When hard drives fail on a server or desktop computer, it’s fairly simply to remove the hard disk drive and connect it to a working machine in order to perform a data recovery. Laptop hard drives pose more of a challenge, however. Most laptops, ultraportables, netbooks, notebooks, ultrabooks, tablet computers and other mobile computers have hard drives that are considerably more difficult to remove. In fact, some very compact laptops do not even have user-serviceable hard disk drives. In some cases, it is neither cost-effective nor desirable to go through the hassle of removing and replacing the failed hard drive. However, you may still want to recover the important documents, photos and other files off of the hard drive before disposing of the machine. Fortunately, there are a few tricks that will allow you to access data from a laptop hard drive even if the computer won’t boot.
Booting a Laptop with a Failed Hard Drive
In cases where the laptop won’t boot due to a corrupted operating system or failed hard drive, the rest of the hardware on the machine is typically in good working order. The problem is that the machine will attempt to boot from the failed storage device by default, even if that device is no longer functioning. As a workaround, you need to do two things: mount another bootable media (such as a USB drive or a live CD) and change your BIOS settings to change the boot order in order to bypass the failed hard disk drive.
Bootable Media for Data Recovery
The two most common forms of bootable media are USB drives and CDs/DVDs. Bootable media lets you get into an operating system or live application without booting from your main hard drive. For data recovery, look for a data recovery program that has an emergency edition or live CD (such as R-Studio) or a lightweight version of Linux that can run a Linux-compatible data recovery utility.
For older machines, you’ll have the best luck with a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM. This is because laptops commonly ship with system restore discs, and so support booting from the CD/DVD drive. In fact, some machines even have a hotkey that can be pressed during boot up that will force the system to boot from the CD drive (For Intel-based Macs, hold C during bootup). Most PCs will check for a bootable disc in the CD drive before trying to boot from the hard disk drive. If this is the case, all you will need to do is to insert the bootable CD before starting up the computer.
If your computer does not automatically check for bootable media (CD or USB) upon startup, then you’ll need to change the boot order in your BIOS. To access BIOS setup, you need to press a certain key during bootup (usually when the logo is displayed). This will usually be shown briefly on the screen and is typically F2, F10 or DEL. Once in the BIOS, look for a setting called BOOT DEVICES or BOOT ORDER. For specific instructions for your machines, try a web search for “BIOS access keys [your computer brand]” and “change boot order [your computer brand]”.
Recovering Data from a Laptop
Once you have the laptop booted into a live CD or USB, the next step is to begin analyzing the failed hard drive and recovering the files. To do this, you may need to mount the failed hard drive, either in the application or the live operating system. Ensure that you mount the drive as a read-only volume.
Perform data recovery operations on the drive as you would normally. Make sure you save the recovered files to another drive, such as an external USB drive or a network drive. Never save recovered files onto the same drive from which they were recovered.
Once you have recovered all the files you need, you can securely destroy the laptop and hard drive and dispose of it.
Data Recovery from a Laptop
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