Dead Laptop? Learn how to recover data from it.

Modern laptops are miracles of engineering: they are able to host files, run programs, enable us to play games, stream videos and hundreds of other things as well.  Unfortunately, the more functions a piece of machinery has, the more things there are that can go wrong.  A catastrophic laptop failure is fairly rare, but it is still something that happens even to the most careful computer users, and you should always be prepared with a strategy to retrieve your important files in case your laptop fails unexpectedly.

Try booting your computer up in safe mode

Safe mode is something that is built in to most operating systems as a failsafe in case your computer fails.  It’s a diagnostic mode that has reduced functionality, but it’s important for two reasons: one, it is often able to identify and even fix basic software problems with your laptop; and two, it allows you to get your important files off your laptop and onto an external hard drive.  Safe mode shuts down any programs that might be causing your computer problems, but what that means is that sometimes you can boot up into safe mode even if trying to boot up regularly isn’t working at all.  If you’re on a Windows computer, you enter safe mode by pressing F8 during startup; if you’re on a Mac, boot up into safe mode by holding the shift key during startup.

Check your Cloud storage

More and more applications now back up automatically to an online Cloud.  Before doing anything dramatic with your laptop, use another computer to go online and see what you have backed up to Cloud storage.  Many in-house Mac applications, like Pages, Numbers and Notes back up automatically to iCloud.  Other applications, particularly those with mobile versions, probably have their own Cloud storage.  Use an external hard drive to download and store any important documents you have saved to Cloud; you’ll be able to put them on a new or repaired laptop once you’ve figured out your computer’s problem.

Take your laptop to a specialist

If booting your computer into safe mode doesn’t yield results, or if your computer won’t even boot up into safe mode, it’s a good idea to take your computer to a professional.  Without an expert’s tools and knowledge, it’s hard to tell whether the problem is with your computer or just with the hard drive; it’s also a bad idea to try too much tinkering with your laptop on your own, because it may void the warranty.  Professional computer technicians usually won’t charge too much for a diagnostic report, which can be a useful tool in figuring out what to do next.

Use a hard drive enclosure to retrieve your data

If the problem is with the laptop itself – a damaged motherboard, for example – then you can probably still retrieve the data from the undamaged hard drive.  Use specs downloaded from the internet or how-to videos on YouTube to guide you through carefully removing the back of your laptop.  Once the back is open, you can remove the hard drive, and, using a USB-powered hard drive enclosure, connect your laptop’s hard drive to another computer.  From the other computer, you can go through the files on the hard drive and transfer the important ones to an external hard drive.  Be careful, though: if you have any doubts about being able to take your laptop apart without damaging anything, it’s much better to take it to a professional.

Use a hard drive enclosure to clone your hard drive

It might be that your hard drive has suffered minor mechanical damage that makes it hard for it to connect to the computer, but there is no damage to the laptop itself.  A connection pin might be bent, or something might be loose within the hard drive itself.  If this is the case, you may be able to transfer all of your data to a new hard drive without using a friend’s computer.  Certain hard drive enclosures with two slots are designed to let you transfer the contents of one hard drive to another with the touch of a button: that way, you can put the new hard drive into your laptop and continue as though nothing happened.  Before you clone your hard drive, though, be sure that the problem is mechanical, and not corrupt software, because if it’s the latter you risk copying the damaged files over to the new hard drive and ending up right back where you started.

Use a data recovery program

If the hard drive has crashed and you can’t retrieve the data easily using an enclosure, don’t panic.  It may be that the hard drive is damaged in a way that makes it hard for a computer to find the files, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the data is lost for good.  Data recovery programs are available for both Windows and Mac: there are freeware programs that will allow you to retrieve a certain amount of data at no cost, and there are also paid programs – some of them quite expensive – that will do a more thorough search of the hard drive.  Choose an application that has good user reviews and testimonials, and be prepared to pay for one of the more expensive applications, especially if the lost files are important.  Trying with a freeware program first may damage the lost files, and make it harder for a professional application to find them.

Let an expert retrieve your data

If none of the other options work, it may be time to take the hard drive apart to see if there’s a mechanical fix that will allow you to temporarily access the lost data.  Unless you’re extremely experienced with computers, this is a very bad idea to try yourself: internal hard drives are complex pieces of machinery and if you don’t know what you’re doing it is very easy to make a small mistake that damages the hard drive beyond repair.  Find an experienced computer technician with the tools and expertise to do the job properly, and be prepared to pay good money to be sure you’re getting the best service.  Most technicians will back up your data to a DVD, or, for an extra fee, to a Cloud service so that you can now access your files from anywhere.