GUIDE: How to (hopefully) get your files back from your broken PC.

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This is a work-in-progress.

This guide is intended for the Windows operating system, and the methods found here may or may not work with other operating systems. For the time being, it will be assumed that DESKTOP systems are involved, until I can add more info for dealing with laptops. This guide is NOT intended to help with physical hard drive failures, or accidental file deletion/formatting/partitioning issues. That's a Guide for a different day <img src="i/expressions/face-icon-small-happy.gif" border=0>

Also, if your hard drive seems to be making new, unusual noises, it may be about to physically fail. You should turn the system off and seek help from a qualified professional under these circumstances.

Here's a typical posting seen here in the computer forum:

[Q]HELP!!! My computer was working fine, but the next time I tried to turn it on, I couldn't get into Windows! How do I get my files back?
First of all, don't panic. Unless you've had a catastrophic, physical hard disk failure, the odds of getting all of your files back are actually quite good! Worry about recovering your data FIRST, then worry about fixing your computer LAST.

The number one rule is: KNOW WHEN TO HIRE A PROFESSIONAL!

If you are at risk of losing data that you absolutely cannot live without, you should, without a doubt, hire a professional company with an excellent record of recovering data in even the most difficult of circumstances. One such company is Ontrack. They are considered by many to be the best in the data recovery industry. They routinely recover data from drives that have been in fires, floods, and other dire circumstances, including intentional sabotage. They are expensive, but this is the price you pay when you don't take the time to backup your files!

The number two rule is: "DON'T DO ANYTHING STUPID!"

Slow down, take a deep breath, and work on this in a logical manner, because these techniques, if not followed correctly, may actually result in making your problem worse! If you do not already have some experience working inside of computers, and installing and configuring of hard drives, you, too, should strongly consider finding a professional computer technician that has the knowledge and proper tools to recover your data!

This is a good time to mention that, should you follow the advice given here, you will be doing so at your own risk. I (nor anyone else) shall be held accountable for any problems that arise from following this guide, or other advice given. Period.

With that said:

The majority of computer failures that leave data inaccessible, in my experience, have nothing to do with a genuine hard drive failure. More often than not, you can't access your files because something like your power supply has failed, or there is corruption to a file that's needed for your system to boot properly. Fix these problems, or work around them, and you'll find it very easy, most times, to recover your data at nominal costs.

Let's take a common scenario:

You're using your computer as a thunderstorm is approaching. Before you can shut the computer down, your home and your computer lose electrical power. When the power comes back on, you try to boot your computer, but find there is now a corrupted file in the system registry, and you can no longer boot fully into Windows. Your stomach sinks as you realize you have 5 years worth of digital photographs on your computer, and have never made a backup!

The good news is that your data can almost certainly be recovered!

Now, let's explore a few common ways of recovering your files:

Method ONE:

I call this the "drive as slave" method.

Cost: Usually FREE.

Difficulty: "Easy" for experienced persons, "difficult" for inexperienced persons, You will need a second, working desktop computer available.

In this method, our intention is to simply remove the "bad" drive from the dead system, and place it in a working system long enough to recover the data off of the drive.

Begin by unplugging the computer! Follow your computer's manual to open the broken computer's case. There's usually only a few screws that will need to be removed. Once the case is open, locate the system's main hard drive (most systems will have only ONE). The hard drive is usually the drive located lowest inside the system, beneath the optical drives (CD and/or DVD drive). In the standard system, there will be two-to-four screws that hold the drive in place. First you will have to carefully remove the data and power cables from the drive. You may need to consult your PC's manual to figure out how to physically pull the drive out of the system.

After the drive is removed from the broken system, you will need to read the label or wording on the hard drive for instructions on how to set it as a "slave" drive. Usually this requires that only one small "jumper" be moved to a different set of pins. This usually takes only seconds to do, but you may need a pair of tweezers to carefully grasp the jumper.

Once the drive is set as "slave", you will need to unplug your other, working system's power cable, and prepare to place the "bad" drive inside of it. It is usually not necessary to permanently mount the "bad" drive in the good system, as file recovery usually takes a short amount of time. Ideally, you will add the bad drive to an open connector on the same cable as the good drive in the good system. You will then have both the good and bad drives on the same cable, in the working system. If there is not a second connector available on the cable, you may need to go buy an IDE cable with more connectors, or see if your other system has a cable with more connections. An alternative is to remove an optical drive from its cable, and attach that cable to your "bad" hard drive.

