Ask Unclutterer: Hesitant to get rid of old computers because may need files off old machines

Reader K submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

We have a few computers that should be donated, but I’m deathly afraid of losing files that either weren’t migrated to the new machine or were created after the new machine was up and running (and therefore, not on the new machine).

Is there some sort of computer utility program that can compare the directories (and nested subdirectories) of one computer against those of another, to highlight differences (files, newer versions) so I can decide whether or not to keep or delete the files?

I could just recopy the files to the newer machine, but I really want to make a conscious decision to bring over files, not just by default.

After the comparison is done and the files are copied over (assuming there are some), I know it’s important to have the hard drive destroyed so we don’t let our personal data into anyone else’s hands. I also know it’s important to recycle the components, not dump them. We will do those steps only after I’m satisfied that there aren’t files (i.e., older photos, important random documents) that need to be saved first.

Oh, by the way, I’m talking about Windows computers, not Macs.

My assumption is that you are using a Windows 7 operating system since it has been the OS-du jour the past couple years. As a result of this assumption, I’d start by trying SyncToy 2.1, which is a free Microsoft program that works with Windows 7. (Free! Free!) It will help you to transfer documents from multiple old machines to your current machine and also compare all the files to identify duplicates. It’s easy to use and all you do is click on boxes to make decisions about your files.

When the comparison is complete, I recommend spending 15 minutes a day weeding through all the documents on your new computer. You no longer need to worry about duplicate files, but there are likely still files you transferred that you don’t need or want. Eventually, you’ll sort through all these old files, and your machine will be uncluttered. At this point, be sure to do a much needed backup of your computer to an external hard drive or online, or, better yet, both.

For new content you create on your new machine, consider using a method that regularly has you deleting unnecessary and temporary content. I like the method Brian Kieffer uses — it’s the one I detail in my book Unclutter Your Life in One Week — which he describes in detail in “Managing computer file clutter.”

Finally, when it’s time to say farewell to your old machines, check out “How to dispose of old electronics” for advice on how to delete data from your hard drives.

Thank you, K, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check the comments for even more ideas from our readers.

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16 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Hesitant to get rid of old computers because may need files off old machines”

  1. posted by PJN on

    I think a lot of us understand the concern about losing old data. But, at most, you would simply need the hard drives out of the computers, not the computers themselves.

    Removing a hard drive from a computer is simple – all it takes is a screw driver and a couple minutes of work. Depending on the computers, a quick Google search will give you the instructions how to do it. It’s simple and low-risk, so you don’t need to worry about making a big mistake. Once the hard drive is removed (it’s about the size of a paperback book) you can throw the rest of the computer away and unclutter yourself.

    Then, you can buy a hard drive enclosure. This is a small device that connects to your computer using a USB connection. Once it’s plugged in, you just slip in the old hard drives like you used to put a disk in a computer drive. It will appear on your computer like a USB thumb drive or a CD/DVD. You can then access your old files, and drag and drop them into your new computer. HD enclosures are fairly cheap – $75 or less.

    Store the hard drives and the HD enclosure somewhere, and you’ll know you always have the data at hand.

  2. posted by SCS on

    I second @PJNs suggestion. I also highly recommend Beyond Compare from Scooter Software ( for synchronizing your files from one computer to another (or disk-to-disk). It’s not free, but it’s very easy to use and will readily identify missing files and duplicates of all file types, including music and pictures, even if they’ve been renamed.

  3. posted by J.P. on

    Erin’s solution is a solid one, but I’ll throw a couple more out there just for kicks.

    1) Synctoy is awesome (especially for automated backups) but for visually comparing folders, I’m a big fan of another free app called FreeFileSync.

    2) Another thing you might consider is pulling all the hard drives out of the old computers and putting them into one machine, then attaching that machine to your home network. (Note: pulling our CD/DVD drives will give you additional drive bays and power/data connections) Not only will it free up your home from the old machines, it will give you a wonderful place for automated backups. Plus, with the hard drives out of the other computers, you can recycle them without fear of your data falling into the wrong hands.

    Good luck!

  4. posted by Mike on

    Actually, PJN’s solution is right on target EXCEPT that you won’t need a hard drive enclosure. For around $20 online or at most computer stores (Fry’s Electronics, etc), you can get an adaptor that plugs in to the data and power pinouts of any hard drive and provides a USB connection at the other end. Your current PC will see it as though it were an external USB hard drive, and then you can run Sync Toy or your other favorite utility to copy over the appropriate versions of files you plan to keep. I do this all the time with old computers, since I am the family’s “tech guy” largely by default, and that $20 adaptor has more than paid for itself in saved hassle. Then, you can put the hard drive back into the other computer, run Windows Setup or Mac Disk Utility, and do a fresh install with secure erasure of what was still left on that PC’s hard drive.

