How to Create an Emergency Windows Rescue CD
Make a Bootable Windows "Live" CD for System Recovery
How to Create an Emergency Windows Rescue CD
Update: Note that this article applies to Windows XP, and not to newer versions of Windows.
This article describes how you can go about creating an emergency bootable Windows rescue CD or DVD. You can boot from this CD / DVD into a Windows environment that is located directly on the CD/DVD without needing a working hard disk. From there, you can access your hard disks to recover data, do antivirus scans, backup your system, fix errors and so on. This is so even if your hard disk is formatted with the NTFS file system, which is commonly used as the default file system on Windows XP and Vista nowadays.
Why Create an Emergency Bootable Rescue CD/DVD
An emergency bootable Windows Rescue CD or DVD allows you to do the following:
Boot a working Windows system from a CD/DVD even when your entire hard disk or computer system is unbootable. Depending on the programs you place on the bootable Windows rescue CD, you can even surf the Internet, view/display powerpoint slides, write basic ASCII text files, burn CDs, etc, in that system. It will be excruciatingly slow though (since it will be running from a CD and not a high speed hard disk), but in an emergency, it may be just what you need to get work done even when your entire system has crashed.
Recover data from a hard disk that can no longer boot - for example, you can copy your important files from that hard disk to a floppy disk or flash drive even if you can no longer boot into Windows from the disk. You can also run file and data recovery software to undelete files that you have accidentally deleted. Running such programs from a bootable Windows rescue CD environment is safer because the running Windows system will not overwrite the space previously occupied by your already deleted files (unless you specifically write files there).
Scan the hard disk for viruses and remove spyware, trojans and other malware that elude your antivirus software when Windows is loaded. Sometimes, viruses, trojans and other malware are embedded so tightly into your operating system that when you boot Windows the normal way, the virus is also loaded and cannot be detected or removed by antivirus software running in that system. In such a case, you might want to start up Windows from a clean source like a bootable Windows rescue CD and scan the hard disk from there.
Defragment files on a hard disk that cannot be defragmented when Windows is loaded from the hard disk. The emergency Windows boot CD that you create here will have the default Windows defragmentation utility. However, booting from the CD will allow you to defragment certain files on your hard disk that you normally will not be able to defragment, like the page file, hibernation file, etc. (Note, though, that one or more of the utilities listed on the Free Defrag Tools page will allow you to do this even without an emergency boot disk.)
Backup and restore your hard disk from an environment that will not interfere with the backup or restoration process. While most modern backup and imaging programs will allow you to backup a system even when it is running, they often require you to reboot to an emergency disk to restore the system disk.
It's best to create your emergency Windows rescue CD before disaster strikes, so that you have it handy when you need it.
What's Wrong with the Startup Disk Created by Windows?
In the old days of MSDOS and Windows 9x/ME, it was a trivial thing to create a bootable rescue disk. Simply format a floppy disk and include the MSDOS system files and you immediately had a disk from which you could boot should the system on the hard disk fail. In fact, Windows 95, 98 and ME had an easy-to-use interface to create an emergency startup disk for you. Windows 98 and 98 Second Edition even load a number of useful drivers onto the disk when you use that facility.
Now, with Windows XP, even though the facility to create a startup disk is still there, such a bootable floppy disk is no longer useful. Firstly, many systems are formatted with the NTFS file system. The MSDOS floppy that is created by Windows does not have the necessary drivers for you to access hard disks and partitions formatted with this file system. As a result, such a startup disk or emergency boot disk is next to useless for the typical uses of such things - to recover data, to scan for viruses, to backup your system, to backup or defragment the system, etc. Sure, you can always locate and load third party NTFS DOS drivers, but how useful is that? After the drivers are loaded, you hardly have any RAM left in the 640 kb RAM that MSDOS programs can use to do much else. Furthermore, all the modern recovery programs that you want to use, like antivirus software, data recovery (undelete and unformat) programs, backup software, defragmenters, etc, are Windows programs. They will not run in such an environment.
To recover from the failure of a modern Windows system, you need a modern Windows rescue CD.
The following things are needed before you begin.
A Windows XP SP 2 setup CD or DVD
You will need your XP setup CD to create the bootable rescue disk.
If you bought a computer system with Windows XP Service Pack 2 ("SP2") preloaded but without a setup disk, all is not lost. Check your hard disk for a I386 directory at the top of drive C:. That is, check to see if you have a non-empty C:\I386 directory. If you do, you can use that directory instead of a Windows setup CD.
