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How do I recover data from an old laptop if I've forgotten the password? [Ask ZDNet]

Got a tech question? Ed Bott and ZDNet's squad of editors and experts probably have the answer. In today's edition: How to recover data from a PC if you've forgotten the password.
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Is there any way to retrieve the data before it's lost for good?

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Welcome to the latest installment of Ask ZDNet, where we answer the questions that make Dear Abby's eyes glaze over. 

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In the mailbag this week: Some technical acrobatics that might help you recover data from a PC after you've forgotten the password. 

If you've got a question about any of the topics ZDNet covers, one of our team of editors and contributors probably has an answer. We'll find an outside expert who can steer you in the right direction if they don't. 

Questions can cover just about any topic that's remotely related to work and technology, including PCs and Macs, mobile devices, security and privacy, social media, home office gear, consumer electronics, business etiquette, financial advice... well, you get the idea. 

Send your questions to ask@zdnet.com. Due to the volume of submissions, we can't guarantee a personal reply, but we do promise to read every letter and respond right here to the ones that we think our readers will care about. 

Ask away. 

How do I recover data from an old laptop if I've forgotten the password?

My elderly Windows laptop (about 8 or 9 years old) has been gathering dust for the last few years but has some valuable data files on it. Unfortunately, I've forgotten the password for my local account and everything I try is incorrect. To make things worse, those "login failed" messages are also warning me that the system is expecting an imminent hard drive failure. Is there any way I can get in and retrieve that data before it's lost for good?

Ouch. I feel your pain.

That data might be recoverable, but there's no guarantee. If the data wasn't encrypted, the task is simple. Use a boot disk to bypass Windows and then simply copy the data to an external USB drive from the command line (you'll need some mastery of DOS commands to pull that off). As an alternative, try disassembling the laptop, removing the hard drive, and using a USB-to-SATA adapter kit that can convert the internal drive to one that connects to a USB port. (This StarTech adapter [Amazon] will probably work, but you'll need to check compatibility with your drive to be sure.)

Your job is considerably more difficult if the drive is encrypted using BitLocker or the Windows Encrypted File System. Because this is a local account, you might be able to use an old trick that involves booting from a recovery drive and fooling Windows into opening an administrative Command Prompt window where you can reset your password.

Lowell Heddings at the excellent How-To Geek website has a full set of instructions here: "How to Reset Your Forgotten Windows Password the Easy Way."

For those following along at home, this might be a good place to remind everyone that backing your important data files up to the cloud (OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.) is always a smart idea. And signing in to your Windows PC with a Microsoft account also enables you to encrypt your data while still making it easy to recover from a lost password.

Good luck!


Send your questions to ask@zdnet.com. Due to the volume of submissions, we can't guarantee a personal reply, but we do promise to read every letter and respond right here to the ones that we think our readers will care about. Be sure to include a working email address in case we have follow-up questions. We promise not to use it for any other purpose.  

 

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