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We can (probably) recover those files, but... your data is only in one place and you've run the risk of losing everything for a very long time!

I have a laptop that is about six years old. It had Windows Vista installed on it. My daughter downloaded a virus about three years ago, which wiped everything on there. I worked in the school at the time and the computer technician there sorted it out and put the school's version of Windows XP on it. Now, when I switch it on, it's asking me to verify my version of Windows, which obviously, I can't do. I can't access anything on there as I'm prompted to verify my version of Windows. I'm not bothered about anything on there other than my pictures and videos. Is there any way I can get them off the laptop? People have told me that if I purchase a new version of Windows, it will be formatted and I will lose everything. Please help. I had a baby last year and all of my pictures are on there.

In this excerpt from Answercast #53, I look at a situation where Windows won't boot and files need to be recovered.

Files in only one place

So, I'm going to start by chastising you because if that's the only place you have your pictures, then you haven't been backing up. And in fact, you've run the risk of losing all of those pictures for a very long time.

A single hard disk failure could have wiped everything out without warning and without hope of recovery. So I'm hoping that after we get this all sorted out, the big huge lesson you'll take away from this is that, "If it's in only one place, it's not backed up." And it apparently... it was only on your laptop and it wasn't backed up.

Start backing up.

Recover your files

So, with that little bit of finger wagging out of the way, there are a couple of approaches that I would take to this particular problem.

It is very possible that installing a new version of Windows as an upgrade will in fact, upgrade the system without removing everything on the system. It's not an approach I typically recommend because you don't end up with a very clean installation, but this is a scenario where it might be one of the options.

However, before you do that, I'm actually going to recommend that you backup.

Use a rescue CD

One of the things that many people don't realize is that the rescue media that comes with many popular backup programs (such as Macrium Reflect) can be used, not only to rescue or restore data, but can actually perform an image backup.

So, one of the things you can do is go out and:

  • Get yourself a copy of Macrium Reflect.

  • Make the rescue CD;

  • Boot from the rescue CD;

  • Get yourself a new external hard drive and now make an image of the hard drive in your laptop to the external hard drive.

You are backing it up. That is what you should have been doing all along, but by doing so, you now have a backup of absolutely everything that was on that laptop. Now, you're free to go ahead and reformat and reinstall an operating system from scratch.

Then, you can recover your data from the backup that you had just taken.

Use a Linux Live CD

Another approach would be to grab a copy of something like a Linux Live CD, boot from that CD and see if you can examine the contents of your hard drive and doing so, copy the files that you care about to some other media. Maybe it's that external hard drive; maybe it's a thumb drive, but start making copies of everything that you want to preserve.

A live CD will be free; you can burn it to a CD; you can boot from it; it will come up in something like Ubuntu Linux. That's the one I typically recommend, but then you'll have everything you need there to be able to copy files off to something else to preserve them.

Finally, another approach is to actually get yourself a replacement hard disc for that laptop. Replace the hard disc, save the old one, install Windows from scratch, the new one that you're about to purchase on to that new hard drive as it's installed in your laptop.

Now, take the old hard drive, place it in a USB enclosure so that it can be attached via a USB connection to any computer. That way, you can then copy the data off of that old hard drive and preserve it. After you've copied off all the data, maybe that becomes your external hard drive for future backups; that I don't know. But at a minimum, it's one additional way of potentially recovering the data that's on your laptop.

So, several different way to go about this. They should all result in your backing up regularly from now on.

Article C5818 - September 16, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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1 Comment
September 24, 2012 10:16 PM

If a non-activated copy of windows XP was installed on a computer then it will most likely require activation or reinstall after 30 days. If the computer had Windows Vista originally then the best course of action is to get a matching copy of Windows Vista from a friend or online if necessary and only after you have backed up your data, re-install Windows Vista and activate it with your legitimate Windows Vista Key probably found on the bottom of your laptop. Then you will not have to worry about activating you Windows copy every month.

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