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Help I've Borked my Windows!!!

If you're reading this, you've probably screwed up your windows computer.  If your computer starts up and you have access to the files, then this is not for you.  If your computer does not start up and all you want to do is get your preceous documents, pictures, music, and whatever else off of it, then this is for you.  This tutorial will not fix windows, you'll just be able to get your stuff off of it before you do a complete re-installation of windows (look for a tutorial elsewhere for this).

What you need

Before I get started I will list off the things that you need to have to make this work:

  1. A working computer with a fast internet connection (I will have you download not less that ~700MB of data--if you are using dialup it’s not going to work), Windows XP (Vista should work if you make minor changes but no guarantees), and a CD burner.

  2. Some kind of USB storage device. A thumb drive will work or an external hard drive. I recommend one that is formatted to FAT32. I will show you how to see if it is formatted to FAT32 and how to format it. If you don’t have one you can replace this option with #4.

  3. Blank CDs.

  4. (optional) A computer on the same network that can accept files via SCP.


I’m trying to write this at a level that my mom would follow. In doing so I may not be 100% accurate in explaining things or in using the “right terminology”. This is intentional; do not write me trying to “correct me” (unless I am completely off the mark).

Also, these steps can be fairly tricky. Depending on the computers you are using things may or may not work. I cannot foresee all possible errors for every computer but I will answer the questions that I can.

Finally, if you’re fairly good with computers you’ve got a fair shot at following this walkthrough without too much of a problem. Even if you are unsuccessful, I don’t see how you could break your computer more by doing what I explain below. That being said, I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANYTHING THAT HAPPENS TO YOUR COMPUTER; YOU TRY THIS AT YOUR OWN RISK.


Download a Live CD

Normally, when your computer starts up it looks for an operating system to start up. The operating system is then in charge of running other programs, creating a graphical interface (your mouse, desktop, icons, buttons), accessing your files, and making your computer work. In some cases, a virus infects the operating system which makes the computer not start up. If you want to see the files saved on the computer, you need an operating system; if you install an operating system you write over all of your files losing all data. Game over.

Fortunately there is a way to run an operating system without installing a new one. This is by using a live CD. Instead of having your computer boot up from your hard drive, it looks in your CD Rom drive for a CD with an operating system on it. If it finds one, it boots from the CD Rom. Strange-I know, but it works fairly well. It runs somewhat slower though because you can't read data from CD's as fast as you can from your hard drive. So how do you use a live CD?

You need to download one (enter requirement 1). They are usually pretty big files, no smaller than about 50MB's but usually no bigger than what a CD will hold (about 700MB's). They almost always run a version of the Linux Operating System. It's kind of like Windows, but you'll see it has some differences. You'll have to pick a version of Linux and download it. Here is an article of a person newer to Linux rating 10 Live CD's giving his opinion on some.  Here is a more complete list of available Live CD's. So which one should you use? I have no idea.  I've tried a bunch and some work on some computers but don't on others.  Sucks huh?  I've downloaded 5 or so and just keep them on hand--one of them always seems to work.  If I had to guess which one will work for you I'd try Knoppix, then Ubuntu, then openSUSE, then Mandrivia (EDIT: Since I wrote this, I think Ubuntu is now better than Knoppix.  All the screenshots I did are for Knoppix but you should be able to figure it out if you use Ubuntu).  Knoppix worked for me when the others didn't so I'll show you how to do it for Knoppix.  It should be similar for the other ones as well.  Also, as I've already said, Knoppix might not work but another one will.  It really just depends on what hardware you have.

Burn Live CD to a Disk

You should now have a downloaded version of a Linux Live CD. The file that you downloaded is what is called an image file (usually ends with .iso). Basically it is a virtual CD, computers cannot differentiate between an image file and an actual CD. The only problem is, you need a way to put an image file into your CD Rom Drive. There are a few ways to do this, but I'll explain how to burn it to a normal CD. First you need to download ISO Recorder here. Make sure you pick the 64 bit version if you run a 64 bit machine. If you don't know what you run, you probably run a 32 bit computer. Either way, download ISO Recorder and install it on a working computer that has a CD burner. Follow the instructions entitled "Recording ISO Files" to burn your Linux Live CD to a CD.

Change your Boot Sequence on the Broken Computer

Start up your broken computer and hit either F2 or F10 (whatever it tells you) to edit your boot settings. This enters your BIOS. You can make changes to all sorts of things on your computer here (do so at your own risk), but I want you to look for something called Boot Order or Boot Sequence or something liek that. BIOS's look different, so you'll have to search for it on your own--it's there, I promise. When you find it, change the order to make sure the CD/DVD drive is before (all of) the hard drive(s); there is a good chance this is already how it is set. Save your changes (if you changed anything) and exit.  If this is all you've changed, this will not make your computer any more brokener ; )

Boot up the Live CD on the Broken Computer

This is where things start to get cool. Put your Linux Live CD into the broken computer and turn it on. It will probably take much longer than usual to start up.  Give it a good 5 minutes (I know, I know--that is way fricken slow) before giving up and restarting.  Once you're all started up things will get better (although still not as fast as normal).  You'll see some colored writing along with the slowness and eventually....something like this:

Looks a little different than what you're probably used to but it should more or less make sense. Now direct your attention to the left part of the screen to some icons that look like this:

Go ahead and double click on one of the icons labeled "Hard Disk". Search around in there until you find something you recognize. If you don't recognize anything, is there another icon labeled "Hard Disk" or something similar that you could click on? If there are,  try those. Keep looking until you find the files you want to backup.

Backup Your Files

Plug in your jump drive or external hard drive, an icon that looks like "Hard Disk [sda1]" should appear on your desktop.  It will be named whatever your jump drive's name is.  If your jump drive never shows up, then you'll have to try to mount it (this is more complicated than I'm willing to attempt to teach) or try another distubutions (like Ubunut).  If it does show up, drag and drop the files as you normally would onto your jump drive and you've recovered your files--mission accomplished--you're done!!!!  However, you may get some nasty error message.

Disk Formats

There are different ways to format hard drives, you can think of this as different ways to organize files (you as a user can't see a difference because your operating system shows all of them to you in the same way).  Examples of these are FAT32, FAT16, and NTFS.  Linux can read FAT32 just fine, but due to some licensing issues, some Linux distubutions can only read (and not write) NTFS files.  KNOPPIX Live CD I recommend does not have a way of writing to ntfs (or at least the version I used). If you want to backup the files to an NTFS formatted disk you should either reformat that disk to FAT32 or  choose a different distrubution of Linux.

Check How a Disk is formatted

Plug in your jump drive or external hard drive on a windows computer. Right click->properties.

The area squared in red will state the disk’s format. In the case of this picture, it is NTFS.

Formatting a Disk

Plug in the external hard drive/thumb drive. Right click->Format.

A popup will appear.  Select 'FAT32' under the 'File System' menu, check 'Quick Format', then click start.  THIS WILL DELETE ALL DATA ON THAT JUMP/HARD DRIVE!!! However, you'll be able to write file to it.  Plug it into the computer with the Live CD running and try again.
is NTFS.


While this isn't the fastest way to recover your files, this should eventually get you there. You could also just take your computer somewhere where they charge $50/hour to burn your data to a CD. Just remember, it's much easier the second time--especially if you kept your Live CDs.