Recovering Windows files with a Ubuntu CD I: the backstory

The problem
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
f-ing pissed
Windows XP Crash Blue Screen
My computer won’t start?

Hope
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.

Continue reading:
Recovering Windows files with a Ubuntu CD II: getting your files

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10 Comments

  1. The article is an invaluable service. Thanks for taking the time! PS… the link to the second page of the series is returning a 404.

  2. Clarification: The side-bar link is ok… I’m referring to the link at the bottom of the first article.

  3. OMG! Thank you ever so much!! I got so tired of my WinXP glitching, crashing the having to reformat – I went to Ubuntu. This last crash I didn’t get a chance to back up all my important files – but thanks to this easy to understand walk through – I now have them all safely back!!

    TYTYTYTY!!! ^_^

  4. Ubuntucat:
    Will this live cd also work on a HDD that I can hear the ‘needle’ thrashing around on? my hdd crashed on the laptop last week and thankfully I had already purchased a larger capacity drive for it before that, but when I took out the old hdd and inserted it into an external case, hooked it up (USB) to the laptop w/new drive in it.. I could see the drive but it showed nothing on it at all.

    When the old drive crashed, it kept saying ‘unmountable boot disk’ and I heard clanking on the drive. I thought since I couldn’t see the contents from the external case, it probably meant the drive was not going to be recoverable.

    Was I right? Could a Live CD have saved my info? I threw the darn thing away a few days ago, so go easy on me please.. :)

    I have to also say here – I do a backup on drives about every 2-3 weeks, sometimes more often. I only lost 20 days of email (bills, website updates, genealogy photos) so I was relieved – I can get all those back again. But it would’ve been nice to be able to recover what I’d lost! Thanks for the advice!

  5. Hi, Sharon!

    You know, a needling thrashing sound is probably a hardware issue. Live CDs are better for helping with software issues (i.e., Windows won’t boot up, but the hard drive is physically okay).

    Still, it’s worth a shot. It can’t hurt! Best of luck!

  6. This is great. Have you considered putting / linking this series in the sidebar of your Ubuntu tutorials (/www.psychocats.net/ubuntu/) ? I think it would reach a larger audience if it were. Thanks for your hard work.

  7. Extremely useful info.

    BTW, ShipIt has closed

    QUOTE from Ubuntu’s site: “After delivering millions of Ubuntu CDs to millions of new users, our ShipIt programme has finally run its course. While we can no longer deliver free CDs through the programme, it’s still easy to get Ubuntu. You can download Ubuntu for free from Ubuntu.com or you can buy a CD straight from the Canonical shop.”

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