Emergency repair disks for Windows: Part 2

Fred Langa

Part 1 of this two-part series told how to create a Windows repair disk that boots a failing PC and provides tools that mightfix what’s ailing Windows.

Part 2 tells how to use a repair disk on all PCs — including those locked down with Win8’s Secure Boot — and also gives some advanced tips and tricks.

Creating a repair disk is the first step

A good repair disk or drive (collectively, disk) is a fundamental tool for troubleshooting an ailing Windows. Every PC owner/manager should have one for each system — and know where it resides. There are multiple repair-disk options for all versions of Windows, from XP on. Part 1 of this series lists nine, most of them free.

XP requires third-party tools for creating repair disks, and enabling Vista’s built-in app takes some efforts. But both Windows 7 and 8 make the process easy and include numerous troubleshooting tools.

Creating a repair disk is a necessary first step; the next is ensuring the disk correctly boots the PC. Some systems — especially Win8 systems with Secure Boot enabled — take a little prep work.

That’s the starting point for the exercises in this article. You’ll see how to use emergency boot/repair disks to start just about any PC, then use those repair tools included on the disk.

Make an initial test of your emergency disk

If you haven’t yet created an emergency boot/repair disk or drive for your version of Windows, please do so now. See the April 10 Top Story, “Emergency repair disks for Windows: Part 1.”

Depending on how your system is set up, booting a PC from its rescue disk might not require anything unusual — or you might have to change one or two settings.

The best way to find out is also the simplest:

  • Shut down all software, exit Windows, and turn your PC completely off (i.e., a full power-off shutdown).
  • Place your boot/repair CD/DVD into your PC’s optical drive or plug the rescue drive into a USB socket.
  • Turn your PC on.

If your PC boots from the rescue disk, you’re done! Simply label it and store it in a safe place. If you’re using Win8, skip to the end of this article for those aforementioned advanced tips and tricks.

On the other hand, if your PC fails to boot from the rescue disk, use the following steps to make the necessary adjustments to your system.

Controlling your PC’s startup

With all PCs, initial startup is controlled by low-level software that wakes up the system’s components in the correct order and then hands off control to Windows.

In older systems, that software is the Basic Input/Output System — commonly referred to as BIOS.

Most newer systems use the far more powerful and flexible Unified Extensible Firmware Interface — or UEFI. (See Woody Leonhard’s Jan. 19, 2012, Top Story, “Say goodbye to BIOS — and hello to UEFI!”)

UEFI has been around for years, but early versions (mostly in Vista- and Win7-era PCs) usually simply mimicked classic BIOS, perhaps with a few extra features thrown in.

Version 8 was the first Windows to fully exploit UEFI. The OS’s Secure Boot feature uses UEFI to make the boot process resistant to unauthorized changes by malware and other factors. (See the Microsoft article, “Securing the Windows 8 boot process.”)

(I’ll discuss UEFI in a bit more detail later. But for now, as shorthand, I’ll use “BIOS” to refer to both the classic BIOS and UEFI.)

Virtually all PCs have a boot-order setting in BIOS that lets you define the sequence of devices a PC should access at startup. The PC checks each listed device, one after another, looking for an operating system to boot from. Typical boot devices include a hard drive, optical drive, USB drive, and the network.

Obviously, if the standard, hard drive–installed version of Windows won’t boot correctly, you want to ensure that the system looks for the rescue disk first. So to boot from a rescue CD or DVD, the PC’s optical drive should be listed first in BIOS’s boot order.

Or, to boot from a rescue drive, the first device in the list should be a USB drive.

Two ways to change a system’s boot order

Virtually all pre-Win8 PCs — and even some Win8 systems — offer two easy ways to change a PC’s boot order.

First method: At the very start of bootup, most PCs display an on-screen message that says something such as Press {some key} to select Boot Device (see Figure 1).

Select boot device

Figure 1. On this system, pressing the F12 key selects the boot device.

On my test system, it’s the F12 key; on other PCs, it could be any other key or key combination. (Note: This is not the key combination that pops up the BIOS settings. You’ll use the BIOS settings for the second method described below.) Press the key or keys for your particular machine. You should then see a boot-order menu — something similar to the example in Figure 2.

