Skip to main content

Don't throw away mechanical hard drives! Re-use them to expand PC storage

Hard Drives
Hard Drives

It's common knowledge that solid state hard drives are better than mechanical drives, simply due to how they are constructed and operate. That said, you shouldn't throw away old drives. Deploy an external casing or dock, re-use the drives and expand your storage space by however many GBs you have at hand in those old spinning wonders.

This is similar to our guide on expanding storage on your Xbox One with old PC drives, but instead of gaming on Microsoft's console we'll be re-using our components on our desktop PC. Better yet, both 2.5- and 3.5-inch hard drives are eligible for this handy resource, so don't throw away those old laptop drives either!

Connection Established

Hard Drive

First we need to pick up an external dock or case. This will allow us to connect our old mechanical drives to our PC. Depending on what kind of drive you have, you'll need to make sure the purchase you make will accommodate the size. (A 3.5-inch HDD will not fit into a 2.5-inch supporting dock or case, no matter how hard you try.)

Cases or enclosures are ideal for drives you'll leave around for some duration to better protect the component against dust and other potential hazards. Docks are an option for those with numerous hard drives (like myself), who require the ability to quickly pull one out and plug another in. The best part about both options is you won't have to fork out an absolute fortune.

For 3.5-inch hard drives, you're going to need external power of some sorts. A single USB cable simply cannot provide enough juice to power the motor inside, as well as transfer data to and from your PC. This is where external docks and enclosures come into play:

While many docking stations and enclosures can fit both sizes, there are specific options available for 2.5-inch laptop hard drives. These don't require external power and should be portable enough to keep the drive itself secured.

Once you have your chosen solution setup and ready to go, it's time to connect the hard drive(s) to your PC. Next we'll look at how to format them.

Formatting 1001001

Hard Drive

6 great ways to back up your PC's data

Formatting hard drives in Windows 10 is fairly straightforward. First, you'll need to be triple sure that all the data you require off the hard drive has been extracted. Only format a hard drive when you no longer require the data stored on it and wish to start fresh. With that in mind, there are a few steps we need to take in order to format our recently plugged in external HDD.

  1. Say hello to Cortana (hint: Windows Key + Q).
  2. Search for "format" and choose Create and format hard disk partitions.

Hard Drive Format

  1. Select the drive you wish to format.If you're unable to work out which drive you need to select from the list because they all have partitions, head into File Explorer and choose This PC on the sidebar. This will show your available partitions and your external drive should show up as the next corresponding letter.So if you already have C, D and E assigned to internal hard drives, the one we wish to format will be F. (It could be G, etc. depending on what other storage devices are connected like flash drives, cameras, phones, etc.) If all else fails, try and select by matching storage capacity with what's printed on the HDD casing.

Hard Drive

  1. Right-click and choose Format.
  2. Give the partition a name, leave the rest of the options as they are and hit "Okay".

It can take some time depending on the size of your hard drive, so be sure to give Windows a few minutes to complete this action. Please do not try removing your drive or attempt to unplug it. Once the formatting has completed, you should now see your hard drive appear on "My PC" in File Explorer with the name you gave it during the formatting process. Job done!

Hard Drives

You can now enjoy the added storage on your PC without forking out on expensive solutions. You've also saved a working drive from being recycled or destroyed. Feel proud! Have you already been rocking your own setup to swap out traditional drives? Let us know how you handle old hard drives in the comments below.

