How to Move Your Data and Programs to a New Hard Drive

Keep your data with you

What to Know

  • Use an intermediate drive: Clone an image of the old drive to an external drive. Swap the old and new drives and install the clone.
  • Clone the old drive: Connect the new drive to the computer. Use software to make a mirror image of the old drive. Swap the drives.
  • Copy only the data: Install the new drive, install Windows and apps. Connect the old drive to the computer and copy the data.

This article explains three ways to replace your hard drive and move your data and programs to the new one. It includes information on selecting the right replacement hard drive.

How to Mirror Your Old Drive to an External Drive

Replacing the hard drive on your laptop or desktop computer is one of the best upgrades you can make; in particular, it prolongs the useful life of an aging laptop. Upgrading to a larger drive gives you much-needed additional storage space, and you also can gain a big productivity boost from faster hard drive speeds.

If you have an external hard drive lying around or network-attached storage (NAS) device, you don't need to buy anything besides the new hard drive. Using software such as Acronis True Image or free Clonezilla, you can save an image of your current drive onto your existing external drive.

This software copies or mirrors the drive completely with data, applications, and settings intact. Then, you can physically swap out the old drive in your computer with the new drive, run the cloning software again on the new drive, and install the cloned image you saved from that external drive or NAS.

Copying Directly From the Old Drive to the New Drive

If you don't want to use an intermediate external hard drive or NAS to copy the data back and forth, you can just connect the new and old drives together using either a simple USB-to-SATA/IDE adapter or cable, a laptop hard drive enclosure (which holds the old hard drive and connects it to your laptop via USB), or a laptop hard drive upgrade kit.

The latter typically includes not just the enclosure and cable, but also software for cloning the old drive to the new one. 

In this case, you have two options: cloning the old drive and copying just the data.

Cloning the Old Drive

  1. Connect the new drive to the laptop with the cable.

  2. Use the cloning software to clone the old drive onto the new one.

  3. Swap out the old drive with the new drive.

Copying Just the Data

  1. Install the new drive into the laptop.

  2. Install Windows and your other applications fresh onto the new drive.

  3. Connect the old drive to the laptop using the cable or enclosure, and copy your data folders (e.g., My Documents) to your new drive.

Which Is the Recommended Method?

The preferred method is to swap out the new and old drives, then connect the old drive to the laptop via a USB adapter cable. Then, just copy the folders under Users to the new drive, after installing Windows and the apps fresh.

It takes more time to install the operating system and programs again, but you wind up with a brand new system. Programs such as Ninite and AllMyApps make reinstalling applications very easy when setting up your new laptop or setting up your laptop with your new hard drive.

An illustration of the three ways to move data to a new hard drive.

Choose the Right Replacement Drive

Not all hard drives are the same. If you have an older laptop, for example, the connector for the drive might not work with newer hard drives. Similarly, make sure the drive you buy will fit properly into your laptop or desktop PC bay.

To find out the specifics on what kind of drive you should buy, do a web search for your current drive manufacturer and model to get the size, thickness, and interface (e.g., 2.5-inch, 12.5mm thick SATA drive). Most laptops use 2.5-inch drives, but do check yours to make sure; you'll find the info on the drive label itself.

Once you've purchased the right drive replacement, physically swapping your old drive with the new one is very easy — just a matter of removing a few screws and sliding in the new drive in place of the old one.

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