety of drive interfaces (SATA, IDE, SAS, etc).
  • Allow access to low level sectors and tracks.

To use a forensic disk adapter:

  1. Connect the forensic adapter and install any required drivers.
  2. Attach the hard drive to adapter using the proper cables or interface.
  3. Configure the adapter for read-only mode if desired.
  4. Scan drive sectors and attempt to mount available partitions.
  5. Use data recovery software to copy retrievable files and folders off the drive.

Forensic adapters provide the most flexibility for accessing problematic drives but require more specialized utilities and knowledge to use effectively.

Booting from a live CD or USB

Booting from a live Linux-based CD or USB drive can allow you to access hard drive data on a computer that won’t fully start up or has serious operating system issues.

To access a hard drive from a live CD/USB:

  1. Obtain an Ubuntu, Kali, or other Linux live boot disk or USB drive.
  2. Configure computer to boot from the CD/USB drive first.
  3. Boot from the live Linux environment, bypassing the installed operating system.
  4. Mount the computer’s hard drive partitions.
  5. You can then browse and copy data from the mounted partitions.

This method is primarily useful for retrieving data off of computers that won’t fully boot or have major software issues. The live environment isolates the hard drive from the installed OS.

Clone the entire hard drive

Rather than just copying specific files or folders from the source hard drive, you can create a complete sector-level duplicate or clone of the entire drive. This produces an exact copy including all partitions and data.

Some reasons to clone a hard drive:

  • Create a backup image that can be re-imaged to a new drive.
  • Duplicate the drive contents to perform forensic analysis.
  • Migrate the drive contents to new replacement drive.

Cloning requires specialized disk cloning software and hardware:

  • Standalone disk cloner dock or appliance.
  • Software that supports disk cloning like Clonezilla or DDRescue.
  • Destination drive large enough to hold the complete contents.

Cloning captures everything on the source disk and moves it to a new drive for various purposes. It goes beyond just copying files.

Recovering lost or deleted data

If certain files or partitions have been deleted or lost due to formatting, corruption or other issues, specialized data recovery software can help try to scan and restore them. Some options include:

  • Recovery software: Scan drive and reconstruct lost files and partitions. Popular tools are Recuva, TestDisk, PhotoRec.
  • File carving: Dig deep to extract files based on internal structure and signatures.
  • Virtualization: Add image of drive to virtual machine to access like real disk.

Data recovery has a better chance of success if no new writes have been made to the drive. Also, having a sector level clone of the drive is ideal for recovery attempts.

Replacing the control board

If the hard drive’s printed circuit board or controller board is damaged, you may be able to swap it with a matching donor board to regain access to the drive.

Things to note when replacing controller board:

  • Source matching model donor drive with good board.
  • Carefully detach board from both drives.
  • Swap boards and re-assemble drives.
  • May need to swap board ROM chip as well.

Successfully swapping the control board can allow data recovery on a drive with controller board failure. This is a specialized technique that requires exact board match.

Using advanced forensic tools

Law enforcement agencies and professional data recovery firms have access to advanced tools and techniques that go beyond typical consumer-grade recovery options. These include:

  • PCB chip swapping: Swap memory and controller chips from device to target drive PCB.
  • ISP/IC replacement: Replace damaged interface or controller chips on the board.
  • De-soldering and ROM chip removal: Directly extract memory chips to read out data.
  • Drive heads swap: Swap read/write heads from matching donor drive.
  • Clean room disk plate transplant: Extract platters and transplant into matching drive.

These specialized techniques are typically a last resort used by professionals when standard methods fail. They involve directly working with the hardware itself and require significant expertise.

Sending to a professional recovery service

For difficult drives with severe physical damage or complex issues beyond DIY methods, a professional data recovery service may be able to assist in recovering the data. Typical service process:

  1. Initial evaluation and problem diagnosis.
  2. Determine recovery feasibility and approach.
  3. Actual recovery attempt using specialized tools and techniques.
  4. Return recovered data or clone if successful.

Professional recovery has much higher success rates for difficult drive issues but is expensive starting around $300+. Worth considering for critical lost data.


Recovering data from hard drives can range from straightforward to extremely challenging depending on the condition of the drive and tools available. The options include connecting the drive internally or externally, using adapters and cables, cloning and imaging, recovery software, forensic methods, specialized hardware techniques and professional recovery services. With the right approach, accessing critical data off a damaged or malfunctioning hard drive is often possible.