Boot devices

Figure 2. A typical boot-order menu. Simply press the designated key to boot from a listed device.

Next, simply select the device you want to boot from. In the example shown (your PC’s options could be different), you’d press the c key to boot from your rescue disk in the optical drive.

The selection you make in this menu is one time only. At the next boot, the system will revert to its normal boot order.

Second method: As noted above, this option uses the BIOS settings menus. It’ll let you make boot-order changes semipermanent.

Again, at the start of the boot process, look for the on-screen message that states something along the lines of Press {some other key} to enter BIOS setup. Press whatever key or key combination opens your BIOS settings editor.

Boot-order settings are usually on a page or screen labeled Boot (or something similar); you then change the boot order by rearranging the listed devices. (See Figure 3.)

Default boot order

Figure 3. Virtually all PCs let you set the default boot order in BIOS.

Following the on-screen directions, place the device you plan to use for the rescue disk at the top of the list. When you’re done, save your changes and exit the BIOS settings, typically by pressing the F10 key.

Your system should now restart and boot from the rescue disk. Keep in mind that the new boot-device order will stay in effect until you alter it again.

If neither of those methods works on your pre-Win8 PC and it doesn’t show any obvious way to change boot order, visit the vendor’s online support site and search for instructions specific to your brand and model of PC. Good search terms to use include access BIOS, enter BIOS, and edit BIOS.

Working around Windows 8’s Secure Boot

As mentioned above, most UEFI-based Win8 systems enable a special, tamper-resistant startup that locks down the boot process and is designed to prevent unauthorized modifications. This Secure Boot feature makes the use of a rescue/repair disk a bit more complicated.

For example, to change boot order, it usually takes a few extra steps simply to get into the UEFI settings. Then, you must disable Secure Boot entirely if you want to ensure that a PC can boot from a non-Microsoft repair disk or drive.

Here’s one easy way to accomplish both tasks in Win8.1. (Win8.0 is very similar; for specifics, see the Oct. 3, 2013, LangaList Plus.)

  • Save and back up all your work; close all running apps.
  • Open the Charms bar, click the gear icon (Settings) and then click Change PC settings at the bottom of the bar.
  • On the PC settings page, select Update and recovery.
  • Click Recovery and then, under Advanced startup, click Restart now. (Despite the terminology, your PC will not immediately restart — that’s normal.)
  • On the Choose an option screen, click Troubleshoot and then click Advanced options.
  • If a UEFI Firmware Settings option appears, select it. (It might also be under a somewhat different label, such as Change UEFI Settings.) If no such option exists, skip the rest of these steps.
  • On the UEFI Firmware Settings screen, select Restart.
  • Your PC will restart and run the built-in UEFI setup utility.
  • UEFI settings often look much like classic BIOS setup pages — and typically work in much the same way. Follow the on-screen directions for navigating to and selecting the settings you’re going to change.
  • The UEFI boot-order settings are usually under the Boot section (or something similar). As above, change the PC’s boot order so that the optical drive or a USB drive is at the top of the list. Your options will likely look something like those shown above in Figure 3.
  • Next, if you’re going to use a non-Microsoft rescue boot disk, disable Secure Boot. The Secure Boot settings are often found under Security (see Figure 4), Boot, Authentication, or something similar.

    Secure boot

    Figure 4. Secure Boot is typically enabled by default. Select Disabled to use a non-Microsoft rescue/repair disk.

  • When you’re done, save your settings and exit (typically by pressing the F10 key).
  • Your system should now restart and boot from the rescue disk. If you disabled Secure Boot, the system will also bypass Win8’s normal boot restrictions.
  • When you’re done testing your rescue disk — or when you’ve finished using it in a real emergency — re-enable Secure Boot via the steps above.

If there’s no UEFI Firmware Settings option in Windows 8’s Advanced options screen, your particular system might use a different method for accessing UEFI settings — such as the old-school trick of pressing a specific function key during initial boot.

