Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

If your machine won't boot for some reason, there are several approaches to try to get the data off of its hard drive. I'll examine a few.

I have Windows XP; it does not startup right away. I have to shut it down and open it several times until it works. It just hangs after the Windows logo and you feel you can work with it, but nothing's there. You can move the mouse, but there's no connection. It is a completely frozen PC. Today, it does not want to start or to work at all.

I have files that I want to save before I can format it.

At the risk of annoying some of my regular readers (who'll know exactly where I'm heading with at least part of this answer), I wanted to address this for one simple reason:

It's oh so common.

A dead machine, with important files on it.

In fact, the dead machine is the only place that those important files happen to be.

I'll look at a few ideas on recovering those files, but perhaps most importantly, I need to make sure that everyone learns an important lesson from this situation.

Repair Reinstall

My first course of action would be to perform a repair reinstall of Windows from the original installation media.

“If your data exists in only one place ... You risk losing everything, permanently.”

A repair install essentially re-installs Windows in place without affecting installed programs or settings. It's somewhat like "upgrading" from one version of the OS to another as it goes through many of the same steps, except that you end up with the same version of Windows that you started with.

Option to repair an existing installation of Windows XP using Windows XP Setup

Simply boot from the installation CD, select "To set up Windows XP now" (not the repair using Recovery Console option), and accept the license agreement. You'll get the option to repair an existing Windows XP installation shown above.

A "Live CD"

If Windows can't be repaired, then our priority changes to salvaging the data from the hard disk before reformatting and reinstalling the operating system from scratch.

One approach is to use what's called a "Live CD", a CD (or DVD) image of an operating system that simply boots and runs entirely from the CD, without requiring the hard disk and needing to be installed on the hard disk.

Ubuntu is a good Linux distribution to use for this purpose. Boot from an Ubuntu Linux distribution CD. If it asks, make sure to select "Try Ubuntu"; you do not want to install it.

Once booted, the Live CD operating system allows access to the contents of the hard disk, USB devices, and often your local network, so you can copy off the files that you want.

Ubuntu's file manager examining a Windows hard disk

Extract the disk

In some cases, one expeditious approach is to actually physically remove the hard disk and install a new one in its place. You can then install Windows safely from scratch on the new disk.

You can then install the old hard disk as a second disk in that machine, install it as a second disk in another machine, or place it into an external USB enclosure so that it could be connected and accessed from any machine.

Once that old disk is accessible, you should be able to access all of the files that you need.

Please Learn From This

The lesson to learn is simply this: there'd be no risk of data loss if your data had been backed up.

I know that I harp on this a lot, but it really is the one thing that you can do that can save you from almost any failure.

If your data exists in only one place - for example, if it's only on your computer's hard drive - then it's not backed up. You risk losing everything, permanently.

In a case like this, we can likely recover your data using one of the approaches above, but you can't count on that. A hard disk failure - and they definitely can and do fail - can render all of the information on your hard disk unrecoverable.

Article C5011 - December 15, 2011 « »

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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.

Not what you needed?

Yamen Sharaf
December 15, 2011 6:08 PM

I always go for the live CD approach , have you tried Hirens BootCD ? it can be used to transfer files make or restore backups , partitioning and even changing forgotten password .. what do you think of it Leo ?

I've heard of it, but not played with it myself.
Ken B
December 16, 2011 12:34 PM

I'm sure you'll get plenty of "what about [software x]" posts, but...

We often use BartPE for these situations. While I have been a Unix user since the 1980's, BartPE has the advantage of being Windows XP, so it doesn't "frighten" those who don't like anything that doesn't look or feel like MS-Windows.