Once this is done, you should be able to plug the system back in and boot it up. Most computers will now recognize that you have added another hard drive, and boot with no problems, so long as the hard drives are jumpered properly.

EDIT: Here is a web page showing a hard drive inside of a system, and explains jumpering the drive, adding it a "slave", etc. Sometimes a few pictures say a 1000 words!

Once you get the computer booted, open "windows explorer", look for your "bad" hard drive, and proceed to copy your files from it, most likely onto your "good" hard drive, space permitting. Here are typical locations that you'll find your files at with Windows 2000 and Windows XP. Once your data is recovered, shut down the good computer (unplug it), remove the "bad" drive, close the case, plug it back in and it should reboot just fine again.

Now you can change the jumper on your "bad" drive back to its original setting, and place it back in the dead system.

Now you can post to the forum and ask how to fix it.

EDIT: Method ONE will work with LAPTOP hard drives as well, IF you purchase a Laptop to IDE adapter, for about $20 at a bricks & mortar store. This will let you temporarily place your laptop hard disk inside of your desktop system. This web page has an example of what you'll need.

Method TWO:

I call this the "external enclosure method".

Costs: You'll need to purchase an external enclosure if you don't already have one. You should be able to find a decent one for under $50. Read the "Enclosure Guide" for more information.

Difficulty: This is probably the easiest of the methods you'll find here.

In this method, the intention is to simply remove the "bad" drive from the dead system, place it into an external enclosure (following the instructions from the manufacturer), and then plug it into the USB port of a working computer (for best results the working computer should be running the same version of Windows, or better, than the dead system was running. This is because old operating systems cannot read new file systems.

Once you plug the external enclosure into a working system, open windows explorer, find the hard drive that holds your files, and copy them to the working system's hard drive, space permitting, or burn CDs/DVDs as needed.

Once your data is recovered, remove the hard drive from the enclosure, place it back into the dead system, and then make a post asking for help fixing your system.

EDIT: This method works for laptops, too, IF you purchase an enclosure MADE FOR LAPTOP hard drives! Pleas read your laptop's manual for information on removing your laptop's hard drive properly.

EDIT: Some newer hard disks are known as "SATA" drives. They require different connectors, and therefore different enclosures. You may want to CAREFULLY take the hard drive with you to the store (in an anti-static bag) for a knowledgeable employee to identify the drive and suggest the proper type of enclosure for it!

EDIT: There are also "USB to IDE" cables available, that "work like" an enclosure, but lack a physical case. Here is a picture of one: Picture. They are sometimes a little less expensive, and usually work well for very short term use. The drive is "out in the open" and unprotected while using these devices, so they are not intended for permanent usage.

Method THREE:


Costs: Likely free, if you have a windows xp cd with at least service pack one on it.

Difficulty: This is probably pretty hard to do if you don't have a broadband connection, as you will need to download large files. You will also need a CD burner, and mastering/burning software. You will need to already be familiar with, or learn how to turn ISO files into working CDs. If you are already able to do these things, this will be an easy project for you. If not, you're better off trying one of the other methods listed here.

Disclaimer: To use this method, your system should be physically sound - it must be able to at least P.O.S.T. and detect the hard drives/CD drives in the system. If it won't P.O.S.T., you probably have an underlying hardware problem, like a dead power supply, or a bad motherboard. You'll have to use method ONE or TWO to get your data back.

What to do: With this method, our intention is to build a bootable CD that will boot the dead system, and allow us direct access to our still-installed hard drive. There is NO need to open the case, set any jumpers, etc.

Go to either The BartPE website, or The Ultimate Boot CD for Windows (ubcd4win) Website, and read the instructions for building either of the bootable discs. It should take an "experienced" person an hour to make one of these bootable CDs. An "inexperienced" person may have a great deal of trouble making a working CD. Unfortunately, due to copyright restrictions, it is illegal to simply provide someone with pre-made, working CD. So you'll have to "build" one on your own. The ubcd4win CD also has several utilities for diagnosing and repairing hard disk errors, and for recovering deleted data, etc, but the use of these programs is beyond the scope of this guide. One should not use them unless they know what they are doing, because there is great risk of making the problem worse.

