Emergency repair disks for Windows: Part 1

Fred Langa

When your PC won’t boot from its hard drive, you might be dead in the water — unless you’ve created a bootable emergency repair disk or drive.

Repair disks don’t simply get PCs started; they also include tools that might fix what’s wrong with the system. And creating a repair disk takes just minutes.

Rescue-disk options for all Windows versions

There are various ways to create self-contained, emergency, boot/repair disks. With Win7 and 8, creating excellent repair discs is quick and easy. Vista and XP also offer repair disk–creation tools, but the process takes a bit more effort.

There are also numerous third-party boot disks — both free and paid — that work with all versions of Windows. The best of these have repair and recovery options that far exceed Windows’ native tools.

Of course, you can boot PCs using original Windows installation CDs or DVDs, and they provide some basic recovery tools. But most PCs now ship with the setup files in a special partition on the hard drive. Those files will be inaccessible if you didn’t take the time to create an emergency boot disk. In other words, a recovery partition might do you no good whatsoever in an emergency if you can’t boot the PC!

Even if you’ve diligently made system-image backups, you might still need an emergency disk at hand to restore the most recent image.

In Part 1 of this two-part article, I’ll discuss a wide range of emergency repair disks for XP, Vista, Win7, and Win8. I’ll start with the options in Windows 8 and work back to XP. I’ll also begin with Windows’ built-in tools and then mention some excellent third-party products — most of them free!

Next week, in Part 2, you’ll see how to use these disks to boot your PC and how to access what repair tools they contain. I’ll also include some advanced tips and tricks.

Windows 8: Using the Recovery Media Creator

Windows 8.0 and 8.1 both include the built-in Recovery Media Creator. This tool lets you easily set up a flash drive or an external USB drive as a bootable recovery/repair disk. The Windows 8.0 version of the tool can make bootable CDs or DVDs as well.

A standard Win8 recovery drive (or CD/DVD) contains a bootable recovery image — a stripped-down, special-purpose version of Win8 — that will boot your PC. It also includes tools for repairing or restoring your main Win8 setup. It might also include tools for resetting or refreshing the PC from a full system image, such as that provided by the original manufacturer.

(For more information on Refresh and Reset, see these three Top Stories: Aug. 15, 2013, “A ‘no-reformat reinstall’ for Windows 8”; Sept. 12, 2013, “A clean-slate reinstall for Windows 8”; and Oct. 10, 2013, “Creating customized recovery images for Win8.”)

If your PC contains an accessible, factory-installed recovery image (typically, in its own dedicated partition), Recovery Media Creator (RMC) can also add the image to the bootable recovery drive. If necessary, you can completely rebuild your system solely from the recovery drive. (You can even place a custom restore image on the recovery drive. I’ll cover that in Part 2.)

The Recovery Media Creator is very easy to use. Here’s how:

  • In an admin-level account, type Win + W (the Windows-flag key plus the W key) or swipe to open the Charms menu bar.
  • Enter recovery drive in the search box (use the Search/Settings box on Win8.0) and then click the Create a recovery drive icon when it appears. The Recovery Drive tool will open (see Figure 1).
    Recovery Media Creator

    Figure 1. Windows 8's Recovery Media Creator is point-and-click simple to use.

  • If your system has a recovery partition, select whether you want to include the recovery image with the new, bootable recovery/repair drive.

    If the Copy the recovery partition from the PC to the recovery drive checkbox is shown in black and is clickable, you can add your PC’s factory-installed recovery image to the recovery drive. Simply check the box to enable this option.

    If that checkbox is grayed out and unclickable, then obviously you can’t add a factory image to your recovery drive. But don’t worry; your new recovery drive will still contain a bootable, stripped-down Win8 recovery image plus the standard array of recovery/repair tools.

    When you’re ready, click Next.

  • RMC will then tell you how much space the recovery files — and system image, if selected — will take. Connect a USB drive to your PC that’s at least equal to the required size. Keep in mind that the drive can be used only as a bootable recovery/repair drive; everything else on the drive will be deleted.
  • If you have more than one USB drive attached, RMC will list available drives. Select the one you want to use for the recovery drive and click Next. The next dialog box will warn you that everything on the selected USB drive will be overwritten. When you’re ready, click Create.
  • The bootable recovery image, the recovery/repair tools, and the factory image (if selected) will now be copied to the recovery/repair drive. This might take several minutes.
  • If you chose to copy a factory image, RMC will now give you the option of deleting the OEM recovery partition from your hard drive, to save space. Delete or keep the partition — it’s your choice.
  • Click Finish.
  • Unplug the USB drive and store it in a safe place.

For more information on Win8’s Recovery Media Creator, see the Microsoft Support page, “Create a USB recovery drive.”

Windows 7: The Create a system repair disc tool

Win7 was the first Windows to ship with an automated tool for creating bootable emergency repair CDs or DVDs. The tool doesn’t do as much as the Win8 version — for example, you can’t add an OEM recovery image — but it does keep things simple. With just a few clicks, your recovery disc is done!

Here’s how:

  • Insert a blank CD/DVD into the PC’s optical drive.
  • In an admin account, open the Backup and Restore applet; click Start/Control Panel/System and Security/Backup and Restore.
  • In the applet’s left pane, click Create a system repair disc.
  • Confirm that the correct optical drive is selected. Click Create disc (see Figure 2) and follow the on-screen steps.

    Create a system repair disc

    Figure 2. Win7's Create a system repair disc lets you build a bootable repair CD/DVD with just a few clicks.

Note: If Win7 can’t find the files it needs, it’ll prompt you to insert a Windows installation disc.

