How to Retrieve Files From a Dead Computer –

How to Retrieve Files From a Dead Computer

Your computer suddenly died and it is full of important files; what do you do now? How can you retrieve your files? Here’s the scenario: You press the power button to turn your laptop computer on and discover it is dead, nothing is coming up on the screen, not even the brand’s logo. You look at your computer’s lights and none seem to change color or flicker; your laptop computer is officially dead. Don’t panic, you are actually in better situation than most; your data is most likely intact; you just have to get your files out. As you’ll soon discover, getting your files out is easier than it looks.

How to Tell if Your Computer is Dead and Not The Hard Drive Itself?

For those who are not familiar with a computer’s booting process, the computer goes through a series of tests before it starts loading whatever is on the hard drive. If one of the its components is bad, the computer can freeze right away after pushing the power button. It is sometimes impossible to determine which component is bad and sometimes even a bad hard drive can freeze a computer right from the start without giving any error messages, however, if this happens, you will end-upĀ  having to open computer anyways since this is the only way you can assess the true condition of the hard drive.

You are a candidate for this procedure if:

1) Your computer won’t turn on at all

2) If your computer turns on but you do not see absolutely anything on the screen.

3) If your computer turns on but stops booting before the it (the BIOS) finishes doing all initial tests.

4) If your computer turns on but the operating system freezes before it finishes booting (in this particular case you can also use a LiveCD to retrieve your files without having to remove the hard drive).

If your situation does not apply yo any of these categories, read my article on how to retrieve data from a broken hard drive.

Tools Needed

1) Phillips Screw Driver

2) IDE / SATA to USB connector cable (This last item is fairly inexpensive since you can find it for $20 in any local computer store)


The procedure is very simple. Basically what you need to do is to take the hard drive out of the computer, and use an IDE/SATA to USB cable, or an external enclosure. I prefer the cable since you do not have to install the hard drive in the enclosure, you just plug it in by the back of the hard drive and you are done.

Once inside the drive look for your documents. If the hard drive has Windows installed, then your documents should be under “\Documents and setting\profile name” for Windows XP. For Windows 7 and Vista they should be under “\Users\profile name“. If you are having trouble finding them, specially with Windows 7 and Vista, there is a program you can use which is free and will do a better job. Once you find your files, transfer them from your hard drive to your computer using copy and paste and you are done!

A Word of Caution: Handle the hard drive with care!, hard drives are very delicate. Try not to touch the circuit board underneath the hard drive, since if you are charged with static electricity you can zap it and destroy its electronic components. You need to “ground” yourself before touching any components. A good way to do this is by wearing a grounding wristband or by having the computer turned off but with the power cord plugged in, this way you can ground yourself by touching the exposed metal of the case before touching the hard drive.

Removing the Hard Drive on a Desktop Computer

Removing a hard drive from a desktop computer is very simple. Just open the the case, disconnect the data and power cables, unscrew it and pull it out, they are usually located some where in front of the computer and are hold in place by two or four screws, newer computer don’t have any screws and instead they have plastic contraptions that you need to slide in order to remove the hard drive, they are usually green colored. If you encounter one of these, don’t get frustrated if you can’t figure out how to slide the hard drive out, just pause and take a look at it, sometimes it has arrows or instructions somewhere inside the case indicating what to do.

Removing the Hard Drive on a Laptop Computer

Removing a drive from a laptop computer could be a little more involved or even easier than in a desktop computer, depending on the laptop. Flip the laptop and look for a mark on the plastic that looks like a barrel; that is the universal sign for hard drive. It indicates the hard drive is located right underneath. Remove the plastic cover and take the hard drive out. It it worth mentioning that not all hard drives are removed the same way, some have to be pulled by the side.

Once plastic cover is off, carefully remove the hard drive, the drive in the picture below has a black plastic puller which is used to slide the hard drive to one side and then up. However, as I previously mentioned the procedure to remove yours might be different.

Once the hard drive is out, plug the hard drive to the computer using the IDE/SATA to USB connector cable and boot to Windows (or your favorite operating system). If the hard drive is in good condition it should appear as a new drive, just like when you insert a USB stick.

Once you have access to your drive, retrieve your files using “copy” and “paste” and transfer them to your host computer.

Final Thoughts

Retrieving files a dead computer can be a very simple and trivial procedure, provided that the hard drive is in good condition. Just remember that hard drives are delicate and they should be handled with care.


  1. Pablo Garcia, 31. July 2011, 23:17

    Any method can damage your computer if things go wrong of you use it improperly. If you take the hard drive out of the computer and you touch the board underneath the drive you might zap it with static electricity. If you drop the hard drive while handling it you might damage it. The IDE to SATA adapter could be bad and damage the hard drive’s board. And I can go on and on. Are these things likely to happen, probably not. However, If you are not comfortable with trying this method, then don’t do it, ask a friend to do it for you or take it to your local computer store. There is also an alternate method if you are afraid if taking the hard drive out:

  2. John, 31. July 2011, 16:40

    I suspect my broken computer had a virus. will using this method possibly harm my working computer?

  3. Pablo Garcia, 29. July 2011, 23:51

    It is entirely up to you.

  4. t, 28. July 2011, 20:37

    Once I retrieve my files/pictures and everything I want, can I then erase what I’ve retrieved?

  5. Pablo Garcia, 14. July 2011, 23:35

    HI SJW
    They both would do the job.

  6. sjw, 12. July 2011, 20:30

    Could you possibly tell me which one of these would be best to get? I am on limited funds so favouring the cheaper one atm as it looks just as good, but which would u recommend if any??–AU-0006/dp/B0015KABK8/ref=sr_1_5?

  7. Kiara, 25. May 2011, 18:09

    THANK U SOOO MUCH!!!! I’ll definitley try this! ^_^

  8. Pablo Garcia, 6. May 2011, 8:07

    Hi Louise:

    Sure, as long as the hard drive was not affected by the water and you have another computer that works available for extracting the data.

  9. Louise Chegwidden, 5. May 2011, 21:28

    Bartender spilled beer and water all over my Mac Laptop. Nothing happens when computer is switched on. Is the above procedure likely to allow me to download my files.


  10. Pablo Garcia, 17. April 2011, 11:57

    Once you connect it you should see it as a new drive on “My Computer”. The USB connection gives power to the drive. I you do not see it under my computer, unplug the USB cable from the computer and plug it back in.

  11. Gnz, 17. April 2011, 9:53

    If i cnct my hdd in to usb how cn i give power to my hdd…

  12. Flaca, 7. April 2011, 21:08

    Thank you so much for your advice and I did order the IDE/SATA to USB cable, or an external enclosure online through Amazon. It only cost arount $7 bucks and I was able to retrieve all my pictures from my old laptop.

  13. roodbaard, 27. February 2011, 17:31

    I’m trying to recover the data from my notebook, but it has two harddrives (in RAID) Should I make two image files with dd rescue and combine them? Or plug in both drives and use a RAID recovery software?

    Great work you do with your how to’s


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