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

Opened Harddisk
Erwan velu/Wikimedia Commons

Replacing your laptop's (or desktop PC's) hard drive is one of the best upgrades you can do (and get more out of an older laptop in particular): If you upgrade to a larger drive, you'll gain much-needed storage space or at least a big productivity boost from faster hard drive speeds. (With solid-state drives, SSDs, dropping dramatically in price, you can really speed up your computer for very little investment.) Here's what you need to know about replacing your hard drive and easily moving your data and programs to the new drive.

Make Sure You 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, you'll want to make sure the drive you buy will fit properly into your laptop or desktop PC bay. To find out what kind of drive you should buy, do a web search for your current drive manufacturer and model to get the size and thickness as well as interface (e.g., 2.5-inch, 12.5mm thick SATA drive. Most laptops use 2.5-inch drives, but you'll want to check yours to make sure--the info is on the drive label itself).

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

Move Your Data and OS and Applications to the New Drive

Of course, it's not just about swapping the physical drives. You want your files, applications, and settings on the new drive too. There are a few ways you can transfer the data and even the operating system and applications to the new drive:

If you already have an external hard drive or network attached storage (NAS):

  • 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 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.
  • Alternatively, if you want to start afresh with your laptop operating system and applications install and just transfer your data (documents, photos, videos, etc.), you can copy just the My Documents and other data folders to the external drive. Then, swap out the old drive with the new one, and install Windows and your other apps fresh on the new drive in your laptop. Finally, copy those the data/folders you saved to your external drive back to your new drive. Windows' built-in Easy Transfer tool can make this process much simpler:
    1. Find the Start menu on the laptop, then in the search box type Windows Easy Transfer.
    2. Select An External Hard Disk or USB Flash Drive as your target drive
    3. For This Is My New Computer, select No, then click to install now to your external hard drive. Windows will copy your data and settings to the external drive.

    If you want to copy directly from the old drive to the new drive:

    • The method above, as you can see, means an extra step of copying your drive to an external (intermediate) drive then back 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, such as ​this one from Acronis, which includes not just the enclosure and cable but software for cloning the old drive to the new one. 
    • In this case, you have two options:
      • Cloning the old drive: Connect the new drive to the laptop with the cable. Then use the cloning software to clone the old drive onto the new one. Finally, swap out the old drive with the new drive.
      • Copying just the data: The second option is to install the new drive into the laptop, then install Windows and your other applications fresh onto the new drive. 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. (You can use Windows' Easy Transfer Tool first as mentioned above to streamline this process.)

      Our 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 you 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 we like having the system brand-new, so to speak. Programs like Ninite and AllMyApps make reinstalling applications really easy when setting up your new laptop--or re-setting up your laptop.