Free Bootable Tools For PC Rescue and Reinstall
|Published:||Jul 9, 2008|
Believe it or not it's only been a year since I bought my first-ever laptop, a great lightweight convertible tablet that I really love. So much, in fact, that I've been using my desktop PC less an less, and I actually went almost six months without using it once--until the other day, when I turned it on only to discover--it wouldn't boot! In the intervening months the hard drive had spontaneously developed a partition problem. Fortunately, a few free tools allowed me to save my data--after a few hours of wrestling.
This isn't an article about repairing hard drive partitions; rather, it's an brief overview of a few tools that you can boot from a CD or USB drive that may help you diagnose and repair a variety of PC problems or prepare it for the installation or reinstallation of an operating system.
Caution: This article is not for novice or timid computer users and the tools discussed, if used improperly (or properly, sometimes), could cause all your data to go away forever. Continue at your own peril and don't take any steps you don't feel you understand. If you have any doubts, I recommend taking your computer to a qualified repair technician.
Booting from your media
To use most of these tools you'll need a computer that boots (to download the tools and build your bootable CD or USB drive) and either a blank CD and a CD burner or a USB drive with some space on it (the amount of space you'll need depends on which tool you use, but figure on 128MB at a minimum).
Getting your computer to boot from a CD or USB drive instead of your hard drive may or may not take some fiddling. You may be able to pop it in and turn on your computer and see it boot right up--this is especially likely if you're booting from a CD. If it doesn't, however, you may have to enter your BIOS configuration (usually by pressing Del or F1 when your computer is first booting--you'll see an on-screen prompt but may have to hold the key down or press it a few times) and configure it to check for bootable CDs or USB drives before booting from the hard drive. If you're not sure how to do this, refer to any documentation you have or find some documentation online--every BIOS is different.
Your Windows install or rescue CD
Your computer or your copy of Windows probably came with either an install CD or a recovery CD. This is a great place to start. Pop it in your CD-ROM, reboot your computer, and follow the on-screen prompts. The Windows XP CD has a few options: You can do an Automated Recovery if you made a recovery disk beforehand, you can enter the Recovery Console which gives you access to basic commands for scanning the hard drive for errors (chkdsk), fixing the Master Boot Record (fixmbr) and boot sector (fixboot), configuring the boot options (bootcfg), and for adding or deleting partitions (diskpart). Check out Microsoft's documentation for details.
An option that is mysteriously obscured behind misleading menu items is the Windows XP install CD's Repair option. To get to this option choose "To setup Windows XP now, press ENTER." You would not be unreasonable in guessing that this option installs a fresh copy of Windows, but on the next screen, assuming your existing Windows installation is still detectable, you'll see that setup has detected it and you're given a Repair option. If you don't see a Repair option on this screen, back out--only the Repair option will preserve your existing XP settings and data. On his web site Michael Stevens has written a good article on how to do a Repair install with your XP CD, and John Barnett discusses repairing Windows Vista.
If you aren't able to achieve your ends using the tools on your Windows install CD, you may have to resort to third-party tools. Happily, there's no shortage of those.
Ultimate Boot CD
One of the coolest free rescue tools out there is the Ultimate Boot CD, or UBCD. It's really an entire toolkit that you download as a disc image and burn to a CD. When you put it in your computer and boot up, it launches a menu with dozens of free (and a few demo) tools for testing your CPU, memory, and peripherals, checking, repairing, and cloning your hard drive and partitions, benchmarking your processor and graphics adapter, accessing and rescuing your files, and scanning for viruses. It also includes a few bootable Linux and DOS distributions. A complete list of the included tools can be found on the home page.
The UBCD disc image is 115MB and is also available as a compressed 87MB download. If you have a big enough USB thumb drive there's an option to turn it into a bootable UBCD drive--beware, however, as this will first erase any existing data on the thumb drive. It's also possible to create the bootable USB drive without first burning a CD; you can find instructions at Pen Drive Linux, but your results may vary.
One of my favorite things about UBCD is that you can integrate other tools into it. This takes some skill, but I was able to add Damn Small Linux and GParted (more on GParted later) to my USB toolkit using instructions on the UBCD forums.
Like UBCD, Hiren's BootCD is a free set of rescue and repair tools and diagnostic utilities that you can put on a CD or USB drive. It's a great collection--you can see its contents on its home page--but the problem is you can't download it from its own site. Fortunately there's a variety of third-party sources that make it available--a Google search for Hiren's 9.5 download is a good start.
Hiren's site also has instructions on making it book from a USB drive.
Here's a video demo of Hiren's BootCD in action by a fan on YouTube:
BartPE stands for Bart's Preinstalled Environment and it's really a wonder. It's a tool that lets you build a Windows environment--that is, a working copy of Windows that boots entirely from a CD. Since it would be illegal to distribute Windows, in order to use BartPE you'll need a Windows install disc. To "build" your BartPE disc you'll use its PE Builder utility. The basic process goes like this (complete instructions are available on the BartPE site): First you download PE builder and start it. Then you tell it where to find your Windows installation files--usually your Windows install disc. You click through a few more options and then PE Builder will burn a CD for you--first prompting you to read and agree to the Windows license agreement. If all goes well you should have a bootable CD. For using BartPE on a USB drive instead of a CD, try PE2USB.
A similar tool, Windows PE, or WinPE, can also be used to create a bootable Windows CD or USB drive. While these tools may work with Windows Vista they are designed for Windows XP and 2000; a third tool, VistaPE, is designed specifically for Windows Vista.
Before I mentioned GParted, but it gets its own section here because it's such a useful and high-quality tool. GParted is an open-source Linux program managing disk partitions. But for our purposes we don't need to have Linux on our computer, because GParted is available in LiveCD and LiveUSB versions. Using the LiveCD version is as simple as burning the disc image to a blank CD, but to make a bootable USB drive you'll want to follow the instructions on the LiveUSB page.
One great thing about GParted is that, like many commercial tools, it can not only create and remove disk partitions, it can also resize them non-destructively, that is without destroying any of your precious files when changing the size of the partition they live on. Repartitioning, I should point out, is an inherently risky process, so despite the high quality of GParted you should back up all your data before messing with any of your partitions if at all possible. GParted works with a whole variety of file systems including the FAT32 and NTFS systems used by Windows XP and Vista as well as various Linux and Mac filesystems. It can also make copies of your partitions and even works with USB drives.
Blogger since 1999, Jordan Running went pro in 2005 and never looked back. Sometimes programmer, occasional photographer, and serial tinkerer, he decided to to switch to Linux in 2001 but just hasn't quite gotten around to it yet.