Saturday 20 May 2017

Can't boot to Windows but need some important files?


  • You are given a Windows computer which will not boot to Windows any more.
  • You have tried to boot to Recovery Media/ISO and repair it, but it did not work.
  • The NTFS filesystem and memory seem to be OK (you ran memory test and chkdsk).
  • The issue seems to be that the Windows OS is broken.
  • The internal hard disk is pretty full, so you cannot install a second copy of Windows as there is not enough free file space.
  • The customer wants only a small number of certain important files recovered from the hard disk, but he doesn't know exactly where they were stored. The customer does remember a bit of the file name as does know that he used MS Word to edit the documents.
Your Mission (should you decide to accept it), is to backup those important files to an offline USB drive before you start messing around with the customers OS or the files on his hard disk.


At this point, you could decide to take an image of the internal hard disk using any decent backup package. This is a very sensible thing to do, but it will take a while.

You could boot to WinPE from USB and use Xcopy to copy all 'data' files to the USB drive. This is easier said than done however. Which data files do you backup? How long will it take? You will still have to restore the files for the customer onto his new copy of Windows (after you re-install it) and this means you have to find where the files where stored originally first. This still means having to search for it.

What you need to do is find and backup those important files FAST!


1. Download a copy of the free 32-bit application SwiftSearch.exe and copy it to your E2B USB drive.

This application does not need to be installed and can run from 32-bit WinPE (or a 64-bit WinPE if WoW64 is supported - e.g. ChrisR's WinBuilder-based WinPE builds or Gandalf PE).

2. Now boot to WinPE (or WindowsToGo) from your E2B drive (e.g. a Windows 10 32-bit Install ISO)

3. Press SHIFT+F10 to get a command console and run SwiftSearch

4. Select the target drive letter (must be NTFS partition) and enter a search string *.doc* (or whatever the customer has outlined)

SwiftSearch will take only a few seconds to find all relevant files on the 2TB whole hard disk!

You can sort by name, path or date.
You can then either use SwiftSearch + Explorer to individually copy the files to the E2B USB drive (if you have Explorer available), or if you are using a minimal WinPE OS, use XCopy in a cmd shell to copy only the required files or folders.

The important thing is that you can find the important data files and the process is so quick that you can ask the customer to wait 1 minute and then point out to you which files he wants to backup.

Once the important files are safely backed up, you can now discuss with the customer the options and the cost implications.

One of the main issues with wiping and re-installing is that all the users applications will be lost. Often the s/w licences that they bought and original CDs have also been lost years ago too!

If the OS was not Windows 10, do they want to now install Windows 10? If so, will there be any driver or application issues? If the system had Windows 7 on it for instance, some drivers for 3rd party peripherals (e.g. USB midi or USB scanner) and 3rd party application software may not be available for Windows 10 or they may have to buy or upgrade their licences or peripherals.

Repair Options

You will need to discuss the customer's options...

1. Full backup
2. Attempt OS repair (e.g. sfc, offline repair tools, etc.)
3. Refresh - Wipe and re-install from CD/ISO (option to create Restore partition + image)
4. Driver installation (esp. for notebooks)
5. Restore as much of the user's files as possible
6. Add image backup file + free backup s/w for later use by customer
7. Bespoke tailoring (e.g. re-installing required 3rd applications, licences, etc.)

All this takes time and therefore there are cost implications...


If you take an image of the original hard disk using a free backup tool (e.g. EaseUS ToDoBackup), you can place a copy of the image and the free software on the 'new' hard disk (or sell the customer a cheap external USB drive). This allows the customer to find any 'lost' files at a later date without involving you. Just show them how to use the backup software to 'Explore' the backup image.

Do you have a favourite strategy for dealing with customer re-installs? Let me know in the Comments below.

Damaged USB ports - Sealed system?

If the USB ports are damaged or not working and the computer does not have a CD\DVD drive and it is a sealed system (e.g. Surface Book) and won't even boot to WinPE, there is still a way to get the files by connecting using the Ethernet, then PXE Booting and your local network - see my previous blog post here. ToolWiz Remote Backup 2012 still works from a Windows 10 host (the toolwiz website seems to be down at the moment but MajorGeeks has the download). It is really easy to set up too and works even if your router or server is connected as the DHCP server.

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