Even if the PC you’ve been using turns out to be well and truly dead, there are still ways to rescue the data – photos, documents and music, for example – stored on it.
To do so, you’ll need to remove the hard drive from the old PC and connect it to a new one via USB in order to locate and copy your files.
Hard drive caddy + SATA-to-USB
The easiest way to do this is by using a hard drive caddy – a simple enclosure and cable that effectively converts the old hard drive into an external USB drive. These can be bought for around £5 online.
Just make sure you get one the right size – laptop hard drives are 2.5-in, while desktop drives are usually 3.5-in.
Most internal hard drives have a SATA connection, so you'll need to buy a SATA-to-USB cable online (usually under £5) in order to plug the hard drive into a different computer later. Some hard drive caddy kits come with these cables included.
How to remove your hard drive
Switch your PC fully off before you remove its drive – you’ll need a screwdriver for this, but refer to the manual for details on where all the small screws on are located.
Install the hard drive in the caddy and then attach it to your new PC via the SATA-to-USB cable. As long as the hard drive isn’t damaged, it should show up as a new drive. Press Windows key + E to open a new Explorer window and browse the drive’s contents.
Click Continue if you see any messages about permissions and copy any files from the old drive to the new one, if you're able to
Use data recovery software
If the original drive is damaged or corrupted, you can use a recovery program to try and rescue your files – Piriform Recuva (piriform.com/recuva) is a good free option.
Piriform Recuva has a lot of features for a free data recovery program. It claims to recover files from Windows hard disks, the Recycle Bin, digital camera cards and MP3 players (it doesn’t support iPods, CDs or DVDs).
The package is easy to install, and while Recuva has a geeky feel, the helpful wizard makes it accessible. Largely, it does a great job of recovering files, even after drives are reformatted. But the program piles the files in a single folder, with only some numbers after the file names to distinguish them from one another.
Get a data specialist to help
If you have a degree of technical nous, then the cheap or free data recovery methods above should be your first port of call. While not a guarantee of success, they're worth trying before you spend money on more complex programs or paying a data specialist.
However, if you're not so confident with your computer, or if you’re struggling to recover your files with the methods above, you may need to pay a data recovery specialist to help retrieve them.
Be sure to get a clear quote for the work before you commit to it. Many data recovery specialists will charge you extra to provide a new USB stick or DVD of your recovered data. Some will let you send a blank drive for them to save retrieved files to.