    That’s picking a nit, though. The answers in the article and the previous posts are great and should have you on the right track with this project.

    Things may have gotten even easier with the advent of iCloud, since iCloud automatically stores email, contacts, preferences, bookmarks, music, and iWork-compatible documents in the cloud, available to download to any computer or device that you use with your AppleID. It won’t do movies or Office documents yet, but that functionality is rumored to be in the works. My parents, retirees both, are light/casual computer users and literally 100% of their content is in the iCloud as of today — I no longer have to worry about preserving any data or files they have, and they automatically have access to all of it on their iMac and their iPad at all times! I was a skeptic wondering if Apple would pull it off, but today I’m a believer. Best of all, iCloud is free. So I encourage everyone to look into that and see if it suits your needs.

  5. posted by Ugur on

    It’s been a very helpful post, thanks.
    But how about a program that we can use on Vista-based computers?

  6. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Ugur — I think SyncToy works with all Windows OS back to the ’90s. Vista may require a different version of the program, though. Does anyone else know?

  7. posted by egirlrocks on

    Excellent posts and comments — thanks!

  8. posted by Angelika on

    Is there a program for macs that does the same thing?

  9. posted by Mark on

    I like the Drive to USB converter and have used that, but that just leads to a bunch of old drives you are still scared to ditch.

    There is still the threat of losing something. And of course you won’t know what that is until you need it. For me its not usually a file, but a setting or an app config that would be a pain in the arse to re-create, but isn’t used all that often.

    I use VMWare for a lot of testing, so whenver I get a new system and am almost done migrating data to my new system, I’ll capture my old machine as a virtual machine. If within 6 months I haven’t booted that VM, away it goes.

    Only cost (assuming you have VMware or another virtual machine tool) is hard drive space. My old virts have never been over 75 GB and on today’s massive hard drives, that’s nothing.

    A cheaper option (though less convenient) would be to capture your hard drive in a disc based backup tool (ghost, acronis) and store the large file for however long you deem comfortable. Some of those backups are browse-able.

  10. posted by PDK on

    Another variation on the above solutions:
    2TB hard drives in a USB case are about $70 on sale this week (and most weeks). If these computers are old, then all of the old hard drives probably could be copied to the new drive, and the drives wiped (see Darik’s Boot and Nuke) before donating. Hard drives aren’t the best for long term archiving, but with all of the files on one drive, it will be easier to find duplicates with software.

    I do like the VMWare solution. I’ve done it before. But, it doesn’t answer the original question.

    The description of SyncToy looks like it will meet your needs. I don’t have experience with it.

  11. posted by Anon on

    Keep the hard drives, donate the computers.

    One of these will let you plug the HDD into a USB:

  12. posted by karla on

    While I am a geek married to a geek and have all sorts of old drives lying around (I even have floppies!) and have no problem storing them (even after migrating the data up to a newer system) I have to wonder if the old maxim applies:

    If you haven’t gone into a panic looking for an old file for say, 6 months, did you really need it?

    I’d be more concerned about getting rid of the drive with the data on it in the first place. As others have suggested it would be best to pull the drive out before getting rid of the computer and then physically destroying it when you were certain you didn’t need anything from it.

  13. posted by Steve on

    Part of purchasing and setting up a new machine needs to include the decommissioning of the old machine. Keeping an old machine because you are afraid that might lose data is a false economy and a dangerous practice.

    Your old machine is increasingly likely to fail, and if it has the only copy of that important file, you’ll most certainly lose it. Plan to migrate everything. Use software (like SyncToy to make sure that you have a true copy) and then delete everything from your old machine, and do a data cleanse on the disk.

    When the machine finally fails it is too late to do your data cleanse, but you will end up with a drive in the trash which probably does have a recoverable copy of your data (think: Credit Card numbers, etc) that could get into the wrong hands.

    Physically destroying the disk is a very good final step. So, to summarise:

    The last step of commissioning your new machine is decommissioning your old machine.

    Good luck.

  14. posted by WilliamB on

    @Karla: “If you haven’t gone into a panic looking for an old file for say, 6 months, did you really need it?”

    Absolutely! For example, tax filing info. (Almost?) no one looks at old tax filing information but it’s very important to keep it available.

  15. posted by Ryan on

    Keeping just the drive is a good suggestion. You don’t even need an enclosure. The link above is to a cable that will allow you to connect to any hard drive and plug into a USB 2.0 port.

    I have used this to get me out of a bind many times.

  16. posted by Karen Newbie on

    What if at least one of the computers is running Windows XP, not Windows 7? Does that make a difference in the technologies suggested?

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