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A Few Tips on Recovering Data from a Really Old Laptop

As you dig through your old belongings in the attic, you come across something unexpected.  Dusty, square, and much heavier than it looks, it’s your old IBM laptop from 1995.  The battery is dead, you don’t know if any of the connection ports work, and the power cable is nowhere to be seen, but you’re sure that somewhere in that 512 MB of memory, you have some important files – or at very least a walk down memory lane.  How do you go about recovering data?

Laptop technology has improved immeasurably since the first computers we would recognize as laptops came out in the late 1980s.  Hard drive capacity has exploded, all the connection types have been improved or replaced, and laptops now weigh a mere fraction of what they used to.  While this is good news for your current laptop, it means that retrieving data from an old model – especially a laptop from before CD drives – can be a difficult prospect.  Changing software and file types only makes this process more challenging.

Try to find a replacement power cord

The first thing to do is to see whether the laptop itself still works.  Not only does this allow you to actually check to see whether you have any important data on the hard drive; data is much easier to transfer off a working computer.  Even if the laptop manufacturer has long since gone out of business or discontinued parts for that particular computer, power cables and replacement batteries for old laptops are actually fairly easy to find.  Replacement parts are often available on eBay or Craigslist for a song; old laptops also often turn up at thrift stores, so if you know what you are doing you can cannibalize another old laptop for the parts you need.  If you do get a replacement battery, make sure it has never been used: batteries are subject to degradation, which can damage your computer or cause dangerous electric shocks.

What to do if the laptop still works

If you manage to power on the old laptop and open up your files, then congratulations: retrieving your data just became much easier.  Even though they are barely used any more, it is still possible to buy floppy disks, so if your floppy disk drive still works you can transfer the files to floppy disk for conversion to a format your current computer can read.  Laptops designed after roughly 2000 usually have USB 2.0 ports, which are compatible with most modern USB sticks.  Pre-2000 laptops have USB 1.0 ports; you can use a USB 2.0 drive to retrieve data through a 1.0 port – it’s just very slow.  If the floppy disk drives and USB ports do not work, stop and take the computer to a professional.  Even though your old laptop probably has an ethernet port at the back, do not try to connect it to the internet: even if you can persuade your 1995 version of Internet Explorer to display your websites, the old laptop does not have any protection against years’ worth of viruses and malware and is very likely to become infected with a virus that could destroy the data you are trying to retrieve.

What to do if the laptop does not work

There are any number of reasons an old laptop left sitting in the attic for twenty years might not power on.  If the laptop has been in a dusty environment there may be dirt in the ports and inside the laptop itself, which could prevent the power cord or battery from providing power properly, and can affect the internal workings of the laptop.  If this is the case then the laptop will need to be thoroughly cleaned, which is best done by a professional to avoid damaging delicate components.  A computer technician will open the laptop, clean each part carefully and then reassemble the laptop to try powering it on again.  An advantage to having a professional computer technician do this is that if he finds broken components while he cleans the laptop, he can replace them as he goes.

The laptop may also fail to power on because of data degradation, or “data rot”.  Data rot occurs when a magnetic storage device like a hard drive disk goes unused for a long time, and environmental factors like heat, cold, humidity and fluctuations in magnetic fields cause the drive to become damaged.  While this may be really bad news for your data, it may also be that only certain startup files are damaged, so the laptop will not boot up or read the files, but the data itself is fine.  The only way to know for sure is to have a professional look at the drive: specialized tools are available to assess the extent of data rot and determine how much data can be retrieved.

What to do with the data once you have it

While some very simple file types, like .txt files, can be read by almost anything, other file types will not be compatible with your current computer’s software.  Microsoft Office, for example, is typically only backwards-compatible by a few versions, so if you’re running Office 2013, you may not be able to read documents written in Word 95.  Tools are available to read and upconvert old files, and, while you will probably lose a lot of formatting, you can usually preserve the basic content of your files in the conversion process.  Once the files have been upconverted, you can go in manually and fix any formatting and conversion errors.  You can do this at home using a downloadable program, but if you are already asking a professional computer technician to retrieve your data, it usually costs very little extra to have him convert the files as well, which ensures that it is done with as few conversion errors as possible.  Before running any file from an old computer, make sure they have been scanned for malware.  The irony of your current laptop being protected against the very latest viruses is that it might not know what to do with a virus from 1995!

by David Molnar