Byron Miller aka Teddybearmiller
December 16, 2011 10:44 PM

I had a similar problem recently. First, I and my wife started getting warnings that our version of installed Windows was illegal and not registered. Then my computer wouldn't boot to windows. I started getting an error message with a link redirecting me to a solution which took me to a Microsoft site advertising Windows 7 and Microsoft Office. I Tried everything. I had backed up most of my files on another networked computer, my wife's laptop :) I started getting the error message that my version of Windows was illegal or not registered every time I tried to do a repair or system restore from a previous time. Then another message came up saying that my license/registration number had been changed without administrator permissions. There was a link which said it would take me to a site to remedy the problem. The same link took me to a Microsoft site with an advertisement to purchase and install Windows 7 and Microsoft Office. After a few tries with the same results I put the original install disc in. I boot started from my original Dell Windows Vista disc. I re installed the program over the already installed program, not a new install, because the repair did not work. There is a feature which saves all of the folders and files to what is called Old Windows Files so that they can be recovered if I just install over the already installed version of Windows Vista instead of deleting the partition and doing a New Install. Once I had reinstalled the program, which took forever, I went straight to the registration. And yes, my number which requires an administration pass word had been changed??? I entered the number from the sticker on my computer to authenticate the program. I rebooted the computer and checked that the windows version had been authenticated and activated. That solved the problem. But I still had to spend three days reloading programs, updates, folders and files. I still wonder How did that number get changed without the administrators pass word is still a mystery. And why did the link which directed me to a solution take me to a Microsoft site and an ad for Windows 7 and Microsoft Office????? Makes me wonder who could possibly have accessed my computer, changed the number and put a link to Microsoft advertising...raises my suspicions about Microsoft since my wife had been getting the same warning for the past month that her version of windows was not legal or registered and she has Windows 7. I have BitDenfender Internet security installed on my computer and my wife has MacAfee installed on hers. Still scratching my head over this one and hoping it doesn't happen again. Three or four days to reload my computer was frustrating and interfered with my online projects and activities. Any comments Leo on this experience?

Think of it from Microsoft's position - their tests have detected that you're running an illegal copy of Windows. The only thing they could possibly offer as remedy is to sell you a new copy, and the only version of Windows that they sell is Windows 7.

"But my copy is legal!" - absolutely, but the tests indicate otherwise. That's either a bug in the test (yes, absolutely that would be Microsoft's fault), or something has happened on your machine to cause that test to fail. A failing test to Microsoft means exactly what it says - they honestly believe that the copy is illegal, even if it's not. Once you correct the problem it validates properly.

There's another, actually more likely cause here: malware. It's very possible that wasn't a Microsoft page at all (I'd need to see the exact URL to confirm). It's unlikely that Microsoft would redirect you to a site selling both Windows and Office in order to correct a Windows problem. More likely malware - a form of scareware I'd say - was redirecting you to a bogus site trying to get you to either buy something from them or steal your credit card info.
Byron Miller aka Teddybearmiller
December 16, 2011 10:48 PM

Just another comment: I have used Linux Ubuntu and run off the disc to get access to my computer. The only problem there is that most of the Microsoft Works files won't open in the Linux or OpenOffice programs. Plus I find that Linux is quite complicated to use compared to Windows. It is a more stable program but it needs to be more user friendly for the less tech savvy users like me :)

Right, but my point here wasn't to use Linux to actually work with the files, but rather to use it to access files on an otherwise unbootable system and copy them somewhere so that they can be restored to a rebuilt Windows machine, or moved to another Windows machine that has the appropriate software to read the files.
Fred Nerd
December 17, 2011 2:34 AM

The Ultimate Boot cd IS...
Can easily backup files in an environment intuitive to Windows users, and I LOVE their system restore program which has worked for me on XP which wouldn't boot.

Highly recommend

Mark J
December 17, 2011 5:46 AM

If inability to read Works files is the only reason for not switching to Linux,you can always save the files in .xls, .doc or .rtf format in Works, unless you have too many files to make this worth doing.

Tim Robertson
December 20, 2011 9:19 AM

An alternative to those caught on the hop, as I was recently when visiting friends, and presented with the "Oh by the way, since you are here, we have porblem with our PC" routine. They had their original Windows XP disc, but half way through the repair the PC just went into a continous sycle of rebooting.

Not being forewarned I didn't have my usual box of discs with me, but I did find a bootable of Acronis Director Suite, so I created a new partition on their hard drive and put a new install of Windows on it. Dirty solution, but it worked.

December 20, 2011 11:30 AM

Another option (if you have access to another computer) is to purchase an IDE/SATA to USB adapter, take the drive out and plug it into another computer as an external drive. A quick Google turned up several options for $20 or less. Then you can copy your files to a cd or flash drive and all is well :)

Jay Jay
December 20, 2011 2:28 PM

That's way too complicated. I never back up. I regularly clone my driver, actually I keep a couple of copies. If my drive won't boot I simply boot from a cloned disk, put the failed drive in another slot, and copy any files I need from the old drive. Once I get everything working I clone the failed drive as a backup. Usually takes only a few minutes.

December 20, 2011 4:35 PM

Being a bit on the paranoid side, I would use the linux disk (or alternative) before attempting repair just in case something else goes terribly wrong during the process. Of course, I also have backups to an unattached external drive and online because I just don't want to have to deal with losing everything!

Duane Ferguson
December 22, 2011 12:45 PM

Linux Mint (currently at version 10) has a user interface that won't scare Windows users away. I have a couple of external drives, each with Linux Mint installed on a bootable partition. Select 'Boot from USB' at startup, and you'll have full access to a 'broken' Windows partition in a minute. You can then recover files to the standard NTFS partition on the external drive.

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