Once you get a CD built, you use it to start the dead system. You may have to "press any key", or tell the system to start from the CDROM drive. Eventually, these special CDs will start your system, and you can use one of the included file management tools to find and recover your data. You will need an external hard drive hooked to the computer (hooked up AND turned on before the system itself is booted) to COPY your data off to.

Once the CD is made, this is really the most popular way to recover data now. I can recover data from almost any non-bootable system in only a matter of minutes with these CDs. The hard part, unfortunately, is getting the CD made in the first place.

Method FOUR:

This is what I call the "Ghost Method", because you'll need to purchase Ghost 10/Ghost 2003 (2003 is included in the same retail box)

Costs: Sometimes Ghost is nearly free after rebates, sometimes it is $75+ if not on sale, or no rebates are available.

Disclaimer: Again, your system must be physically sound - able to P.O.S.T. for this method to work.

What to do: The Ghost 10 CD is bootable, just like the other special boot CDs mentioned above. If you can't make one of them, go buy one in the form of a Ghost 10 CD that will also boot your system. Once booted with the Ghost CD, there is a "recovery environment" where you can recover files and folders. Use this function to COPY your files to an external hard drive.

Alternately, the Ghost 2003 is also bootable. You can use it to image your "bad" hard drive, and then later you use the included Ghost Explorer program to "open" the image file, and extract your files back out of it. With Ghost 2003, you can actually image your system directly to your already installed CD Burner or DVD burner in your system, if you have one. This can save you from having to go and purchase an external hard drive to copy your data to.

I use this method all the time, and it works great. But Ghost 2003 is not an easy program for beginners, and be aware that Ghost is a very powerful program, and can actually destroy all of your data if used incorrectly. READ THE MANUAL before using it!

EDIT: Acronis True Image works in a very similar manner as Norton Ghost. If you can't find or afford Ghost, True Image is likely to work for you just as well, except that it is not able to write directly to CDs and DVDs.

There are also other methods available, including using Linux LiveCDs like Knoppix to boot systems for file recovery. You can find more information about Knoppix (and similar LiveCDs) in the Guide to Linux and alternate operating systems

There are even ways of networking your "bad" system to a good one, using these bootable CDs and LiveCDs, and copying all of your files over the local network (or Internet) for safe storage, but these techniques are pretty complicated and not for novices.

Finally, if none of these methods worked for you, it's likely that either the hard drive itself is "dead", or perhaps you've not followed the directions properly. Feel free to start a new thread and ask for help. We'll ask you to do a few troubleshooting measures, so we can see if your drive is even detected by your computer's BIOS still, stuff like that.

Hopefully this helps somebody! I'm open to hearing of other methods that people know of that are easy enough for the average person to use! This document will also be edited from time to time with clarifications as need.

Good luck!


P.S. Interesting reading: Recovering Unrecoverable Data - a whitepaper

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great post and very informative! Another professional data recovery company I have used is Action Front. They are really good and will examine your drive first to see what they can recover. Then they email you on what can be recovered with a quote. From there the customer can decide to have them recover the data or not. If the customer does not want it recovered, the drive is sent back to the client without any charge.

i do not work for actionfront. the company i work for uses them to recover data if needed

We do this at work very often, two tools to not live without for disaster recovery: Knoppix & Disk Explorer for NTFS ($70). Use free tools first of corse, if that doesnt work, for $70 its the best app out there imo.

Excellent post - looks a like sticky to me. Thanks for all the time and effort in creating this. <img src="i/expressions/face-icon-small-happy.gif" border=0>

Thanks for the feedback, guys. Yes, I have my very own "Guide" now <img src="i/expressions/face-icon-small-happy.gif" border=0> Thanks to my friend Ellory for suggesting that I create it.

I've been a certifed tech for 7 years now, and I routinely use one (or more) of these methods when I need to recover a clients data. Just a couple of weeks ago my next door neighbor approached me to let me know their computer wouldn't boot, and they literally had years worth of photos and documents with NO backups at all. They begged me for help! Using Ghost 2003, and an external USB drive, I imaged their system, and recovered ALL of their data in less than an hour!

In my experience, yes, hard drives do fail, but more likely than not, there is some other problem that prevents the computer from starting. The data is almost always safe and sound on the hard drive, just waiting to be recovered.

