How to Rescue Your Photos From an Old Computer

Globally, we take more than 1 trillion photos a year, according to Rise Above Research, with the average American snapping about 1,000 photos a year. Although most of these photos are rarely viewed again, they can still hold special memories.

I recently told my cousin about a candid photo of our parents awkwardly caught mid-action, standing in front of my Christmas tree, unaware their photo was being taken. Once I described it, my cousin wanted to see it, and so did I— I realized it had been years since I’d laid eyes on it. I had assumed it was in one of the dozen photo albums in my living room, but I soon realized this photo, along with hundreds of others from my daughter’s childhood, was on one of my two retired laptops.

I’m willing to bet you have memories like this too, photos stashed away on old hard drives, or a laptop you haven’t used in years that’s collecting dust in the back of your closet. Like me, you probably took these photos before you had a smartphone. I would painstakingly download every photo from my digital camera to my laptop.

I assumed the only way to move those photos is to manually drag them to a USB drive—a project I have started often but have never finished—even during a pandemic. It’s as tedious as downloading songs from a CD onto your iPod.

Turns out you’re not alone. “Using a flash drive is the most common and simplest method but also the most time-consuming,” says Nicci Trovinger, director of product marketing for Windows at Microsoft.

My situation isn’t unique. “This is a common issue, especially for millennials who’ve owned multiple laptops,” says Jessica Carrell, cofounder of AnySoftwareTools, a tech site that offers computer tips and how-to tutorials. “Many of us don’t realize there is valuable data stored in our old laptops.”

Fortunately, there are easier methods to recover those old photos—and to save them so you can share them with friends and family today. Here are some of them.

Problem: Your older laptop is too old to have built-in access to the cloud.

Solution: If your laptop is internet-enabled, you can upload files from your laptop to a photo storage platform such as Dropbox or Shutterfly.

“Typically the most convenient way to sync files from your laptop is with a platform like OneDrive or Dropbox, because these services provide an app you can download onto your computer,” says Sean Fortner, a cloud engineer at IT services company Theorem. These apps allow for quicker upload speeds, because you can batch photos into folders and move more than one file at a time.

Problem: The operating system on your laptop is too old to support the photo storage app or service you want to use.

Solution: You may need to manually download and install the latest software updates for your old laptop first.

Even if it’s been a few years since you’ve updated your operating system, there is a good chance you’ll be able to update your operating system to support a photo app, Fortner says. Even if you don’t update to the latest version of the OS on your old computer, all you may need are the security updates and patches required to install the service. 

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