What if your Windows installation is suddenly unbootable, you accidentally delete all your files, or the Geek Squad “accidentally” formats your hard drive without asking your permission or backing up your files first? Well, people who have learned from these kinds of experiences will tell you to learn to back up everything. Invest a small amount of money in an external hard drive and back up often.
Yeah, that’s easy to say after the fact. But what do you do now, when you desperately need a file from an unbootable Windows computer? I’ve read a lot of sob stories online from people thinking they need to pay the Geek Squad hundreds of dollars and also part with their computer for days or weeks at a time in order to get their precious not-backed-up-this-time-but-swear-they’ll-be-backed-up-next-time files.
I did a quick Google search on recovering deleted files and found these depressing results:
Geek Squad – Best Buy geek squad irresponsible, erased my hard drive without consent ripoff Deptford New Jersey
Recover deleted files
How to Deal with Data Loss
Windows XP Crash Blue Screen
My computer won’t start?
You do not have to part with your computer for days or weeks at a time, pay someone hundreds of dollars, or be a computer genius in order to access your files right away. In the spirit of Why Every Windows User Needs a Linux Live CD, this tutorial with screenshots will show you how you can use a Linux live CD (with Ubuntu as an example, but there are many Linux live CDs you can use—Knoppix, Damn Small Linux, Mepis, PCLinuxOS) to access files from an unbootable Windows installation, and to recover files that have been deleted or that are part of a drive that has been reformatted.
Linux live CD?
I’m not going to go into a whole detailed history of the free software movement, Linux, and open source. You can read the Wikipedia links and find out more yourself. The bottom line is that the solution is both cost-free and legal.
A Linux live CD is a CD that runs an active session (complete with web browser, word processor, disk utility tools, and more) off the CD itself and your computer’s RAM (or memory). It does not affect your hard drive unless you specifically ask it to. Of course, since it is using your RAM and not your hard drive to run the live session, the more RAM you have, the more smoothly the live session will go. For these purposes, I’d recommend at least 256 MB of RAM. If you have less than that, you might want to look into Damn Small Linux or Puppy Linux instead of Ubuntu. They provide a lighter live session that can run comfortably with a small amount of memory.
Getting a Ubuntu CD
Usually, it’s not that hard to get a hold of a Ubuntu CD image if you have a working Windows computer and a broadband connection. Since we’re operating under the assumption that your Windows isn’t booting, there are several alternatives for obtaining a Ubuntu CD:
- Find a Ubuntu user near you. Believe it or not, you may actually know a Ubuntu user—ask around. Even if you don’t, you can probably find one on Craigslist who’s not only willing but more than happy to give you a free Ubuntu CD. You can also try to contact a local Linux Users Group (they exist in all parts of the world), and the nice folks there will likely give you a CD for free or charge you only a nominal fee.
- Use another computer to download and burn a copy of Ubuntu. This could be a computer at work or a computer at a friend’s or relative’s place. I’ve detailed here this entire process. It requires a faster-than-dial-up connection, a CD burner, and a blank CD.
Buy a CD or DVD. If you don’t know anyone who has a Ubuntu CD, feel shy about asking strangers for one, and have no access to a computer through which to download and burn Ubuntu, you can buy it at a very small cost. For example, Best Buy sells a boxed Ubuntu set for US$19.99, and Amazon sells a DVD of Ubuntu for US$12.99.Unfortunately Best Buy and Amazon don’t appear to sell these any more, but you may find them available on eBay or Craigslist.
- Order a free CD. As a last resort, if none of the above options work for you, Ubuntu’s company will actually ship professionally packaged CDs to you for free (including postage). The only problem with this method of obtaining Ubuntu is the time it takes (you could be waiting up to two months to get your free CD in the mail.
Recovering Windows files with a Ubuntu CD II: getting your files