How to Save Data From a PC That Won't BootTime: Sep. 23, 2020
If you have important data trapped on a computer that's not working, there are ways to retrieve those precious files. You should already have a backup, but here's what you can do in an emergency.
Troubleshooting a computer that won't stare is frustrating, but the panic of losing your data is far worse. If you can't get your computer to boot and you don't have a backup, don't freak out just yet; you have a few options.
There's always a possibility your hard drive is corrupted or dead, in which case data recovery is going to be costly or impossible. But in many cases, your computer may not boot for other reasons: a failing power supply, a corrupted boot sector, or any other number of quirks that leave your important data—photos, documents, and so on—intact. So if you can't get the darn thing to turn on, it's probably time to see if that data is salvageable.
There are two primary ways I recommend retrieving that data: one requires a little software know-how, while the other requires a little hardware finesse. Both require an external drive to copy the data to, which you can use to store your files while you repair or replace your computer. Don't fret if you aren't super experienced; you can handle this as long as you follow the instructions closely.
Boot From a USB Drive
It's possible your computer's hardware is still in good working order, but can't boot into Windows. Maybe the bootloader is corrupted, or maybe driver issues are giving you a black screen rather than the familiar Windows desktop. If the computer still works, though, you can use it to boot into a different environment that can (hopefully) access your data.
If you're using a Windows PC, you can create a bootable USB drive with Windows on it to browse your hard drive. Grab another PC and a USB drive with at least 16GB of space. On that PC, download Microsoft's Media Creation Tool, run it, and choose ISO when prompted.
Then, download Rufus, start it up, and select your USB drive under “Device,” your Windows ISO under “Boot Selection,” and Windows To Go under “Image Option.” Click Start, and wait for the process to finish. You can see more details in the “Running Rufus” section of this guide. If you're using a Mac, Macworld UK has similar instructions for running macOS on a USB drive.
When it's done, you can reboot your computer. When you see the startup screen, though, you'll need to press a key on your keyboard to enter the boot menu—usually it'll tell you which key on-screen. For example, on my computer, I have to press F11 at the startup screen to access the boot menu, from which I can choose my USB drive to boot into its Windows environment.
If that doesn't work, you can also enter the BIOS setup—usually by pressing Delete or F2. Look for the “Boot Order” section, where you can move your USB drive to the top of the list.
If all goes well, your computer will boot you into a fresh Windows environment from that USB drive. Open File Explorer and your hard drive should appear there, with all your data intact (provided your drive isn't corrupted). Note that if your hard drive is encrypted with BitLocker, you'll need that USB drive to be running Windows 10 Pro, and you'll need the recovery key in order to access your data—without it, your files are likely gone forever.
Once you see your data, just plug in an external drive and drag all your important files to it. From there, you can safely reinstall Windows or troubleshoot boot problems without worrying about your precious data.
Remove the Hard Drive and Try It In Another PC
If your computer won't turn on at all, you won't be able to boot from a USB drive as described above. You can, however, remove the hard drive from the computer and plug it into another working machine to access your data. To do this, you'll need a SATA to USB cable, docking station, or external hard drive enclosure—plus a screwdriver and whatever other tools are necessary to open your PC.
If your laptop uses an M.2 drive instead of a standard 2.5-inch drive, you'll need a SATA M.2 to USB adapter, or an NVMe M.2 to USB adapter—you may need to look up the specs of your laptop to see which it uses. (The pictures on Amazon will often show which types of drives it's compatible with, and you can look up a disassembly video for your computer to see if the hard drive matches the shape of the enclosure you're buying.)
Finding the right adapter is, honestly, the most difficult part of this process. Opening your PC seems scary, but it's actually much easier. We can’t guide you through the process on every machine, but you can usually Google your laptop's model number to find disassembly instructions. It almost always involves unscrewing a few screws on the bottom of the laptop and removing the bottom case, which will often give you direct access to the hard drive or SSD.
In some laptops, the storage is soldered onto the motherboard, in which case you're out of luck and will have to try the boot-from-USB method above or send it in for repairs. If you're opening a desktop, it’s even easier, since you can just slide off the side panel and remove the drive from its cage—you may not even need a screwdriver.
With the drive removed, plug it into your USB adapter and plug that into the USB port of a working computer. (Ideally, you'd use a computer of the same platform—so if the drive is coming from a Mac, you'll want to plug it into another Mac.) With any luck, your drive should pop up in File Explorer or Finder. You can then select the files you need (or all the files, just to be safe) and drag them onto an external drive. Once they're safely backed up, you can go about repairing or replacing your computer, and drag those files back when it's up and running again.
Hopefully, this experience has demonstrated the importance of backups. You've heard it time and time again, and I know it's easy to put off, but don't. You can clone your hard drive, create an image file, or set up a recovery drive. And don't forget to check up on your hard drive's health. Set up a backup program today and forget about it—the peace of mind is priceless, and you'll never have to experience that moment of panic ever again.