Some PC brands use a special OEM tool or dashboard, often accessed from the Windows Start menu, that lets you access the UEFI boot settings, either immediately or after a reboot.

If none of those options is offered, visit the PC vendor’s online support site and search for instructions specific to your brand and model of PC.

For more information on managing Win8’s Secure Boot, see:

  • “Secure Boot overview” – MS TechNet article
  • “Windows startup settings” – MS Windows 8 article
  • “Boot a PC in UEFI mode or legacy BIOS-compatibility mode” – TechNet article

Two advanced tips for Windows 8 users

I wish I could give advanced tips for all Windows versions, but most emergency rescue/repair disks are take-it-or-leave-it propositions. You get whatever comes on the disk, and that’s that. There’s usually no way to alter the disk’s contents.

However, Win8’s Recovery Media Creator is different. As noted in Part 1 of this series, it lets you add your own custom recovery image to the recovery drive.

This lets you do more than just boot and repair your PC; you can also use the recovery disk for a custom Refresh (a nondestructive reinstall) or custom Reset (full reinstall) of Win8. For more on Refresh and Reset, see these two related Top Stories: Aug. 15, 2013, “A ‘no-reformat reinstall’ for Windows 8,” and Sept. 12, 2013, “A clean-slate reinstall for Windows 8.”

Tip 1: How to create a custom recovery disk:

  • If you haven’t already done so, create a custom recovery image by following the steps in the Oct. 10, 2013, Top Story, “Creating customized recovery images for Win8.”
  • Next, create a new, empty folder inside the root folder of your C: drive; name it Win8-Recovery (in other words, create C:\Win8-Recovery).
  • Copy your new custom recovery image from wherever you placed it (typically in a RefreshImage folder) and paste it into the C:\Win8-Recovery folder. Then rename the pasted file as INSTALL.WIM (i.e., C:\Win8-Recovery\INSTALL.WIM).
  • Open an admin-level command prompt — e.g., press Win + X and select Command Prompt (Admin.
  • Enter the following command to register the copied/renamed INSTALL.WIM file as the recovery image on your PC:

    REAGENTC /SetOSImage /Path C:\Win8-Recovery\INSTALL.WIM /Index 1

  • Use the Win8 Recovery Media Creator to create a new recovery drive, following the steps in “Emergency repair disks for Windows: Part 1.” When prompted, enable the Copy the recovery partition from the PC to the recovery drive option; your custom recovery image will then be added to the new recovery drive.

(For more detail, see the Microsoft Answers thread, “Windows 8.1 and making a USB Recovery Drive.”)

Tip 2: This second tip lets you get around a limitation in Win8.1’s Recovery Media Creator.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, Win8.1’s Recovery Media Creator can make only a recovery flash drive; whereas the 8.0 version of the tool is able to create bootable CDs or DVDs — as well as a recovery flash drive.

But Win8.1 users can get what amounts to a free rescue/repair DVD directly from Microsoft! Simply download a free, 90-day evaluation copy of Win8.1.

Prior to the download, you have to provide an email address and answer a few basic questions, but there’s no cost whatsoever.

The evaluation copy is an .iso file, which you can burn to a DVD. The resulting disk is bootable and fully functional. It also includes a Repair your computer option (see Figure 5) that’s equivalent to the standard repair tools created by Win8’s built-in Recovery Media Creator.

Windows 8 Repair

Figure 5. The Win8.1 evaluation edition is bootable and fully functional. As highlighted above, it contains the standard complement of Win8 repair/restoration tools!

The free evaluation copy of Win8.1 is available to anyone. Download your copy via a Microsoft TechNet page. (Note: The download is for the Enterprise version, but the boot and repair tools work on any Win 8 version. You can boot from the Enterprise disks and use the basic repair tools as they are. You also can use the Enterprise boot disks to refresh or reset your system from your own system’s images.)

A rescue disk for all reasons — and all Windows. This two-part series should help all users of Windows — from XP on — recover from problems such as malware attacks to complete hard-drive failures — and everything in between. Make sure you have an emergency rescue disk or drive ready and waiting.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2014-04-17:

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.