Rich Edmonds
Rich Edmonds

Rich Edmonds is Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

49 Comments
  • Hey thanks for this great guide. Soon will there be a guide to repairing hard drives?
  • A little off topic, but is anyone having signing issues on mobile with the new windows central app? Only the old app works for me on mobile.
  • Yes. I can login, but everytime I open the app I have to login again. It is quite annoying.
  • Thanks daimv, the old app seems to be working much better though. Hope they find a fix soon.
  • Little off topic? That's totally off topic!
  • it is not that simple. You can try 3rd party programs like hdd regenerator . But hdd refurbishing / repairing cant fit into a single guide. You will understand what i mean if you look at data recovery / repair forums / blogs like hddguru forum or dolphin data recovery blog.
  • If you plan on using the drive on diffrent platforms(ex:Mac) i suggest formatting using exFAT not NTFS.
  • Is there any advantage to choosing NTFS over exFAT?
  • It works better on Windows
  • NTFS supports a variety of features not available on exFAT including compression, journaling, access control lists, etc. 
  • NTFS has better error recovery, prevents fragmentation and is generally better suited for internal hard drives. exFAT was primarily developed for flash drives. And while it's more compatible than NTFS, it's not as widely compatible as FAT32.
  • Agreed. I remember getting a 250GB drive formatted with FAT32 and formatted it to NTFS, only to find that Apple Macs can't write data to an NTFS enabled drive. Still hit that problem with my 128GB SD cards, keep having to reformat them to exFAT so I can get videos of my skydives from people. exFAT also works perfectly well on Windows - just spotted that my 128GB microsd card in my 950 is formatted as exfat and works nicely.
  • I have a bunch of 300gb old drives.... LOL, not a lot of use for the Xbox one and on the PC, I'll fill that up in a hour. Format them, sell them on ebay, someone always needs one, once sold, take the money you get from some old drives and buy a nice 1 to 5tb USB drive($80-150) and drop it on your system or Xbox one... There ya go..   I have 2 1tb drives that seem like they are on their last lives.... Make me an offer (mainly to pay for shipping)
  • If this is the route you're going to take, I would do more than just format them. Data could still be readable. I'd recommend getting a data wipe program that replaces every bit with 0's to make it unrecoverable. 
  • I would have done that too...
  • Still would be recoverable.. You have to overwrite like 8 times going that route to be safe.
  • You could encrypt the drive, then format. That will delete the keys needed for decryption. There is also "PDWIPE" that gives you DOD approved level wipe.
  • Re: DavidinCT,
    What 1 to 5 Tb USB drives do you use?
  • I've been converting all my old laptops to SSDs and replacing the ODD with the mechanical HDD drive. W10 on old laptops perform great with SSDs.
  • oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)? I had to look it up and that's what I found.
  • Optical Disk Drive
  • Helpful article.
    I'll try this with my 150GB laptop HDD.
  • Do many people really just chuck (/recycle) their drives when buying another? I'd usually just expand on my drives (add drives) or rearrange and redeploy the old one... Confused who the target audience was here (geeks know, others are likely to not touch or get a geek to do it)
  • How do you "expand on" add drives? Just add a drive letter in the same box? How do you rearrange and redeploy? In the same box?
  • Nice. Thanks for the "hook up". 
  • Been doing it for quite a while.
  • You can set up an nice extra bit of storage with the right enclosure and a handful of old drives. Use Windows 10 Storage Spaces to create a nice large volume. Window Central even has an article on it! http://www.windowscentral.com/how-use-storage-spaces-windows-10 Of course, with the low cost of storage these days, buying an enclosure for those old drives is about the price of a TB or two SATA drive.
  • THIS! I don't understand how you could right an article on using your old HDD's and not mention this.
  • What about an articule to learn how to make and use RAID arrays?
    I have read about it, but have NO idea how to do it.
  • RAID arrays are a bit more finicky to set up and don't work with a bunch of various drives. Storage Spaces is really a better solution if you're repurposing a some old drives.
  • I may be missing something. What is Storage Spaces? I'm not sure if is the same thing that i believe
  • Check out the article I linked in my post above. It's a technology that's been in Windows since version 8 that allows multiple drives to be joined into a single large volume with many different options for redundency. It's much easier to use than RAID and doesn't require the use of matching drives. Volumes are easily expanded on the fly by adding more drives.
