How do I get rid of a computer but keep my private data private?

This is a simple question that I’m often asked by my computer support clients. Pity the answer isn’t as simple. In fact, it can be complicated – technically and/or financially.

If the drive is in situ in a complete computer and you wish to dispose of it as a working machine then you have to clean the private stuff off it by deleting it and then ensuring that the deleted data can not then be undeleted. I will be covering the principles of this in next week’s blog.

If the drive is already out of the machine and/or if the main intention is safe and secure disposal of the computer (without expecting the computer to continue to function) then it may be simplest just to keep the drive (as this is the only part of the computer that stores any of your private information) and dispose of the the rest of the machine without worrying about data security.

This strategy also has the advantage that the retained drive can be viewed as a backup of your data at the time you disposed of the machine. In theory, you should be able to read any data on the drive, even though you no longer have the computer it came from. In practice, I have found that hard drives that are not used for a length of time can fail to “spin up” when you try to read them – see this blog on Long Term Data Retention.

2.5 inch drive enclosure

2.5 inch drive enclosure – you can’t tell from the outside whether it is SATA or IDE (or both)

To try to read a drive that has been separated from its computer, you just need an external drive enclosure from somewhere like PC World, Maplin, or Amazon. This is a box into which the drive fits and which includes the electronics to allow the drive (in its new box) to be externally connected to another computer via a USB cable. In fact, all old drives can be fitted into enclosures this way and used, for instance, as backup drives. If possible, take the drive with you when going to buy such an enclosure as there are two questions that have to be answered correctly if you are to get the right enclosure:

  • Is this a 2.5 inch drive or a 3.5 inch drive? (in practice, laptop drives are 2.5 inch and desktop drives 3.5 inch)
  • Is it a SATA drive or an IDE drive? (if the computer is newer than about four years it’s likely to be SATA)

3 1/2 inch drive enclosure

3.5 inch drive enclosure – note that 3.5 inch enclosures have their own power supply

In practice, keeping old drives to use as backup drives in this way is not as useful as it used to be as the enclosures cost about £15 and the drive (since it is likely to be 2-5 years old) is probably quite small by today’s standards and might also be getting to the age at which the chances of it failing are starting to increase rapidly. If your main priority is getting a backup drive then it would probably be better to start from scratch and buy a new external drive for £45-£80. See this blog on External Backup Drives.

The conclusion from all this is that it’s worth retaining a drive from an old computer as this is a simple and secure method of (non)disposal. You also know that there’s a chance of reading it at a future date if you need to get some data off it.

The problem for a “normal” user is “how do you get the drive out of the computer”?

3.5 inch SATA drive

3.5 inch SATA drive

If it’s a desktop computer then there will be screws on the case of the main system unit that retain one or both of the side covers. After removing the cover(s), just look for a metal rectangular box similar to that captioned here as “3.5 inch SATA drive”. The precise method of removal varies between models of computer and varies between being “simple” to remove and “well nigh impossible: how on earth did they put this thing together?” The good news, of course, is that you’re probably not bothered about breaking anything as you are probably not passing this computer on to anyone as a potentially working machine.

2.5 inch IDE drive

2.5 inch IDE drive

If it’s a laptop computer then you are hoping to find one, two, or four screws on the bottom of the laptop that either retain a plate (the removal of which will reveal the hard drive), or which retain the drive itself (the removal of which allows the drive to be slid out from either the left or right edge of the laptop).

2.5 inch SATA drive

2.5 inch SATA drive – it is the connectors at the edge that differentiate it from an IDE drive

If you are unlucky, there are either no such screws or you can’t identify them. In that case, you will need to remove pretty well all of the many screws on the underside of the laptop in the hope that you can get the case apart and then remove the drive (which will be a 2.5 inch drive as shown). I strongly advise against pulling a laptop computer apart if you are hoping to keep the machine alive for another owner.

Next week I will look at the options for keeping your data safe when disposing of a computer with the drive left in situ.

