Replacing a failing hard drive
March 23, 2010 2:39 PM   Subscribe

Can I easily replace a failing hard drive in a desktop?

Running a Dell desktop with Windows XP Pro. The hard drive has begun making an increasingly audible whir or whine. Presuming it's on its last legs, can I take it out, move all the data to a new (flash?) drive and be done with it? Would a computer shop be able to clone the old drive or could I do it? How careful do I need to be with the technical details of the new hard drive?

Thanks a lot for your help. I'm not all that handy but I do need to extend the life of this desktop.

Yes, all backed up on a weekly basis.
posted by KneeDeep to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It's a very straightforward tech procedure. The biggest hurdle, I'd guess, would be the surgery of extracting the old drive (and cables) and installing the new one. Dells tend to cram that stuff in there like a family vacation station wagon.

Look up the specs of your current drive online and get one that matches connection wise. Not too tricky. Then it's just unscrew the old one, disconnect power (white, 4 pin connector) and data (a skinny long many connector plug).
I don't know that I'd clone a failing drive. You could have bad sectors that could cause corrupt files, if they are windows files that could be bad. I trust you have the bootable cd that came with the pc? I'd rebuild the long way with that and your backups.
posted by tremspeed at 2:49 PM on March 23, 2010

The easiest way to do this is to buy a replacement drive and an external case. Attach it to your computer and then use the disk copying software of your choice (I use SuperDuper! on the Mac, but there are equivalents on Windows)--this will clone the internal hard drive to the external hard drive. Then open up your computer and replace the internal drive with the external clone. You can then put a nice fresh drive in the (now empty) external HD casing, and you've got another backup or whatever.

I've done these maneuvers maybe 10 times now, and I am not technical AT ALL. Just don't drop the drives, touch the exposed electronics, or forget to discharge any static before performing this work.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:53 PM on March 23, 2010

Your computer certainly has more than one Hard Drive connection. Open up the computer, plug in a new hard drive to the secondary connection, boot up and clone your drive using the software of your choice to the new drive. Then, boot down, switch the drives, and go. Very easy.

A shop can definitely do this for you if you want, but it's probably a 20 minute process, copying time not included.

You may have some bad sectors, but it can't hurt to try. Worst case is you have some bad sectors, so you have to copy just your data/documents, then reformat and reinstall Windows.
posted by jckll at 3:03 PM on March 23, 2010

Yes, as long as it doesn't crap out during the clone.

Check whether desktop drive is PATA (wide ribbon cable) or SATA (narrow cable, L-shaped plug) and buy a 3.5in replacement matching that spec. Also buy a USB enclosure to turn your replacement into an external drive. Plug external drive into desktop. Run DriveImage XML to make a bootable drive-to-drive clone. Remove replacement drive from enclosure, swap with desktop drive. There may be a few wrinkles for licensed software that uses hardware ID for authentication, but you should be all set.

If you just want to offload data, then a USB flash drive might do, but in this kind of situation, a drive-to-drive clone is probably the easiest route.
posted by holgate at 3:05 PM on March 23, 2010

Here's a link to free drive imaging software. Haven't used it, but the site has been a good resource. UBCD is also a great tool to have. I've used only a fraction of what's on it, but when I need it, it's been fantastic.

Before you swap drives, run checkdisk & defrag. Checkdisk with autofix often fixes problems. Defrag seems to make some hard drives happier. Many people still swear by Spinrite.

Swapping drives is easy, beware, the inside of the pc case is full of sharp edges, and like to extract blood.

Back up all data.
Open case; look at drive, look at connectors. Look at drive, is it IDE or SATA?
Go to or reputable seller of computer stuff. Get new drive &
Adapters to use it from USB as an external drive.
Image old drive to new drive.
posted by theora55 at 3:10 PM on March 23, 2010

If you're using a cloning/duplication utility, make sure you select the correct source and destination drives. Check your settings, double check them, and then triple-check for good measure. If there's any doubt, ask us about it here.

Get it backwards, and you'll end up with a good blank hard drive, a bad blank hard drive, and no data. Every IT guy makes this mistake exactly once over the course of their career.

Ghost is the most well-known and popular solution for duplicating hard drives, although there are plenty of free alternatives around. I've had good luck with Clonezilla.
posted by schmod at 7:30 PM on March 23, 2010

(Note that people are using IDE and PATA to mean basically the same thing here (they don't actually mean quite the same thing but it's not an important distinction). Wide (2 inches) connector with either an equally wide ribbon cable or a stiff bulky rolled-up-ribbon cable is PATA/IDE. Newer systems have a narrower connector and cable for SATA.)

I agree with jckll that your case almost certainly has the ability to hold multiple drives and this is probably easier than temporarily putting one drive in an external enclosure while you copy stuff over. (Or not. Depends on how crowded your case is, I guess.)
posted by hattifattener at 7:36 PM on March 23, 2010

Whenever I have a failing computer I do all the above suggestions AND I do a conversation to a virtual image too (just to be safe). VMWare has a free product that will convert a Windows based system to a virtual machine EVEN while its running:
posted by cowmix at 12:21 AM on March 24, 2010

There have been several references to using external enclosures in the comments above.

For somewhat less hassle, you might get one of these. I have several (not all this exact model) and they help make drive swapping easier and quicker.

Just make sure you get one that will accommodate the type of drives you have.
posted by imjustsaying at 1:33 AM on March 24, 2010

Dells in the last few years are actually pretty easy to swap hard disks in and out of. Usually they are on some kind of bracket or sled that slides out. Then you attach the bracket or sled to the new drive. If there is a place in your machine for a second drive, you may or may not have the bracket or sled needed to install the second drive in it. (Probably not.) Google up your model name and number and "replace hard disk" to find instructions on doing the job, all the gotchas, etc. Dell or someone else has posted them on the Web for you.
posted by kindall at 7:50 AM on March 24, 2010

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