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Save the Data! Your Computer May Be Dead, but Your Hard Drive’s Heart Still Beats!

An image of test tubes to depicts how to clean a water bath.

You get that familiar blue screen or an application hangs, usually one that’s been tanking your memory. No keystroke response.  The deer-in-the-headlight look on your face prompts your colleagues to ask, ‘is everything ok?’ while they secretly laugh at you. Rebooting 27 times will not save you now. Your computer has breathed its last.

Even now, most scientists and students still have no viable backup to computer data. One of my old PIs learned the hard way…6 months of work stored on a desktop PC – toast. Stamped out by the cyberspace goblins. Gone forever. Or is it? Some scientists and lab folks have become wiser over the years, investing in live battery back-ups, external hard drives, CD-R/CD-RW discs and memory sticks. Improvements in cost and availability of these lifesavers have made them more popular. But what happens when it is too late? Now what? Until recently, you would have to find a reputable computer geek to recover the stuff for you.

Now, enter the internal hard drive enclosure. These are super cool, simple, and have actually been around a while. Someone just figured out ‘Hey, someone just might pay money for this’. Just like the title implies, it is simply an enclosure – for the hard drive of your now defunct laptop or desktop. Yes, you can remove the IDE hard drive (either 2.5″ or 3.5″), snap it into the special enclosure and now you can (in most cases) retrieve previously lost work in either folders or individual files such as documents, PDFs, pictures, programs, spreadsheets, Vcards, etc.

Most just require a USB 2.0 connection (USB cables are usually supplied with the enclosure) and some offer 400-800 Firewire capability. Most desktop “tower” systems and laptops have easy access to the hard drive and the tools required are usually just a medium point phillips screwdriver. Remember, the hard drives are fragile so banging on it with a gel tray is not recommended.

So, plug in your newly recovered hard drive to a working laptop or PC and recover the files you thought you just lost. If your deceased computer had username/password access, you may be restricted to what you can do with the files, e.g. moving or deleting files. In most cases you can simply remove the security measures on the individual folders/files.

Yeah, yeah I know you can get 500GB external HDs for less than it would cost to take the family out to Chili’s. But, what are the alternatives for a crashed computer? Your 6lb laptop is now a nice new paperweight. Or hey, you can use your dead desktop ECU as a door stop. Nah, remove your computer’s HD, sell the rest on eBay, use that money to invest $50-$80 on a cool HD enclosure and recover your precious work  – BUT WAIT, there’s more! Once you’ve recovered (and properly backed up your data), you can reformat your recovered hard drive and you now have an external hard drive. Oh yeah, the value never ends.

$50-$80. Screwdriver. 20-30 minutes. Save your hard drive. Save your data. Impress your friends. Get back to work.


  1. Peter Blazso on March 29, 2012 at 8:47 am

    I agree that it is easier with a special HD enclosure or the so-called HD “mobile rack” but what if you need the data immediately and you don’t have one of those. You can also use another desktop computer as a “special HD enclosure”. Since you have managed to disassemble your wrecked computer I suppose you can also remove the cover of a “healthy” one, find and empty PATA/SATA interface (data interface for internal hard drives) hanging on the internal PATA/SATA cable and connect your recovered hard drive there. (In case of notebook drives this procedure may not work because of data/power interface incompatibilities.) Once the data and power cables for your hard drive are connected you should be able to access your data though the “healthy” desktop station. WARNING: ALWAYS unplug the power when you mess around with the hardware.

    • Jason Garner on April 1, 2012 at 3:47 am

      Sure, another way to “skin a cat”. As noted, this really is the only option when you have to have the data NOW. Unfortunately, not all PC models carry additional IDE cables, but most do. You also need to double check compatibility between notebook and desktop hard drives for this method. Some 2.5″ notebook HDs can be connected via a desktop IDE through a PIN adaptor available at your local computer store.

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