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Sometimes a Windows computer will not start due to a corrupted operating system, or may be inaccessible because of a forgotten password. This document explains some options available when data recovery is desired.

Some newer laptop computers are designed to be opened for repair and upgrades of memory, battery, and storage drives. This document assumes you will be working with a computer that is easy to open, and that you have the tools and experience needed to remove the drive. These instructions assume an M.2 drive is in the computer.

Three Options — Overview

There are several options to consider depending on the budget for the project and the nature of the data being recovered. These options are described below. Option #1 and Option #2 can be combined. Option #3 may be lower cost, but has some risk of overwriting any remaining files that might have been overlooked.

OPTION #1 — Drive Enclosure for M.2 SSD ($50)

Current M.2 drive technology is a small flat solid state storage memory module. The memory is held in place on the system board with a small screw. There may be a strip of some slightly tacky substance like putty under or on top of the M.2 SSD. This is a thermal compound for transfer of heat and cooling.

Once the SSD memory module is removed, it can be placed in a drive enclosure as shown below. The enclosure is about $50 on Amazon. [View] The images below show the enclosure and the SSD module being installed.

If the drive was not encrypted, and it is not corrupted, you can use this enclosure as a way to read and access the files.

Depending on the situation, you may want to copy the files to another storage device, and then reinstall Windows on the same SSD to restore the computer to a like-new state. However, this may erase files you didn’t get safely copied.

Instead of erasing the current drive with a Windows installation, it can be retained in the external drive enclosure and a new drive can be installed as explained below.

Note that the computer will be unusable without the original M.2 SSD drive unless you replace it with a new one as described in Option #2 below.

OPTION #2 — Install a New SSD ($100)

A new faster SSD with more capacity could be installed, allowing the old SSD to remain in the external enclosure. A good quality 1TB SSD from Samsung would be about $100. [View]

Most newer computers are pre-registered with Windows, so a reinstallation can be performed without the need to buy a Windows license. If you do need to purchase Windows, the Home version is about $140 for the license and USB installation media. [View]

Option #1 and Option #2 combined will provide the most reliable way of recovering data and restoring the computer to a working state without the risk of losing or harming files on the original drive.

OPTION #3 — Recover Files Then Restore PC ($100)

With this third option, the files get copied to an external drive that can cost $60 to $100. [View]

Once the files are safely copied to the external drive, then the M.2 SSD can be put back in the computer to have the computer restored to a working like-new state again.

This option can be the lowest cost, but there is a risk that you may overlook some files not in the expected locations and folders. For most computers, all the important data files will be in the Desktop, Documents, Downloads, Pictures, Music, and other folders of the primary user’s home directory. However, people sometimes put files in other locations on the system drive, and software may use alternate locations for data.

Deciding on Which Option is Best

Sometimes looking over the recoverable files can help in determining which approach to take. If you can easily see that the main files to be recovered are available, then once they are copied it may be okay to reuse the drive.

However, if there’s any concern about data loss, the original drive should not be erased or reused. For example, if important files had been deleted, then recovering deleted files would require that the original drive not be overwritten with a fresh Windows installation.

Another consideration would be to complete the recover of available files by copying them to another drive as described in Option #3, and then do nothing further with the original drive or computer. Postpone that work until later.