On a recent Monday morning, I received a panic-stricken phone call from one of the fellows on the sales team. As he was getting out of his car in the parking lot, he dropped his laptop on the concrete. Why it wasn’t secured in the padded case is another story. The problem was that, after the fall, the laptop wouldn’t power on—even when he replaced the battery. He had an important sales presentation to give in a little over an hour, and the PowerPoint presentation he stayed up all night working on was on the laptop. He begged me to help him retrieve his presentation.

Fortunately for him, I was prepared for this type of disaster and told him to bring me the dead laptop. As long as the laptop’s hard disk hadn’t been damaged in the fall, I could easily copy his presentation to a desktop system using a laptop hard drive adapter.

As it turns out, the laptop’s hard drive survived the fall, and I was able to save the day using the laptop hard drive adapter. If you support laptop users who are sometimes careless with their little computers, you’ll want to learn more about how you can use a laptop hard drive adapter to extract data from a dead laptop.

What’s a laptop hard drive adapter?
As you may know, almost all of today’s laptops use 2.5-inch hard drives. Fortunately, these small form-factor drives use a standard connector that is based on the IDE specification. As such, you can use a laptop hard drive adapter to connect a laptop’s hard drive to the IDE cable on the desktop system.

Figure A shows the laptop hard drive adapter that I use. This particular model is made by Cables To Go and costs under $10. The adapter has a 44-pin female connector on one end that connects to the laptop hard drive, and a 40-pin male connector on the other end that connects to a standard IDE cable. The adapter also has a power feed that will connect to a spare power lead in a desktop system. While you can’t see it in this photo, the adapter has a marking that identifies the location of pin 1.

Figure A
A laptop hard drive adapter allows you to connect a 2.5-inch IDE hard drive to a 40-pin IDE cable.

Preparing the laptop hard drive
Now that you have a pretty good idea of what a laptop hard drive adapter is, let’s take a look at how you go about using it to connect a laptop’s hard drive to a desktop system. The first step in the operation will be to prepare the laptop’s hard drive.

Of course, each laptop is different, so you’ll need to refer to the manual for instructions on actually removing the hard drive. However, one rule of thumb for disassembling a laptop is that you really should remove the power cable, the battery, and, if there is one, the secondary battery as well. In addition, keep in mind that these 2.5-inch drives are much more fragile than their 3.5-inch counterparts and are very susceptible to shock. So handle them with care and hold them only by the sides—never push down on the top cover.

As you remove the hard drive from the laptop, you’ll probably discover that it will be in some sort of enclosure, which is the case with my example Dell Inspiron laptop hard drive, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B
The hard drive itself will often be housed in a case that fits into a bay inside the laptop.

As you can see in Figure C, this hard drive has a special adapter for connecting to the laptop interface; you need to remove the adapter to expose the 44-pin male connector, as shown in Figure D.

Figure C
This 2.5-inch drive uses a special adapter to actually connect to the Dell Inspiron.

Figure D
Once you remove the adapter, you’ll see the 44-pin male IDE connector.

Next, you’ll need to set the jumper so that the hard drive is configured as a slave. You should find a jumper diagram on the hard drive’s label. Don’t be tempted to try to boot the desktop system from the laptop hard drive because it may open the door to unnecessary problems.

Making the connection
Once you’ve prepared the laptop hard drive, you’re ready to connect it to the adapter and then to the desktop system. To begin, line up the pin 1 indicators on the adapter and on the hard drive, and then connect the two, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E
Connecting the laptop hard drive adapter is a simple operation.

When you open a desktop system and locate a secondary connector on the IDE cable, you’ll need to inspect the female connector and make sure that it has all open sockets for 40 pins. The reason is that the laptop hard drive adapter’s 40-pin male connector has all 40 pins. Many IDE cables have only 39-pin female connectors, so you’ll need to make sure that you have an IDE cable that has a female connector with 40 pins.

Finding a 40-pin female connector

If the IDE cable in the desktop system to which you’re connecting the adapter has a 39-pin female connector, you can simply replace it with one that has a 40-pin female connector. If you regularly replace and add hard drives to computers and use the existing cables, chances are that you have a whole box of IDE cables lying around somewhere. Most hard disk installation kits come with 40-pin female connector IDE cables.

Figure F shows the two types of IDE cables. The one on the left has a 39-pin female connector, while the one on the right has a 40-pin female connector. Pin 20 is not keyed. On a standard IDE drive, pin 20 isn’t used for data and is absent from both the drive and the cable in order to help techs orient the connector correctly. However, in the case of converting the 2.5-inch laptop hard drive to a desktop system, all 40 pins are needed.

Figure F
Some IDE cables, like the one on the left, have only 39 sockets while others have all 40.

Once you have the correct IDE cable, just connect the 2.5-inch laptop hard drive to a desktop system, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G
With the right IDE cable, you can easily connect the 2.5-inch laptop hard drive to a desktop system by using a laptop hard drive adapter.

Once you make the connection, just turn on the desktop system as you normally would. If the hard drive is functioning, you’ll find an icon for a second hard disk in My Computer. If the data is undamaged, you can simply copy it to the desktop’s hard drive or to a network drive. If the data was corrupted in some way, at least you’ll be able to run disk diagnostics and possibly repair the hard drive or recover some of the needed data.