Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

Windows Recovery Hints

Overview | Recovery Tools
Recovering Windows 7 & Vista | Recovering Legacy Windows

Plan Ahead for Disaster

Develop a backup and recovery strategy before your computer fails.

  • Even a basic plan is superior to no plan at all.
  • Recovery media is seldom provided for today's computers and cannot be created unless the system is in good working order.
  • A broken computer can't be used to find resources on the Web.

Clean Install

If you don't have the ability to recover your computer's operating system and programs you'll need to perform a clean install.

A clean install is usually a last resort when all other recovery methods have failed, but Windows occasionally needs to have a clean install to remove accumulated problems with software.

If you're uncomfortable with this process, hire a professional to do it for you. Be sure you have backups of any data since mistakes can happen. The shop is not liable for your data. You know what's important to you and what can be ignored.

What's Involved?

A clean install requires you to do some preparation first:

  • Backup all your data.
  • Deregister any programs that are restricted to on computer to preserver the rights to reinstall it again afterwards (such as Adobe Photoshop not licensed using a Creative Cloud subscription). This function is usually in the Help or Options menu.
  • Uninstall any programs that require it. If unsure, uninstall the program.

In situations where you're unable to do this (such as a hard drive failure), you may lose all your data and programs — why a recent backup is critical if you care about your photos and other data. Some software providers may provide the ability to reinstall the program if you contact their support department and explain that you've lost the ability to recover a functioning Windows installation. If not, you'll need to purchase the program again.

Once you've completed the preparation, you can reboot the computer with the Windows installation disk or recovery disk provided by your computer manufacturer (it should have been created when you got your computer if the computer didn't come with one). During this process you will destroy ALL information currently on the disk.

As the computer reboots, choose the option that allows you to boot using the recovery disk or Windows installation disk (the method varies by computer: try F12). Recovery choices depend upon what method you're using.

The examples below are for Windows 7, but other versions should work similarly.

Windows Installation Disk

Choose the custom (advanced) install rather than the upgrade. You'll need to format the existing partitions (at least the current C: partition). Optionally, you'll want to delete all partitions and let Windows create the partitions it needs. WARNING: deleting or formatting partitions wipes all existing data.

The DVD will copy installation files onto the hard drive then Windows will reboot several times as it completes the install. During the first reboot you'll want to be sure that the computer books to the primary hard drive, NOT the DVD.

Manufacturer's Recovery Disk

This option varies by manufacturer, but most will depend upon a hidden recovery partition on the primary hard drive plus a DVD or CD recovery disk to start the process. The DVDs/CDs can be created from Windows while it is working. If it isn't working you'll have to purchase them from the manufacturer.

Like the Windows Installation Disk, you'll boot to the recovery disk and follow instructions. There is generally at least two options: one that retains the programs and data (a repair) and one that restores the computer to the condition it was when it was shipped from the manufacturer. This second option is the clean install option. WARNING: all existing programs and data will be destroyed.

The computer will be restored to the condition it was when shipped: older versions of programs without your personalization.

Windows & Program Updates

Regardless of whether you used the Windows Installation Disk or the Manufacturer's Recovery Disk, you will need to do the following:

  1. Uninstall any obsolete or unnecessary programs (like old versions of Java, Adobe Reader, FlashPlayer, obsolete security software, etc.). These make your computer unsafe.
  2. Run Windows Update to install all recommended updates. Optional updates may be necessary to update drivers.
  3. Download and install a current version of security software, browser and plugins, utilities and other software.
  4. Restore your data from your backups.
  5. Configure and customize Windows to restore the look and feel you prefer.

I recommend you keep a current list of the software you use on your computer and any license numbers required in a safe place where you can find them. This will make it easier to recover in situations like this.

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Recovery Requirements and Methods Differ

Depending upon the version of Windows you are running the files needed for a system recovery differ. Generally speaking, up to Windows XP the procedure was becoming more complex as Windows evolved. Beginning with Windows Vista, newer and easier to use utilities are included or available.

Unless you are simply going to reinstall Windows and all your programs, you'll need more than a basic understanding of how Windows runs to recover from a severe crash or system instability.

