Recover data when your PC won’t boot

Recover data when your PC won’t boot

Discover how to boot into Windows and recover important files with our essential guide

If your PC won’t start, and you’ve exhausted the troubleshooting advice elsewhere on this site, you may find yourself in a quandary. You need to wipe your hard drive clean and restore your computer to its factory settings, but in doing so all your important documents and files will be lost forever. That’s not a major issue if you have a recent backup. But if you’ve never backed up your files, or your last backup was some time ago, then what are you going to do?

Unless your hard drive has physically failed, the data is still on it, waiting to be rescued. And in this tutorial we’ll show you how to create – and use – a special bootable rescue disc to recover all your data prior to wiping the drive and reinstalling Windows.

1. What you’ll need

You need access to a working computer running Windows XP or later – so if your PC is no longer working, you may need to borrow one from a friend or family member. We’ll be using the free SystemRescueCD program to help recover your data. It’s a big download (390MB), so you’ll need access to a fast broadband internet connection.

SystemRescueCD can be burned to a bootable CD, or you can copy it to a spare USB flash drive (512MB or greater), if you’d prefer to use that. You’ll also need somewhere to copy your recovered files to, such as a USB hard disk. If you don’t have one, you can purchase a drive from PC World for under £50, which can subsequently be used as a backup drive going forward.

2. Download and create a bootable CD

Click here to access the SystemRescueCD download page, then click the ‘Sourceforge’ download link to save the 390MB file (it has an ‘.ISO’ file extension) to your ‘Downloads’ folder. If you’re creating a bootable CD, insert a blank disc into your computer’s DVD rewriter. Windows 7 and 8 users should then right-click the downloaded file, choose ‘Burn Disc’ and follow the prompts to burn a bootable rescue disc. Windows XP and Vista users will need to use a free program called ISO Recorder.

3. Prepare USB flash drive

If you want to create a bootable flash drive instead, download the ISO file as instructed above, then download the SystemRescueCD Installer for Windows tool from here – it’s 1.7MB in size. Plug in your USB flash drive, then click ‘Start’ > ‘Computer’. Right-click your USB flash drive and choose ‘Format’. Verify ‘FAT32’ is selected under ‘File System’ and click ‘Format’. Note: this deletes all existing data from the drive, so back it up first if necessary. Once the disk has been formatted, double-click the downloaded ‘sysresccd-installer-2.0.0’ file and click ‘Yes’ or ‘Continue’ when prompted.

4. Create a bootable USB stick

Click ‘Browse’ next to ‘Work Directory’ to select a folder where temporary files will be stored. Click ‘Make New Folder’ to create a special temporary folder within an existing folder. Now click ‘Browse’ next to ‘Original ISO file’ and select the ISO file you downloaded earlier. Click the ‘Extract Files’ button and wait for the files to be copied to the temporary folder. Finally, select ‘Install On USB Stick…’ under step 3, select your USB drive from the dropdown menu and click the ‘Install’ button, then wait until “USB installation successfully completed” appears in the program window.

5. Boot rescue disc

To use the disc to recover data from your PC, insert the CD or plug in the USB flash drive and switch on your computer. Look for a message instructing you to press a key to select boot options (it’s ‘F7’ on Advent Monza N-series laptops, for example). Press this key and select your CD/DVD drive or USB flash drive from the list of available options, pressing ‘Enter’. If two or more entries exist, ignore the one marked ‘UEFI’. When the main SystemRescueCD menu appears, leave ‘Default Boot Options’ selected and press ‘Enter’.

6. Access friendly interface

You’ll see a string of text messages appear. Don’t worry, this is normal. When prompted to load a keymap, type ‘40’ (to select English – UK) and press ‘Enter’. When ‘root@sysrescd /root %’ appears, type ‘startx’ and press ‘Enter’ to launch the graphical environment, which is similar to Windows.

7. Verify and identify hard drive

After the graphical user interface appears, leave the terminal window open. Click the CD icon in the bottom left-hand corner of the desktop and choose ‘System’ > ‘GParted’. If your hard drive isn’t physically damaged it’ll appear as ‘dev/sda’, divided into two partitions. In most cases, the second – and largest – partition is where your documents and data are stored. Make a note of the name under ‘Partition’ – it’ll be ‘/dev/sda2’ or something similar.

Now click the ‘/dev/sda’ button in the top right-hand corner and select ‘dev/sdb’ from the list to identify your USB hard drive. Make a note of the file system – ‘FAT32’ or ‘NTFS’ – and jot down the partition name too: typically ‘dev/sdb1’ or ‘dev/sdb2’.

8. Mount hard drive

Close ‘GParted’ and switch to the terminal window. Type the following line into it, replacing ‘XXX’ with the name you noted in the last step (‘sda2’ in our example):

mount -t ntfs /dev/XXX /mnt/windows -o ro

Press ‘Enter’. This lets SystemRescueCD read data from your hard drive, allowing you to recover it to your backup drive.

9. Mount recovery drive

Next, you need to let SystemRescueCD access your USB drive. If it has the NTFS file system, type the following line, again replacing ‘YYY’ with the correct name, and press ‘Enter’:

ntfs-3g /dev/YYY /mnt/backup

If your USB drive is ‘FAT32’, you need to type the following instead (again, replace ‘YYY’ with the correct name) before pressing ‘Enter’:

mount –t vfat /dev/YYY /mnt/backup

10. Locate data to recover

Click the CD icon again, but this time choose ‘System’ > ‘Grsync’. Click the first ‘Open’ button, then select ‘File System’ from the left-hand pane. Double-click the ‘mnt’ folder in the right-hand pane, then double-click ‘windows’. You should see all your existing folders, ready to be recovered. Look for the folder containing all the files you wish to recover. If in doubt, open ‘Documents And Settings’ followed by your username, then click ‘Open’.

11. Recover data

Now click the second ‘Open’ button. Select ‘File System’ as before, but browse to ‘mnt’ > ‘backup’ and click ‘Open’. If your USB hard drive is FAT32, tick the ‘Windows Compatibility’ box. Now switch to the ‘Extra Options’ tab and tick ‘Run As Superuser’ to ensure there are no issues with file permissions.

Click the light-bulb button to do a test run to see if there are any issues. If none are found, click the cog-like button to its right to recover the selected folder from your hard disk to your USB drive. Once complete, you can recover other folders or simply close ‘Grsync’ and shut down your computer, ready to reinstall Windows.

If you run into problems using this step-by-step guide, post your question on our user forum. Please include as much detail as you can: your make and model of PC, and what part of the process you’re struggling with.