A couple years back I called the USB-to-IDE/SATA adapter the most indispensable tool in my PC repair kit. Just this weekend, it once again proved itself worthy of that title.
In a nutshell, the adapter allows you to connect an internal hard drive to your PC—externally. What would an internal drive be doing outside your desktop or laptop? Funny you should ask.
About a week ago, my media-center PC starting displaying this message during boot-up: "Hard drive failure imminent." And you know what? It was. In short order, the machine wouldn't boot at all.
Long story short, I had to replace the drive, reinstall Windows, etc. But I wondered if I could salvage any/all of my recorded TV shows. To find out, I connected the old, non-booting drive (now "naked" outside the system) to a USB port via my adapter.
Huzzah! The machine was able to read the drive and copy over the recordings. Except for the hassles (and expense) of actually replacing the drive, no harm done.
There's another reason to keep one of these adapters on hand, and that's if you're planning to upgrade to a solid-state drive (SSD). Unless you buy a kit that comes with an adapter, you'll need one so you can image (i.e. clone) your existing drive to the new SSD. Then you'll remove the old drive, install the new one, and presto, you're back in business. (Much faster business: SSDs rock.)
Unless you have a pretty old desktop or laptop, you can skip buying a USB-to-IDE/SATA adapter and just go for USB-to-SATA. At the same time, I recommend one that supports USB 3.0. You may not need it now, but it's a good bet your next PC will have USB 3.0 ports -- and that'll make for much faster copying between drives.
There are lots of these kinds of adapters out there. One good bet is the Sabrent USB-DSC7, which TigerDirect currently has on sale for $24.99. It works with all SATA drive sizes and has very good user ratings.
Trust me: When the time comes that you need to upgrade or replace a hard drive, you'll be glad to have a USB-to-SATA adapter on hand.
Contributing Editor Rick Broida writes about business and consumer technology. Ask for help with your PC hassles at firstname.lastname@example.org, or try the treasure trove of helpful folks in the PCWorld Forums. Sign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week.