Free Computer Help.
Powered by Volunteers.

Boot Disks

by Bill Santry
February 21, 2003

The Boy Scouts motto: Always Prepared, is a good idea whether one is striding out into the woods, or merging onto the information superhighway. Many Help2Go articles address the prevention of computer problems. Equally important is knowing how to deal with a minor glitch or complete disaster with equal aplomb. One problem that many people think is a disaster, but may only be a glitch, is the inability of your PC to boot up properly. Just as a Boy Scout may need a compass to find his way when lost, you need a boot disk to recover your lost computer.

With this article, you'll learn:

  • What "booting" is
  • The importance of a boot disk (also called system disk)
  • The steps for creating your own boot disk

Start Me Up...

Booting up your PC is a process by which the computer quickly assesses what kind of hardware and software it has in its system, checks to make sure the parts are available and working, and launches the operating system (DOS or Windows, depending on the startup settings). One crucial phase of the process occurs when the computer looks for a set of special files that tell it about the format and contents of the hard drive, what files need to be loaded into memory to run your hardware, and how to communicate with the other components of your system. These files are contained in the first section of your hard drive, called the Master Boot Record (MBR). The information in the MBR is transferred to your computer's memory (RAM) so the PC can run software and use your CD-ROM, hard drive, and other components. This whole process is called the bootstrapping process, or boot up for short.

As you might expect, if your computer cannot find or read the MBR, your computer cannot proceed. It cannot load Windows or communicate with your hardware. Like a car without a working ignition, your PC is stalled and fairly useless. The MBR can be damaged by a virus infection or data corruption on the section of your hard drive that is reserved for these files. The important thing is...

Don't Panic

This problem WILL require a call to your local, neighborhood technical support office or at least a knowledgeable friend, but to fix the problem, you will need to be able to get to your hard drive and the files saved on it. But if the computer cannot find the MBR, how can you boot up the PC and get to the hard drive? Herein lies the importance of a boot disk.

If you'll notice, when you turn on your computer , it does one critical thing BEFORE it tries to access the MBR on your hard drive. It scans your diskette drive (the A: drive) before going on to the hard drive. If you have a plain, run-of-the-mill non-boot disk in the drive, you will see the message saying that drive A: does not contain a system disk. You then have to pop the disk out, press a key on the keyboard, and allow the booting process to continue.

But what if you DID have a system disk (boot disk) in the A: drive? Your computer doesn't care where the MBR is located (on a floppy diskette or a hard drive), just as long as it can find one. A boot disk contains a copy of your MBR and this copy is completely acceptable to your computer. Having read the MBR on the boot disk in your A: drive, your computer can grant you access to the hard drive. Now the job of cleaning off a virus and/or repairing the damaged MBR can begin.

Creating Your Own Boot Disk

For many PC owners, one of the many versions of Windows (95,98,ME,2000,XP) came pre-installed on the computer. One of the first things you should do once the computer is up and running is to create a boot disk. Windows calls it a "Startup Disk", but the function is the same. It is important that you make your boot disk on your own PC before problems occur. Creating a boot disk from someone else's PC means the MBRs will not match and can cause you trouble when the time comes to use the boot disk, but in an emergency, your firend's PC will have to do. You can also download many different types of boot disks from (where else?)!

Here are the steps for creating your boot disk:

  • Place a blank, formatted diskette (the disk packaging will say if it has been formatted for PC) in your diskette drive (A:)
  • Click on the Start button and select Settings from the pop-up menu
  • Click on Control Panel,
  • A new window will open, double-click Add/Remove Programs from the list of icons
  • Yet another new window will open, click on the tab labeled Startup Disk


  • Now click on Create Disk... and follow the on-screen instructions

That's it. You have now prepared yourself for a boot-up error. When the technical support guru asks you if you have a Startup/system/boot disk, you can reply: "I certainly do. Now let's fix this problem!"

Have a question? Need help? Get free, friendly person-to-person help with your computer questions or spyware questions in our help forums!

Creative Commons License

(C) 2008 Help2Go - Contact Us