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How to Replace a Hard Drive in Windows While Keeping Your Files

September 2, 2011

It’s really easy to swap out your hard drive for a different one. All you need is a way to make a system image on an external drive, a blank CD, and some time.

My work laptop had a measly 160 GB drive capacity. Stuff I run at work tends to dump a lot of files onto my drive, so every week I wasted time searching for items to purge to keep the system from falling over with a full drive. Fed up with this routine, I ordered a 500 GB replacement.

When updating a system, many people prefer to load a clean version of Windows and all their applications, in order to remove all the digital cruft their computer built up. While I can sympathize with this desire, I feared how much time and effort it would take to restore all the applications, tools, settings, plugins, code repositories, files, etc. This was my work computer, and didn’t want to face a lot of downtime. Therefore my preference was to have the drive be exactly as it was before, only larger.

I was surprised to learn that the IT guy did not know how to replace my drive without starting from scratch. Also, my coworkers never attempted such a thing, so didn’t receive any advice. I just tried what seemed obvious, and it worked. It turns out to be so dirt simple that I feel funny documenting it. But given that nobody polled knew how, and one of my coworkers asked me for instructions, it seems worthwhile to record the steps anyway.

  1. Get an external hard drive at least as large as your current drive. You’ll use this as the backup system image. (The “Home” version of Window 7 requires an external drive, but you may instead use a network file server with the other versions).
    • If you have Windows 7 then all you need to do is create a system image by using “Control Panel\All Control Panel Items\Backup and Restore”, then select “Create a system image” from the left panel. This will prompt you for a location, so choose the external drive. It takes several hours, depending on the drive size. When done, it will ask if you’d like to create a boot-able system repair disk. Say yes, and when prompted insert a writable CD. You can also create the repair disk from the backup control panel if you missed this step.
    • If you don’t have Windows 7, or one of the Vista versions with built-in backup, you need an alternative way to create a system image. I have heard good reviews about Acronis True Image, but don’t have any experience with it. There is a free trial version which may suffice for one time use such as this, and you may have luck finding some other open source tools available. The key is finding a tool that makes an image, not a merely a backup. The rest of these instructions assume you used Windows backup, so there may be differences in regards to the restoration process.
  2. Now that the image and repair CD are created, shutdown your computer, remove the old hard-drive, and swap in the new one.
  3. Restart the computer, interrupting the boot sequence by using your BIOS and choose to boot from the repair CD. Getting into the boot-menu is computer-specific so I can’t tell you how, but usually it involves quickly pushing a key right after the computer starts up. My laptop has a dedicated key for this, but others use one of the Fn keys, Esc or Del. Usually the initial screen will give you a hint if you catch it fast enough (although sometimes the monitor has not flickered on by then, which may be frustrating, and on my home PC it’s never fast enough for me to see it so I never know which to press).
  4. The repair disk will see that your hard drive does not yet have Windows and ask if you’d like to restore a system image. Answer affirmatively, then it will prompt for the location so select where you stored the system image. The restore will take several hours.
  5. Reboot the machine normally (i.e. not using the repair disk anymore).
  6. Your Windows should look exactly as you left it! In fact, it will look so much like you left it, that when you observe the size of the C:\ drive, it is the same size as your old drive. Hey, what happened to all the new space? It turns out an image is an exact, block for block copy of the drive, including the partition information, so the new partition holding your data is the same size as your old drive.
  7. In the Start menu, select “Administrative Tools\Computer Management”. This will bring up an application. In the left pane highlight “Disk Management”. The center pane will show a visualization your C: drive and a region of Unallocated space. (Here is an image). Right clicking on the C: block will bring up a menu, from which you choose “Extend Volume…” A wizard will then allow you to select the unallocated region. Once chosen, select “Next” (Another image), then “Finish”. This only takes a second, and the C: will now reflect the full capacity of the drive.
  8. If the original drive was protected with BitLocker, the system image as well as your new drive is no longer encrypted. At this time you’ll need to re-enable BitLocker from the control panel. This will encrypt the drive (taking roughly 10 hours, but you can work while it works).

It’s pretty straightforward, so that’s it. One last thing to note is that a 500 GB drive shows its full size as around 465 GB. This is because hard drive manufacturers like to report size in base 10, so 1 GB = 1000*1000*1000 bytes, where computers report in base 2, where a GB is 1024*1024*1024 bytes. It reminds me that when shopping online, I found that tons of reviews for hard drives gave negative comments due to this misunderstanding. So if purchasing a drive based on reviews, be sure to filter out the ignorant ones.

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