Rescue Windows with a bootable flash drive

Lincoln spector By Lincoln Spector

Using Windows system rescue CDs isn’t practical if your machine isn’t equipped with an optical drive.

Fortunately, a clever solution may be sitting on your desk: take a flash drive you have at hand, add some software, and create a custom, USB-based, bootable Windows recovery toolkit!

Flash media offer speed and flexibility

That ultra-light netbook PC was great until some malicious code or innocent mistake hosed its operating system. A rescue CD could get it back up and running, but the tiny PC lacks an optical disk drive. Now what to do?

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The one media connector found in all modern PCs is the USB port. If you don’t have an external CD/DVD drive sitting around (and most PC users don’t), one of the cheap and ubiquitous flash drives may be the best way to provide access to otherwise-inaccessible files and possibly fix the broken OS.

Even if you have an optical drive, booting off flash has considerable advantages over laser light. Flash media is faster and far more easily erased and rewritten, making it exceptionally flexible.

There’s just one catch: it’s more difficult to set up a Windows rescue system on flash drives than it is on optical media. You can’t simply double-click an .iso file and burn it onto the flash drive.

Most newer PCs can boot from USB storage devices such as flash drives. A look into your PC’s BIOS system menus should confirm whether you must change a setting so that your machine boots a flash drive. Look for two things: whether your system will boot from a flash drive, and the boot-order list. For the latter, make sure the flash drive is the first device.

A faithful Linux dog comes to the rescue

Unless Windows died right after a full-system backup, your first priority is recovering recently created or edited files. You need a way to boot the failed computer, get into your hard drive, and copy your precious data to external media.

Puppy Linux manages this chore faster and more easily than anything else I’ve seen. Ubuntu is a more-powerful version of Linux, but Puppy is the better choice for emergency-boot tools. It starts fast, runs fast, and is reasonably easy to use — especially if you know a lot about Windows but nothing about Linux.

Ironically, the common way to acquire Puppy Linux is to download its .iso file and burn it to an optical disc. To place it on a flash drive instead, start by going to the Pendrivelinux Universal USB Installer download page. Install the program and run it. Next, select the Linux Distribution pull-down menu and choose Puppy Linux (currently Lucid Puppy 5.0.1), as shown in Figure 1. Next, check Download the ISO (Optional). The rest of the installation is self-explanatory.

the pendrivelinux universal usb installer
Figure 1. To put Puppy Linux on a flash drive, you need to use the Pendrivelinux Universal USB Installer.

It’s now time to plug your new rescue flash drive into the faulty PC and start it up with Puppy. Once you answer a few hardware questions, you’ll find yourself in a friendly GUI environment where you can now access your files and move them to a safer place.

If you’ve password-protected your data folders, don’t worry; Puppy will fetch them for you, anyway. However, if you encrypted them with Windows’ Encrypted File System, Puppy won’t be able to decrypt them (one of the many reasons I recommend against using EFS).

Pendrivelinux Universal USB Installer offers a lot more options than just Puppy. Consider devoting another flash drive to the Ultimate Boot Disc — a collection of free Linux and DOS utilities that can come in handy for all sorts of repairs.

Put a copy of Windows XP on a flash drive

BartPE is a special version of Windows XP that can be loaded from a CD. (PE stands for Preinstalled Environment.) With some extra steps, you can also load BartPE onto a flash drive and use it to boot your ailing PC.

BartPE isn’t a perfect environment. You can’t, for example, run a system restore or edit the Windows Registry — at least not the Registry on the PC’s hard drive. But it does let you run various diagnostic tools that come with Windows, as well as most Windows-based portable restoration apps. (See Figure 2.)

the pendrivelinux universal usb installer
Figure 2. BartPE’s portable Windows environment lets you boot PCs with a broken Windows OS and run the diagnostic software of your choice.

Because Microsoft won’t let Bart Lagerweij, the creator of BartPE, give away Windows code, you must have a valid Windows XP (SP1 or greater) CD. And that, of course, means you’ll need a computer with a working CD drive to build the bootable flash drive.

You’ll find detailed instructions on creating a BartPE flash drive on the Robvdb PEBuilder information site. (You’ll also find a good selection of BartPE-compatible programs there.) Rather than repeat the instructions here, I’ll add two comments that will make the job easier:
  • Insert your Windows XP disc into the drive at the beginning, and remove it when the job is done.

  • When instructed to “Extract PEBuilder (pebuilder3110a.zip) into a location and folder of your choice,” create a folder directly off the root (C:) drive and give it a short, one-word name without spaces (such as C:PEBuilder).
Once you’ve created your flash-based boot drive, add the portable Windows repair utilities you need — Hijack This and Recuva, for example — onto it. You can’t do that with a CD.

Build the Windows 7 System Repair undisc

Windows 7 is the first Microsoft operating system since ME that allows you to create an emergency boot disc. It’s meant to be a CD, but you can turn it into a flash drive as well.

The Windows 7 System Repair disc has all the same repair tools found on the Win7 installation DVD. You can use it to test your RAM, repair boot problems, and turn back the clock via System Restore or Win7′s image backup tool. All the repair disc lacks is the files necessary for installing the operating system.

To create the flash recovery drive, you have to start with a Windows 7 machine with a working DVD drive. But once created, the flash drive can boot any optical-free PC.

The first step is to create a System Repair CD. Click the Start orb, type system repair, select Create a System Repair Disc, and follow the prompts. When it’s finished, boot from the CD just to make sure it works properly.

Next, restart your Win7 system normally and make sure the Repair CD is still in a drive. Plug in a 256MB or larger flash drive, click the Start orb, type diskpart, and press Enter. A black box will pop up that looks very much like DOS.

At the command prompt, type list disk for a list of all your physical drives — hard and flash, internal and external. Identify your flash drive; it’s probably Disk 1, but if you’re not sure, look in the size column. It will probably be in megabytes instead of gigabytes.

Enter the command select disk {n}, where {n} is the flash drive’s disk number. For instance, if it’s Disk 1, type select disk 1.

Back at the prompt, type the following commands, pressing the Enter key after each command. One of them (and you can probably guess which one) will involve a longish wait.
  • clean
  • create partition primary
  • select partition 1
  • active
  • format fs=fat32
  • active
  • assign
  • exit
Once the window closes, open Windows Explorer and set it up so that all of your files are visible. Select Organize, then Folder and search options. Click the View tab, select Show hidden files and folders, and uncheck Hide protected operating system files. (You can change these back later, and you probably should change back the second one.)

Now simply drag and drop all the files from the CD to the flash drive. This technique will work with any CD or DVD that boots into Windows 7 or Vista PE, including an actual Windows 7 installation DVD. (For that, you’ll need a larger flash drive — about 4GB will do.)

Whether on disc or flash, the right tools can make recovery from an unbootable PC — well, not easy, but at least a whole lot less difficult.

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Lincoln Spector writes about computers, home theater, and film and maintains two blogs: Answer Line at PCWorld.com and Bayflicks.net.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2010-07-08:

Lincoln Spector

About Lincoln Spector

Lincoln Spector writes about computers, home theater, and film and maintains two blogs: Answer Line at PCWorld.com and Bayflicks.net. His articles have appeared in CNET, InfoWorld, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.