Is your hard drive working properly? Is it likely to fail? What would you do if it did?

A hard drive melting and going down a drainHard drive manufacturers used to rate the reliability of their drives in terms of a number of hours “MTBF” (mean time between failures). This was supposed to tell you how long you could reasonably expect a drive to last before a problem is likely, on average, to occur. It seems they don’t do this any more and I haven’t found out whether it’s because the figure was misleading or meaningless. Certainly, a study by Carnegie Mellon University found that users change their drives 15 times more often than the manufacturers would think they should.

I have seen various figures that suggest that, in practice, the reliability of drives starts to plummet at anywhere between five and seven years. All of this is irrelevant, really. The only important, irrefutable, fact is that drives DO fail. Given that fact, does it really make any difference whether there is a 1% chance or a 20% chance that your drive will fail in the next year? I’m by no means the only person to have known drives fail within their first year of life. The fact that such a drive would still be under warranty is not the point. The value is in the contents – your Windows installation, the programs, and the data. The best computer advice I can offer is that you assume that any drive can fail at any time.

So how do you know if a drive is failing?

Under normal circumstances, you may not know. However, there are two very definite signs that might be present – alone or together – that clearly indicate that something is going wrong:

  • An increasing number of errors, freezes, and program crashes may be caused by a failing drive. Such problems could be caused by disc drive read/write errors or by many others causes. It’s definitely worth heeding the warning and making sure your important data is backed up. You can then investigate further, knowing that you’ve protected the most valuable part of your computer system – your data.
  • A clicking noise coming from the drive. Act immediately. The drive could fail at any time. If there’s any data on the drive that you don’t want to lose, back it up NOW. If you’re not sure whether what you can hear is serious, visit this link and listen to some death rattles of failing drives. Be warned, though, that if your drive is starting to fail it could go at any time, so backing up data is a better use of its dying moments than having it clicking away in the background while you decide which of the sounds on the above link is the best match.

Monitoring a Healthy Drive

Most drives have something called S.M.A.R.T. technology built in so that appropriate software can monitor the health of your drive. The software that I use on my own machines for this purpose – and when providing computer support for clients – is called Active@ Hard Disk Monitor Free. This keeps a constant check on many of the parameters that indicate the health of your drive. It also has a temperature gauge to warn you if the drive is overheating. The only real limitation of the software is that it can only monitor internal hard drives. You can’t use it to monitor the health of, for instance, your USB-connected external backup drive. Nevertheless, I consider this a useful computer support tool that can give valuable warning of problems ahead.

Replacing a Hard Drive

If your drive has failed and Windows won’t start then you need to take a deep breath. There are specialist data recovery companies who may be able to get some or all of your data back but the cost could run into four figures. You may need or choose to buy a new drive and re-install everything from scratch, re-loading any data backups that you do have or that recovery specialists have been able to rescue. You may or may not feel confident to do this yourself: this is the type of computer support that people such as I, myself, offer. Don’t necessarily jump to the wrong conclusion, though. If you’ve just turned on your computer and Windows won’t load then there could be a reason other than hard drive failure, so there could be less drastic and less expensive options.

If your drive does need replacing, but is working reliably at the moment, then the best plan is probably to employ software such as Paragon Partition Manager to clone the entire drive. This is not entirely risk-free. I’ve known such software completely trash the contents of a hard drive partition by making a simple error when creating the clone. My own strategy when using it is to back up important data by a different means first, and then to use the cloning software. This is much, much, quicker than installing Windows, programs, and data from scratch. It has to be said, though, that this kind of task is not for the faint-hearted and may be beyond the technical knowledge of the average reader of this blog. Nevertheless, I hope it’s useful to point out the kind of options you may have if you suspect that your hard drive may be going on the fritz.

To sum up, the best single piece of advice I can give on this subject is this – don’t ignore the signs of a failing drive. You might be able to prevent a problem from becoming a disaster if you heed the warnings and act immediately.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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