Anyway, I enjoyed making this, and I do sincerely hope it helps people get their "lives" back! <img src="i/expressions/face-icon-small-cool.gif" border=0>


Excellent post!<img src="i/expressions/face-icon-small-happy.gif" border=0>

maddiebeagle rocks, as usual!<img src="i/expressions/face-icon-small-wink.gif" border=0>

maddiebeagle said: [Q]EDIT: Acronis True Image works in a very similar manner as Norton Ghost. If you can't find or afford Ghost, True Image is likely to work for you just as well, except that it is not able to write directly to CDs and DVDs.

If you want to kill two birds with one stone, it should be noted that Apricorn hard drive enclosures include backup software called EZ-GIG II, which is the functional equivalent of Norton Ghost or Acronis True Image (in fact, it may be an OEM version of TrueImage). In other words, if you are having trouble with your drive, you can combine method two and four with a single purchase, giving you more options for recovering your data.

And yes, the EZ-GIG II CD is bootable, just like Ghost and TrueImage.

More enclosure discussion can be found here:

The Official External Enclosure Thread

I've tried method 1 and 2 in the past and ALWAYS ran into a problem if the drive came from a computer where the user had a username and password to login to Windows. When you try to access the data you will be asked for a username and password. I've yet to get past that point, even when I knew the username and password that was used. How do you get around this? Since I've never had been able to get around this problem I always just use a Knoppix boot cd and can access the drive without requiring user and password info. I'd be interested to hear how you get around the password problem. Thanks.

I'm glad you brought that up! I believe what you need to do is take ownership of the folders and files as microsoft directs here. Here's another page...

Thanks again for bringing it up, I forgot about that!

Thanks for the solution. I will definitely try that in the future, since I'm more comfortable with Windows than Linux. Nice thread.

Acronis can certainly burn out to CD/DVD...



I don't own Acronis TI, so I was just going by what I had read (about not burning directly to DVDs). I just found this article that they now allow direct burning to DVDs without 3rd party software.

They also appear to have a new workstation version available, that is more money, but has a lot of new features compared to the Home edition. I'm close to pulling the trigger on buying a copy, but I'm kinda waiting to see if they update the home edition in the near future...

For the purposes of this thread, I really need to know if it will write directly to DVDs OUTSIDE of windows, as in using its bootable cd to launch the imaging program and recover data from a broken windows instalation...thanks!

So far so good, now can I get my "favorites" and my emails and email address book off the old hard drive?

I have yet to use the DVD burning feature since I'm generally imaging systems for folks w/no DVD CD/CD-RW only).

As far as CD burning goes, yes- you burn after booting to the Acronis boot CD (not in Windows). In fact, that's what I do now- I made a boot CD, which I can then use to image any PC- simply by booting to it. It's not necessary to install Acronis to the system in question.


Edit> I still say a Knoppix CD is the easiest way to copy off data (assuming a working HD)...

Rambler said: [Q]So far so good, now can I get my "favorites" and my emails and email address book off the old hard drive?

Typical Windows XP Favorites storage location: C:\\Documents and Settings\\[USERNAME]\\Favorites

Address Book and E-mails: Depends on what e-mail client you are using!

Post your e-mail client and someone will help you.

Make sure you read this article, it has most of the answers already...

Thanks. Email is Outlook. Any chance of getting Outlook and the other Office sw off the old HD or am I looking at buying it all over again? I already loaded it on my 3 pc's and that's the limit...

I believe, but am not "100%" sure, that all versions of Outlook store the e-mails (and other info) here:

C:\\Documents and Settings\\USER NAME\\Local Settings\\Application Data\\Microsoft\\Outlook\\outlook.pst

As to your other question, re: reinstallation of outlook, please make a new thread asking for help. I'd like to prevent polluting of this thread with general questions, I'd like to keep it data-recovery related only, please.

Good luck,


ruhroh said: [Q]maddiebeagle rocks, as usual!<img src="i/expressions/face-icon-small-wink.gif" border=0>


Wanted to include a page or two on using Ghost for forensic imaging of hard discs. This could also be useful in terms of data recovery for our needs. For example, if a hard disk is in danger of an imminent physical failure, a forensically sound clone could be made before the drive fails, and then all future data recovery efforts could be carried out on the NEW hard drive, leaving the old one untouched from then on.

Forensic Imaging using Ghost - symantec document

Ghost - sector copy switches - symantec document

Third-party explanation of using Ghost 2003 for forensic purposes - concepts explained here could be useful for data recovery purposes

maddiebeagle said: [Q]Thanks,

I don't own Acronis TI, so I was just going by what I had read (about not burning directly to DVDs). I just found this article that they now allow direct burning to DVDs without 3rd party software.

