Diagnose and Repair an Unbootable XP or Vista PC

How do I prepare an emergency boot disc so I'm ready in case Windows becomes unbootable?

Paul Lopez, Allentown, Pennsylvania

Alas, the days when Windows came with a program for creating a useful emergency boot floppy are long gone. And those old boot floppies wouldn't help with XP or Vista--even if you PC had a floppy drive.

Boot from one of the discs that came with your PC, and examine the menus (don't select anything that might wipe your drive). You're looking for emergency utilities.

You're in real luck if you have a full Windows XP CD or Vista DVD. These come with great tools for diagnosing and repairing an unbootable PC. In fact, if you don't have a real Windows disc, find one you can borrow in an emergency. Don't install Windows from a borrowed disc, but if it has the same version of Windows as your PC, use its repair tools.

Boot from an XP CD, and press R at the 'Welcome to Setup' screen to see the Recovery Console, a DOS-like command-line environment with a number of useful utilities. Consult "What to Do When XP or 2000 Won't Boot" for additional details.

If you boot from a Vista DVD, click Repair your computer to open the System Recover program. There you'll find options to automatically fix boot problems, restore your hard drive from an image backup, diagnose memory, or perform a system restore.

If you're ready for a Windows alternative, try Puppy Linux, which you can download as a ready-to-burn .iso file from the Puppy Linux Web site. Boot from the CD, and you'll have a nongeek's version of Linux running on your PC. Puppy Linux is the best tool I've found for one extremely important job: copying important files off an unbootable hard drive. Unlike UBCD4Win, Puppy recognizes USB drives, making it extremely easy to put these files where you can readily access them.

The XP CD's Boot Tool Kit

Enter these commands in Windows XP's Recovery Console to perform CPR on your disks and files.

Command Action
Attrib Changes the attributes of a file or directory.
Batch Executes the commands specified in the text file.
Bootcfg Boot file (boot.ini) configuration and recovery.
ChDir (Cd) Displays the name of the current directory or changes the current directory.
Chkdsk Checks a disk and displays a status report.
Cls Clears the screen.
Copy Copies a single file to another location.
Delete (Del) Deletes one or more files.
Dir Displays a list of files and subdirectories in a directory.
Disable Disables a system service or a device driver.
Diskpart Manages partitions on your hard drives.
Enable Starts or enables a system service or a device driver.
Exit Exits the Recovery Console and restarts your computer.
Expand Extracts a file from a compressed file.
ExtractExtracts files from compressed .cab archives.
Fixboot Writes a new partition boot sector onto the specified partition.
Fixmbr Repairs the master boot record of the specified disk.
Format Formats a disk.
Help Displays a list of commands you can use in the Recovery Console.
Listsvc Lists the services and drivers available on the computer.
Logon Logs on to a Windows installation.
Map Displays the drive letter mappings.
Mkdir (Md) Creates a directory.
More Displays a text file.
Net Use Connects a network share to a drive letter.
Rename (Ren) Renames a single file.
Rmdir (Rd) Deletes a directory.
Set Displays and sets environment variables.
Systemroot Sets the current directory to the systemroot directory of the system you are currently logged on to.
Type Displays a text file.

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