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How to recover files from an unbootable/dead computer

by steamwiz
January 19, 2007
If you have a computer that refuses to boot up, and there are files you absolutely need on its hard drive, don't despair! This article will take you through a step-by-step process whereby you can recover those files.

This is rather a long article because I've tried to explain it in a way that anyone & everyone can understand ... even if you got your first computer yesterday

It follows on from Grim322's tutorial on why every Windows user needs a Linux live CD. So you should read that article first. Then, when you are ready to start, we are going to use the Linux distro called Knoppix.

You'll need a working computer to download 2 files :-

First from the link in Grim322's tutorial above, download this file:
KNOPPIX_V3.9-2005-05-27-EN.iso 01-Jun-2005 08:17 696M

As you can see it's a large file & will take some time to download, whatever your connection ... Download it to your desktop

I'm going to assume you are using Windows XP (as most people are nowadays). Although XP has the software to burn files to CD, it cannot burn an ISO file to CD ... so you need a plugin. The next file you need to download is the program which will burn the iso file to your CD.

Depending on whether you have XP SP2 or not, it is a different download, so download the correct version (again to your desktop) of ISO Recorder here.

This will download an isorecorder .msi file to your desktop. Double-click the .msi file to install it. Then read these instructions on how to complete the creation of your bootable Linux (KNOPPIX) CD.

Basically you put a new Blank CD into your CD Drive, right click the KNOPPIX_V3.9-2005-05-27-EN.iso file on your desktop & choose Copy Image to CD. Then follow the excellent directions in the "HowTo" link above.

You now have your bootable (KNOPPIX) CD

So now we want to recover those important documents, photographs etc from the unbootable/dead computer. BY unbootable we assume that you have power to your computer, but when you try to boot you just get error messages or get stuck in some sort of loop on you monitor. If your computer is completely dead, then that requires a slightly different approach, which we'll deal with at the bottom of this article.

So if your computer is unbootable but NOT Dead ...

Right - you want to transfer (copy) those files to somewhere you can get at them. Depending on the makeup of your computer, you are going to have several options; if you have a DVD drive & a CD re-write drive, you could boot KNOPPIX from one drive & save to the other, & if you have 2 Hard-drives, you can copy files from the unbootable master Hard-drive to the slave Hard-drive - as long as you have a partition on the slave drive which is formatted in FAT32. Using Linux (KNOPPIX) to write to an NTFS formatted partition (Native Windows format) is not recommended as it will most probably destroy the underlying NTFS partition & you will lose everything on it. Some people will tell you it's now possible to write to NTFS partitions, but I wouldn't risk it. However, if you have a FAT32 partition, you can copy anything to it with complete safety.

Let's assume you have a basic computer: one CD/DVD drive, one Hard-drive. We'll use one of those USB ports to transfer the files to a flash drive.


To boot from your new Linux (KNOPPIX) CD, you are going to have to change the Boot order in the BIOS, don't panic because I've mentioned the BIOS .. it's really very simple...

To boot into the BIOS, press the required key, when windows starts ... usually the "Del" key or F2 or F10 - but yours may be different...

Your computer will boot from the Hard-drive, CD/DVD drive or Floppy drive. The BIOS tells it in which order to check these, to look for an operating system to boot.

For instance if the BIOS says:

First boot device Floppy drive
Second boot device CD/DVD drive
Third boot device HD1 or HD0

The computer will first check the floppy drive for a boot floppy disk, if none is found it will then check the Second boot device CD/DVD drive, again if no CD is found, it will look to boot from the Third boot device HD1 or HD0.

You need the First boot device to be the CD/DVD drive.

It doesn't matter which order the other two come in... but if you made the CD/DVD drive the First boot device in the example above, make the Second boot device the Floppy drive ... do not leave the first & second boot device both as the CD/DVD drive


Now you are ready to boot into Linux and retrieve your files

1. First put the flashdrive you are going to save the files to, in to the USB port.

2. Then put your (KNOPPIX) CD into the CD/DVD drive.

3. Switch off your computer ... then restart it.

4. The (KNOPPIX) CD will be detected in your CD/DVD drive, & you will be asked to press enter to boot into Linux ... press enter (Return).

5. The first thing that will be found is your USB drive, & you will see a lot of muti-colored text as the KNOPPIX CD installs itself into a virtual RAM drive ... from now on please be patient, whatever you do, as everything you do will be running from the virtual drive created in your RAM & and it will not be as fast as you are used to. The operating system includes Open Office, 2 web browsers, & a lot of other programs as well. In fact, if all the programs were decompressed at the same time, there would be nearly 2 gigs of software on the CD!

5. Eventually you will be presented with the KNOPPIX desktop, but it hasn't finished loading yet, so give it a little more time until the window with the optional languages pops up (KNOPPIX Info). You can cross off or minimise this window.

6. On the left hand side of the desktop you will see the icons for your drives ... the Hard-drive you want copy the files from & the Hard-drive (flash drive) you want to copy the files to.

everything you click on now will be a single click

Left click both the drives, & resize the windows so that they sit side by side on the screen.

Now drag one of the files you want to save across and drop it onto the flash drive ... what's that ... you don't have write permission? That's right, this is by default, you cannot copy, move, edit, or delete any files on any drives for safety reasons. Otherwise you may accidentally delete or edit a file & turn your windows boot problem from an easy to repair problem to an unrepairable problem. Making the drive readable is an easy one, but you have to do it deliberately.

  • Go back to the desktop (minimise the windows) & right click the flash drive (USB) which you want to write the files to.
  • Click change read/write mode > when asked if you want to make the partition writable ? > click 'yes'.
  • Now go back to your 2 windows and drag the files across > in the box which pops up click 'copy here'.
  • When you have copied all the files, close all the windows.
  • Right click the desktop > click Log out “Knoppix”.
  • Then click ‘Turn off computer” and follow the on-screen instructions.
  • Again… Please be patient whilst Knoppix terminates.
  • Once the computer has shutdown ... remove the flashdrive & copy your files to CD or another computer or whatever.


If your computer is “dead” (NO Power)

You will need to remove the Hard-drive. You will also need a working computer, your Hard-drive will be jumpered as a master, so if you want to put the drive into a working computer as a slave drive, you will need to change the jumpers from the master position to the slave position first.

OR you could leave the jumpers as master, change the boot order in the BIOS on the working computer, to boot from the CD-Rom drive before the Hard-drive, then switch the working computer off & remove the IDE & power cables from the Hard-drive, & connect them to the non-booting Hard-drive.

Put the flashdrive into the USB port, & the Knoppix CD into the CD-Rom drive, & follow the same directions as before to retrieve your files

Good luck!


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