Yes, it can burn to a dvd now--however, it is still buggy and IMO not reliable enough to say "it works!". You can read discussion about that issue here. For my peace of mind, it's backing up to 1 or more external hard drives that is safest for a home pc.

But TI does keep getting better and better. Their incremental scheduled backup works like a charm.

Guide to Norton Ghost
Has anyone put up a guide on how to Ghost a HDD using Acronis? I'd suggest someone put a guide together on FW for the most basic routine, it would be sooo great to have this. Most people leave their backups to the Windows built-in utility; they are sorely mistaken when a major problem occurs. Ghost can be very technical, but atleast it has the tools needed for the job. Built-in Windows recovery is a nightmare, especially when a virus/spyware/malware is living in //system32 or another important folder.

Thanks to maddiebeagle for the update.

No need for Ghost when a great guide already exists.

I don't know if one exists for Acronis True Image or not, but I would imaging one could learn the basic concepts from the Ghost guide and be able to get by pretty well.

EDIT: I think your post is actually ON topic, so I don't mind if you leave it! I try to spread the (ghost) gospel as much as I can.

I have started a thread on the related topic of how to recover data from deletion/format/trashed partitions etc. You can find it here. It is a work in progress.

Thanks very much for taking this on! <img src="i/expressions/face-icon-small-happy.gif" border=0>

Bump, to keep from being archived. Sorry for the interuption! <img src="i/expressions/face-icon-small-blush.gif" border=0>

Try "SpinRite" from Gibson research. Steve Gibson does a very informative podcast with Leo Leport.
Thanks for the guide op!

How bout BART PE<img src="i/expressions/face-icon-small-happy.gif" border=0>

Thanks, but that's already in the original post:

[Q]...Go to either The BartPE website, or The Ultimate Boot CD for Windows (ubcd4win) Website, and read the instructions for building either of the bootable discs...

The ultimate boot cd is better, IMO, as it is built on BartPE technology, but includes many, many more tools built into it by default. Have you tried it yet?

Thanks and good luck,


This may be a little OT but here is my question,
I have a bad hard disk on my laptop, I have recovered data using method 3;I am trying to do a fresh load of OS, if I put windows xp cd it boots and starts loading OS but gives me blue screen before complete installation. I have an enclosure for the laptop drive and was wondering if I can try loading OS externally, (obviously I can try <img src="i/expressions/face-icon-small-happy.gif" border=0>but has anybody successfully done this, any help will be appreciated. TIA

Glad you got your files back!

Now...I'd start a new thread, please, in order to keep this thread from being polluted with anything other than data recovery questions. Thanks.

Be sure you post exactly what hardware you have, etc, etc, as requested in the guide to seeking help in the computer forum. (LINK) P.S. It wouldn't hurt to know the EXACT error message you're getting, rather than us trying to guess.

Good luck,


Computer would not boot up.
Found THIS page ... HERE!

"XP's Little-Known 'Rebuild' Command
"There's an easy fix for "Missing HAL.DLL," "Invalid Boot.Ini," and several other fatal startup errors"

Which told me how to get up and running again.

Worked like proverbial "Magic"
Hopefully helpfull to soeone else.


I used the System Restore feature on my PC recently to wipe the C drive and return it to factory settings. I forgot to back up one important Excel file first, however, before doing so. I used Stellar Phoenix to try to find the file, and it looks like I found a temp file that was written from one of the last times I edited the file. The problem is when I try to open this temp file, all I see is a jumbled mess of strange characters. Does anybody know how to convert the temp file so that it looks like the actual Excel file I'm looking for? TIA!

Recuva (pronounced "recover") is a freeware utility to restore files that have been accidentally deleted from your computer. This includes files emptied from the Windows Recycle bin as well as images and other files that have been deleted by user error from digital camera memory cards or MP3 players. It will even bring back files that have been deleted by bugs, crashes and viruses!

Like all other Piriform products (including CCleaner), Recuva is free for both commercial and personal use.

Just wanted to add a link to this page about using a Knoppix Linux LiveCD for recovering your data.

And also [L=a beginner's guide to hard drive data recovery.][/L

Disclaimer: By providing links to other sites, does not guarantee, approve or endorse the information or products available at these sites, nor does a link indicate any association with or endorsement by the linked site to

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