How To Recover Files And Photos From A Broken Windows PC

Few feelings inspire more dread than a PC that refuses to start — especially if you never bothered to back up your data. Thankfully, there are still ways to retrieve your family photos, office documents and other precious files if you know where to look. We explain what to do.

My friend Barney called me recently when his Windows 7 PC kept crashing during startup, spitting out a blue screen error and constantly rebooting. The error only appeared on the screen for a split second, so the only way to read it was to record it with my smartphone and play back the video. What we found wasn’t good:

STOP: C000021a {Fatal System Error}
The verification of a KnownDLL failed. System process terminated
with a status of 0xc0000221 (0x017d9cd0 0x00000000)
The System has been shutdown.

What does it mean?

At times like this a quick Google search is in order. It turns out this error is Microsoft-speak for “Windows has lost its mind, you’re in trouble”.

A common cause of this kind of error is a failed Windows update corrupting an important subsystem or damaging the registry, basically crippling Windows so badly that it can’t start even in Safe Mode. Thankfully this kind of error leaves your documents intact, you just can’t start Windows to reach them.

Barney backs up all his important files online, so in theory we could have just wiped the hard drive and reinstalled Windows. Unfortunately we weren’t 100 per cent confident everything had been backed up (it’s a long story) so we decided that we’d do our best to recover his My Documents folder and everything within.

When Windows won’t boot, reformatting the hard drive and reinstalling from scratch is absolutely a last resort – as this will wipe your My Documents folder – so we worked our way down the Windows emergency checklist.

Unfortunately we had no luck booting into Safe Mode or using the Last Known Good Configuration option, but thankfully Barney’s store-built computer came with a Windows 7 OEM installation disc which offers a range of options for fixing an unhappy Windows installation. If it had been an off-the-shelf brand name computer it probably would have come with a recovery disc offering similar tools.

What next?

Pressing F8 during startup typically offers you the choice of booting your computer from a disc or USB stick instead of the hard drive, so we booted Barney’s computer from the Windows 7 installation disc and selected “Repair your computer”.

The Startup Repair tool failed to fix the problem so next we tried a System Restore – taking advantage of Windows’ built-in backup tools to roll the computer back to a previous state while leaving the My Documents folder untouched.

We found four System Restore points but all of them refused to work. The most recent was made the day the computer stopped working, when Windows installed a critical update – supporting our suspicion that a failed Windows update had likely nobbled the computer.

If you’re not afraid of the command line you can select “Command Prompt” and try a few more tricks to revive your computer. For example you can attempt to restore the backup copy of the registry stored in C:windowssystem32configregback, although unfortunately this folder was empty on Barney’s PC so we struck out there.

Save your files

At this point you might keep trawling the support forums in search of answers but Barney and I decided to cut our losses and reinstall Windows. Of course first we needed to salvage his My Documents folder.

One option is to pull out the hard drive and plug it into another computer to copy off your files, but it’s simpler to boot your broken computer using another operating system running on a disc or USB drive. It’s possible to run Windows this way but it’s easier to download the latest version of 32-bit desktop Ubuntu and burn it to DVD as a disc image (obviously using a different computer).

You can boot from this DVD to temporarily run Linux on your broken Windows computer and access the hard drive. You’ll want a USB keyboard and mouse handy, as Linux might not recognise a wireless keyboard and mouse.

At the startup screen, make sure you select “Try Ubuntu” and not “Install Ubuntu”. From the Linux desktop it’s easy to search through your hard drive for your My Documents folder, but to play it safe you should copy the entire C:Users folder. This way you’ve got the data for everyone who uses the computer, copying not just their My Documents folder but also their pictures, email database, iTunes folder and other important data.

Once you’ve copied the C:Users folder to another internal drive, or an external USB drive, it’s safe to shutdown Linux, boot from the Windows installation disc and reinstall Windows on the same partition. If it’s a store-built computer you’ll also want the utilities disc for the motherboard so you can reinstall the drivers for your Ethernet/Wireless card, after which you can access the internet to download all the latest Windows updates.

Once Windows is running smoothly again you can transfer all your files back from your copy of the original C:Users folder.

Have you faced your share of Windows disasters? What did it take to get up and running again?

This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald’s home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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