The worst thing that can happen to most laptop users, aside from the loss of the whole laptop, is hard drive failure. The hard drive holds all of your data, files, and all your e-mails and contacts if you use Outlook, Eudora, or any other non-portal based e-mail. But I’m sure many more laptops have gone to the recycling facility with live hard drives than dead hard drives. If you have any files you value on your hard drive that aren’t backed up, you should in a USB shell and attempt to recover the data. Hard drive data recovery is thought to be an arcane art, requiring expensive equipment and a high level of technical skill, but all of that only comes into play if the onboard electronics or the motor have failed. In that case, the drive platters are removed from the metal case in a special clean room, and the data is recovered by reading it off on a universal reader.
Most laptop owners are still very foggy as to where their data resides and consider the whole lower part of the laptop (everything except the screen) to be part and parcel with the hard drive. In reality, laptop hard drive are 2.5″ wide, about 4″ long and about a quarter inch thick. They weigh a couple of ounces, and can normally be accessed by removing a single screw from the laptop, as shown above.You should always unplug the laptop and remove the battery before attempting to do any repair work. I’ll admit I left the battery in here, because I knew it had been stone dead for some six months or more, since the AC adapter died. After removing the single screw, you can see the 2.5″ laptop hard drive installed in its cage. This hard drive is an IBM Travelstar, perhaps the most common hard drive used in laptops the past couple years. Because it’s an older laptop, there’s no shock mounting for the drive, little rubber washers that have become a popular way to partially shield the hard drive from the vibrations that can cause head crashes, in which case you can’t recovery the data with a million dollar lab.
The series of pictures at the top of this page are for the older parallel ATA (PATA) drives, the newer SATA laptop hard drive is shown at the bottom of the page. The next step is to remove the whole cage from the laptop, which involves pulling back on the cage to free the drive’s IDE interface from the laptop connector. You can see to the right that the drive cage is held from lifting by two metal tabs, and that the screw that held the plastic lid on the drive bay went all the way through and secured the cage in the laptop. That’s all that held it together, one screw, and it’s a typical arrangement. It turns out that removing the old hard drive from the cage, once it’s out, is generally a bigger job than removing the cage from the laptop, because there are four screws involved and they are often overtightened and strip when you try to remove them. But it’s not necessary to take it apart any further if all you want to to recover your old files.
To the left, I’m holding the new USB 2.0 interface that came with the Sabrent hard drive enclosure. The interface is really all you need to gain access to the old hard drive, if it’s healthy, and recover your data. The kit comes with software from Mac users as well as Windows based machines, but modern operating system versions don’t even require the software. They’ll just find the new USB hardware when it’s plugged in, recognize that it’s a hard drive, and allow you to recover your files as long as the file system types were compatible. I’m holding the interface card over the aluminum enclosure in which you could install the drive if you wanted to use it as a permanent external hard drive.
But when I started taking the screws out of the cage, three out of four fought me and the fourth stripped, despite the fact I was using a high quality screw driver. It would be easy to bend and break the remaining tab off to remove the cage, but why bother, when the only point of the job is to recover some old files? So I plugged the interface on (to the right), then set the whole thing down on my table with the new laptop and plugged it into the USB 2.0 port. You can see that the little green LED on the drive is lit and active, if you have good eyes and a better imagination.
Immediately after plugging in the USB cable, Windows XP picked up on the drive, and asks what you want to do with it. Choose “View with Explorer” and you’ll gain access to all of the old folders, drag them onto your new laptop hard drive, and your data recover job is complete. Well, after you burn the recovered files on a DVD it will be complete, and you won’t face the worry again. If the LED doesn’t light up, you could be plugging the USB into an old port that doesn’t source the 500 mA required, or the interface could be bad out of the box, or the drive could really be dead. If you don’t hear the drive spin up, you can try picking it up gently, a few inches over the table, and try rocking in slowly to see if you can feel the centripetal force of the disk spinning.
Laptops started changing over from the older IDE (PATA) hard drives to the newer SATA hard drive. The only difference, as far as the user is concerned, is that the SATA drives are faster and have a different connector. The drives are otherwise identical, and the SATA drives often cost less in the larger capacities as they are more common today. Since the SATA interface only requires a few wires (serial vs. parallel bus), ribbon cables aren’t required and a more flexible and robust connection is possible. The picture to the right shows an SATA drive installed in the laptop bay, and thanks to the rubberized shock mounting around the bay and on the cover, it simply sits tightly in place – no screws required. I only needed to remove one screw to take this drive out and put it into an SATA USB enclosure, and that was the screw on the drive bay lid.
Mounting the SATA drive on the circuit card for the external USB enclosure involves sliding the SATA edge connector into the circuit board connector and putting in a couple screws to hold it, if you’re going to make the enclosure its permanent home. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re going to be able to boot your laptop from an external SATA hard drive, I haven’t come across the laptop BIOS that can handle it yet. When the laptop BIOS gives you a “USB boot” option, it’s the option to boot from a memory stick. Sabrent makes an SATA hard drive shell. In any case, if your laptop is a brick and you need to recover your data, pulling out the hard drive and putting it in an external USB case is usually the easiest approach, providing that the hard drive itself isn’t fried.