  • Thanks
  • You do realise that once SSD goes dead.its dead.there is no way to recover data.mechanical drives are much much much easier to recover.so for all of you putting SSDs in your PCs make sure you have a backup at least at 2 places.
  • Mechanical drives are recoverable however it's extremely expensive. So anyone counting on a single hard disk to safely store data long term is uneducated Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Sometimes it is quite easy to restore data. You dont have to use expensive labs with laser readouts, but hey, if it was something important, you dont ask for price. SSD is impossible to recover. With any tools.
  • That's what I did
  • i was expecting some $$ links with new drives...
  • Instructions unclear, I just formatted my ....
  • ...or just thow them away. :)  
  • If there is information on the disk unreadable due to failure of drive, best practice is to destroy the hard drive by drilling several holes through the case to shatter the internal glass platters.
  • Maxtor drives are so old. I bought an old Compaq tower from my school last year and the drive in that is a Maxtor. Other than that, I've never seen Maxtor ones before due to not working with hardware until a few years ago.
  • This article reminded me of the numerous HDDs our firm has saved over the years thinking that they might contain long "lost"/ missing "Project" files. Maybe I could make them all easily accessible by using a dock?
    Then, all I would need is the "elusive" software that would create a database of each file on the drive and it's attributes and compare it with our "Office Archives". That would easily eliminate the redundant project files from the old hard drives and improve our archives by moving newly found project files from the old HDD to be properly archived. THEN, we would have another, freed up hard disk drive to reformat and put back into use.
    Does anyone know of the "elusive" software?
    Thoughts?
  • Just bought a 3TB WD Red
  • Handy guide for newbs.
  • I've been using old hard drives for backups for years. You don't even need an external case, only an IDE- or SATA-to-USB adapter and a power supply. I wouldn't leave them permanently connected as storage devices because it's a waste of electricity. If you permanently need more space, one large internal HD saves a lot of power compared to several ancient external drives.
  • Good article. I had an Iomega 500GB expansion drive for my old DVR. Got a new DVR with huge storage and no longer needed the Iomega for original purpose. Purchased an eSATA to USB 3.0 adapter cable (with power) for ~$30., connected drive/cable to a USB 3.0 port on system unit backside, wiped & formatted, and voila! 465 GB of fast extra storage. 
  • Now, if you want ALMOST SSD speeds off your old drives, see if your bios supports RAID. Take 2 drives of the SAME size (you can use 2 different drives but the smaller amount wins and you cant use the rest of the drive). Set them up as a RAID 0, you get mega boost in speed, both drives appear as one large drive. Only flaw with this setup, one of the drives die, you lose everything.  SO backup...but, a MEGA boost in performance.
  • Sorry, I wanted to stop reading after the first sentence.
    It's common knowledge that solid state hard drives are better than mechanical drives, simply due to how they are constructed and operate. 
    No, no it isn't.  It sure seems common but it is not knowledge. Some applications call for an SSD. Some do not.  For example, applications that utiilize the drive with random access tend to perform slightly better with an SSD.  Those that use sequential access perform better with a mechanical drive.  Do you stream / capture a lot of video to your drive?  Think again about that SSD upgrade.  You might be better served with a dedicated mechanical drive. Lifespan, as some have mentioned, is certainly a current concern in SSD drives.  They are getting better each year but they do not have the lifespan yet of their mechanical counterparts.  And, as some have said, SSD drive failure is almost always non-recoverable.  Most devices and users get around this limitation by constantly backing up their device to the cloud.  This is a very good use of SSD drives but it also points out a good use for the mechanical HDD drives:  the cloud is using them. I'm not saying don't get an SSD drive.  I'm saying use whatever is appropriate for the task.  I'm saying use both.  They are for different purposes, after all.  Just don't get mislead into thinking that one is better than the other in some general way. So, Rich says "don't throw away that old HDD."  In that, I'll agree.  Keep it as a backup drive. (You'll thank me later).