My laptop is dying. How should I salvage the contents of its hard drive?
January 9, 2017 1:31 PM   Subscribe

My 5+ year old Windows 7 laptop has gotten a little touched in the OS and no longer wants to boot up. Startup Repair tricks that previously got it running again no longer work. I’m afraid its time has come. The good news is, when I can get myself a command prompt, it looks like the hard drive is functioning normally. I have resigned myself to buying a new laptop, but my question is, what’s the best way for me to recover and save the files I have on that hard drive?

Is it worth getting my hands on a Windows 7 boot disc? Or hell, even a Linux boot disc? If I can get it up and running with one of those, will I be able to transfer my files onto a USB-connected external hard drive without too much hassle? Or should I just remove the hard drive, put it in an external enclosure, and hook it up to a different PC? Will all the files under previously password-protected user accounts be readily accessible once the hard drive is removed from its host body and hooked up to a new computer? IT people of MetaFilter, what would you do if you were me? Assume I have a decent amount of technological proficiency and do not hyperventilate when doing janky stuff to the registry or opening up hardware.
posted by prize bull octorok to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would make a Linux boot disk, booting from which should allow you to see the files and transfer them to a USBdrive. Easiest way to salvage the files. Everything after that is secondary.

If the machine is fine hardware-wise. what's to stop you from putting a fresh install of your preferred OS on it, and using it until it really gives up the ghost? Making regular backups, of course.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:38 PM on January 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding a rescue disk. I recommend SystemRescueCD, which can boot from a CD or a USB drive. Read the instructions carefully, especially the part about mounting NTFS drives.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:21 PM on January 9, 2017

Response by poster: Will a Linux boot disc transfer the data to a USB or external hard drive formatted with a Windows filesystem painlessly? And assuming I don't care about extending the life of the laptop (it has other issues), is there any reason why popping the hard disc into an enclosure would be a less than optimal idea? I had been leaning towards that as the fastest, least complicated solution.
posted by prize bull octorok at 2:58 PM on January 9, 2017

Taking the hard drive out & putting into an enclosure is almost always my solution for moving data off an old laptop to a new one or between a new hard drive and a hard drive with a corrupt os. It's easy and quick and I don't have to worry I forgot to backup various preferences/profiles.
posted by bluesapphires at 3:08 PM on January 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have found that in the instances where I *thought* it was the OS, it was actually the hard drive, even though all initial diagnostics registered OK for the drive via the normal tools.

Two tools I like are Belarc Advisor; it'll scan the drive (even if it isn't booted) and give you all your auth/registration codes, so you can re-install whatever on another machine from scratch.

Reflect is a good tool for creating an ISO image and re-imaging onto a new drive.

If you can get your hands on a drive (and have access to another machine where you can do all little bits for the imaging), that'd be the first thing I'd do. You could even burn the image to a standard drive, mount it in a regular desktop and verify if it's really the OS giving you a hassle or not.
posted by rich at 3:15 PM on January 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

Will a Linux boot disc transfer the data to a USB or external hard drive formatted with a Windows filesystem painlessly?

Yes, modern Linuxes should all be able to mount NTFS and FAT formatted external drives.

is there any reason why popping the hard disc into an enclosure would be a less than optimal idea?

If you're staticy, touching the bare drive could theoretically do bad things, so make sure you're grounded before touching it.
posted by Candleman at 3:29 PM on January 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm with Candleman and would say don't try to move the hard drive into an enclosure, or change anything on the hardware at all.

The goal here is to get your data off the machine as quickly as possible without changing anything on that laptop, and with as few powerups as possible.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:26 PM on January 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi AskMe, I am writing this from my very much alive laptop. I tried a Puppy Linux boot disc and tried to mount the drive, and Puppy Linux was like yo, I can't mount this, maybe run chkdsk? Which I did, and it fixed up some misallocated disk space, and now my laptop boots fine. I had thought chkdsk would be redundant if Windows Repair wasn't fixing it but apparently not. So even though Linux didn't directly solve my problem, it nudged me where I needed to go. Thanks!
posted by prize bull octorok at 7:17 PM on January 14, 2017

Just looked back.. I'd say if chkdsk solved your problem, the drive is probably starting to fail - so doing a mirror and swap in a new drive might be a good idea anyway.
posted by rich at 4:33 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

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