For more details, Microsoft offers a video tutorial on its Win7 “Create a system repair disc” page.

Vista: Enabling and using Create Recovery Disk

A beta version of Vista SP1 shipped with the nice Create Recovery Disk (recdisc.exe) utility (see Figure 3). But, for reasons known only to Microsoft, the utility was neutered in all production versions. The recdisc.exe file still lives in Vista — but it doesn’t function!

Create Recovery Disk

Figure 3. Vista's vestigial recdisc.exe is nonfunctional by default; but with a little work, it can be made useful.

However, enthusiasts liked the working version of the utility. So they made the files available for download — along with how-to information. It’s not an officially sanctioned option, but it has been openly discussed and recommended by Microsoft MVPs in the Microsoft Answers forum. For example, see the Microsoft Answers thread, “Creating system recovery disk for Windows Vista.”

Obtaining recdisk.exe isn’t difficult, but the steps are too long to detail here. The third-party VistaForums thread, “How to create a Vista recovery disc,” contains the best how-to instructions I know of. The only thing I’d add to the how-to is the standard admonition: Make a backup before applying any system alterations.

If the above is outside your comfort zone, consider using a third-party boot disc, as discussed below.

Windows XP: Third-party tool is needed

XP has no native, built-in option for creating a bootable emergency repair disk.

For years, the best alternative was UBCD4Win (Ultimate Boot CD for Windows). But creating that boot disc is a long and complex process that requires some technical prowess and access to a full-blown XP setup CD.

UBCD4Win (site) is still around — and still free — but I no longer recommend it. There’s now a better tool.

Hiren’s BootCD offers an astonishing array of freeware tools — close to 100 in all (list).

The CD itself is Linux-based, but you don’t have to know Linux; the text-based main app has simple menus for choosing the tools you want to run. (See Figure 4.)

Hiren's BootCD

Figure 4. Hiren's BootCD offers an array of about 100 freeware repair/recovery tools.

Oddly, Hiren’s BootCD also contains a stripped-down “MiniXP,” offered on a “grayware” honor-system basis. It’s intended as an emergency repair tool for use by owners of legitimate, paid-for copies of XP — not as a replacement for buying a license or as a standard XP setup. Within that limited context, it works fine. When your regular (legitimate and paid-for) XP setup won’t boot, Hiren’s BootCD’s MiniXP can help you get it going again.

You can get Hiren’s BootCD on its download page. But finding the correct download link can be a challenge — the page contains several distracting, alternate download links for unrelated tools.

The true link to Hiren’s BootCD’s download file is toward the bottom of the page and appears — as of this writing — as shown in Figure 5.

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Figure 5. Actual Hiren's BootCD download link

If you have trouble finding where to click, here’s the current direct link to the file.

All Windows versions: Free repair disks

If Windows’ native tools are unavailable or won’t work for you, there are many free, alternative, boot/repair disks. Like Hiren’s BootCD, most are Linux-based and come preconfigured with a wide range of maintenance and recovery tools.

Here are four of the best:

  • Trinity Rescue Kit (free/donationware; home page, download page) is designed specifically for recovery and repair operations on Windows machines but can also be used for Linux recovery issues. It uses a simple text-and-keyboard menu system by default, with a Linux command line also available.
  • Ultimate Boot CD (free; site) contains over 100 repair/restore/diagnostic tools in an easy-to-use, text-and-keyboard menu interface.
  • SystemRescueCd (free; homepage, download page) provides basic repair/recovery tools in a hybrid text/graphical Linux environment.
  • Ubuntu Rescue Remix (free; site) offers a range of open-source data recovery, repair, and forensics tools. However, it’s almost entirely Linux command-line based, which might make it challenging for those more comfortable in a point-and-click environment.

The automated Easy Recovery Essentials

NeoSmart Technologies’ Easy Recovery Essentials tools deserve separate discussion. They’re favorably mentioned in almost every online Windows repair/recovery forum.

In part, it’s because the tools are quite good and can work on all Windows versions — XP, Vista, Win7, Win8, Windows Server.

But the tools’ popularity developed partly because they were free. Although many online discussion forums still refer to the NeoSmart discs as free, they are in fact now commercial products. Fees start at U.S. $20 for the Home editions of Easy Recovery Essentials and go up to $75 for Server editions. You can find a list of all versions and prices on the NeoSmart site.

For what is a really modest price, you get a bootable .iso image that you can download and burn to a CD, DVD, or USB drive. Once launched, Easy Recovery Essentials offers highly automated repair and recovery options. In fact, many complex repair operations can be launched with one simple click — no further user input required.

You can get an idea of how easy the tools are to use in a NeoSmart video demo. NeoSmart also offers a money-back guarantee (more info).

Which recovery/repair tool is right for you?

I suggest you start with the native Windows tools, if possible. They’ll handle most routine tasks and might be all you need. They also offer familiar operation and few surprises. Hey — you’ve already paid for them!

If the Windows tools don’t work for you, try the free Linux-based bootable recovery/repair disks. Although the Linux environment might be unfamiliar to most Windows users — especially Linux command-line tools — there’s usually enough documentation to help you through any rough spots.

If neither the built-in Windows tools nor the free Linux tools work for you, then commercial tools might be ideal. NeoSmart’s Easy Recovery Essentials tools, in particular, work well, are extremely simple to use, and come with a money-back guarantee.

Next week: You’ll see how to use these repair/recovery disks to boot your PC and to access the tools they contain. I’ll also include some advanced tips and tricks. Stay tuned!

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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.