Backups Essential

Be sure to keep a recent backup of all your important data. Having your data and program settings backed up will give you more options, especially if you have to call upon a professional to restore your system.

Many technicians do not bother to try to recover data, but simply restore your computer to working condition. This is primarily an issue of the time involved to recover data from a non-working system. Since time translates into a higher price, most do not bother in order to stay "competitive."

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Recovery Tools

Specifics for each Windows version will be covered later in this document. However, this section includes the main solutions common to recent versions of Windows.

One of the most critical things you can do is to maintain a recent backup of your files, particularly your data files and system files (which vary by version).

System Restore

Windows XP and later have a recovery function called System Restore. This will allow you to restore your computer to an earlier time such as just before you installed a new video driver or program that made it impossible for you to get back into Windows.

System Restore keeps a series of restore points (a backup of various critical Windows files at a certain time) in a hidden area on the hard drive. Windows automatically makes certain restore points, but you can also create a restore point prior to making a change to your system that you might need to undo.

Getting to System Restore

If your Windows loads OK you may be able to use System Restore to return your system to a state before a problematic driver was loaded or your Windows Registry was corrupted.

  1. Close all running programs before starting System Restore.
  2. Begin by clicking on Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, then System Restore.
  3. A wizard appears that allows you to 1) restore your computer to an earlier time, 2) create a restore point, or 3) undo your last restoration.

If you are unable to recover your system using System Restore or other tools available to you in Windows, you'll have to try other recovery options.

Safe Mode

Safe Mode starts a minimal Windows environment with only the essential drivers and files are loaded. Video resolution is greatly reduced and startup programs are not launched.

Some of the reasons you may enter Safe Mode include:

  • corrupt video drivers (you'll need to restore a basic video driver before you can start Windows and reinstall the correct drivers);
  • removing difficult software that loads at startup; and
  • cleaning up malware or virus infections (these often reinstall themselves at boot time from hidden files).

Launching Safe Mode

To see the advanced boot options, restart your computer then press the F8 key repeatedly after the BIOS message disappears (or the initial BIOS beep) but before the Windows logo appears (usually only a few seconds).

  • You may need to toggle the F-Lock key (if it is present), to enable the F8 key.
  • If the computer begins to beep continually, release the F8 key.
  • If you see the Windows log, you'll have to let Windows load then restart your computer to try again.

Other Advanced Boot Options

Other boot options are available on the Advanced Options Menu, including:

  • Safe Mode with Networking provides access to other computers on your network and to the Internet.
  • Last Known Good Configuration restores Windows to the condition it was in when it last loaded correctly.
  • Start Windows Normally will load Windows in the regular fashion. If you were having problems last time you attempted to load Windows this option may not work.

Additional options exist, but most users are unable to take advantage of them.

Bootable Recovery Disk

Each Windows version has some sort of a bootable recovery disk. It is important that you use the correct disk for your version of Windows.

Be sure to use the correct 32-bit or 64-bit utility to match what is installed on your computer. It is also important that you use the correct recovery disk for your version of Windows.

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Updated: November 5, 2015

Hints and resources for recovering Windows.

Recovering Windows 7 & Vista

In addition to the general information contained in the Recovery Tools section, there options specific to each of these current operating systems:

Recovering Windows 7

Windows 7 has a specific system repair disc available from Microsoft as well as one available from NeoSmart:

Combined with the built-in enhanced capabilities for a system images and scheduled backups in Windows 7 you should be able to recover your system much more readily than ever before.

Repair Your Computer

Windows 7 also has a Windows Recovery Environment available from the Advanced Boot Options menu. Select Repair Your Computer from the Windows Error Recovery screen.

The Windows Recovery Environment can also be launched from the Windows 7 DVD. Select Repair Your Computer when you see the Install Windows screen.

Recovering Windows Vista

Microsoft provides system recovery instructions for Windows Vista and there is a Recovery Disc available from NeoSmart:

While not as advanced as Windows 7, Vista recovery options are much better than earlier versions of Windows.

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Recovering Legacy Windows

Recover information for legacy Windows versions (those older than the ones listed on this page) are found on the Recovering Legacy Windows page.

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Related Resources

Related resources on this site:

or check the resources index.

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