If you have already created a Windows setup CD using my guide How to Create a Bootable Windows XP Setup CD/DVD on a Preinstalled Windows System you can simply use the setup CD that you created for this purpose. The disk must have XP with Service Pack 2 (not earlier).
If your Windows setup CD/DVD is for an XP version earlier than Service Pack 2, you will need to slipstream service pack 2 into your setup CD. Follow the procedure given in my guide to create a new bootable Windows setup disk with service pack 2 slipstreamed, but instead of looking for an I386 folder on your hard disk, just drag the I386 folder from your existing pre-Service Pack 2 setup CD. Then slipstream service pack 2 as mentioned in that guide, and follow the rest of the steps to burn a new setup CD with service pack 2 integrated.
If your computer system came preloaded with a version of XP that pre-dates Service Pack 2, you will also have to follow my guide to create a bootable Windows setup CD with service pack 2 slipstreamed and use the setup CD later.
Note that if you have a choice between using a retail version of Windows XP and the version that came with your computer (known as an OEM version), you should use the retail version. The OEM versions of Windows XP sometimes have modifications made by the computer manufacturer that cause problems when creating a Windows rescue disk.
BartPE is the free software that you will be using to create the bootable "live" Windows rescue disk. Download it now and save the file somewhere on your hard disk. The steps that follow will assume that you have already downloaded the file.
XPE is an addition to BartPE (that is, a "BartPE plugin") that allows you to have a Windows-like desktop, Windows Explorer and other Windows tools (like the disk defragmenter) when you boot to the rescue environment. Please download it now. The file to download has a name like "xpe-1.0.7.cab", which basically means XPE version 1.0.7. Get the latest version available. There's no need to download the other things listed there.
Save the file somewhere on your system. I will assume that you have already obtained this file in the steps that follow.
A CD-R or CD-RW
I recommend you use a rewriteable medium (CD-RW) instead of a write-once only medium (CD-R), so that you can always reuse the CD again if you make a mistake. The disk you will create in this guide is also only a rudimentary disk with only certain basic software. After you have successfully created this disk, chances are that you will want to augment the disk with your favourite software later, so it makes sense to use a rewriteable to avoid wasting a lot of CDs.
How to Create a BartPE Rescue Disk with Integrated XPE
Before you begin, if you are using a Windows setup CD and not your preloaded "C:\I386" directory, make a folder on your hard disk, call it "XPSETUP" or something, and drag everything from your Windows setup CD into that folder. Although this is not strictly required, it will speed things up and allow you to avoid problems later when BartPE tries to burn your rescue disk and finds your Windows setup disk in the drive.
Create another folder somewhere on your hard disk and call it "rescue" or some other name if you wish. This folder will contain the working files for creating your Windows "live" CD. I shall assume that you named the folder "rescue" in this tutorial.
Double-click the BartPE file you downloaded earlier. For example, if the file was named "pebuilder3110a.zip", double-click it. Drag all the contents from this folder into the "rescue" folder that you created earlier.
Look in the "rescue" folder which should now be populated by the files you extracted from the BartPE zip archive. Double-click the "plugin" directory/folder to open it.
Right-click somewhere in the blank space in the folder and click the "New" item in the menu that appears, followed by the "Folder" item. Windows Explorer will create a new folder with the name "New Folder" highlighted. Rename the folder "xpe" by simply typing over the highlighted words "New Folder". If you accidentally clicked elsewhere so that "New Folder" is no longer highlighted, click it again, hit the F2 button on your keyboard and type the new name. Hit the Enter key on your keyboard when you are done.
Double-click the "xpe" folder. It should be empty for now.
Double-click the XPE cab file that you downloaded earlier. This is the file named "xpe-1.0.7.cab" or the like. Drag all the files in the window that appears to the empty "xpe" folder that you opened in the previous step.
Click the up arrow on the Explorer window until you are viewing the "rescue" folder again. If you don't know what I mean, simply close all the open windows on your desktop then double-click the "rescue" folder to open it.
You should be able to see a red icon with the word "PE" in the picture, labelled "pebuilder" or "pebuilder.exe". Double-click it to start up the BartPE PE Builder program.
Read the licence agreement, and if you agree, click "I agree". Note that if you do not agree, you will not be able to carry on with the steps that follow.
A dialog box will appear asking if you want it to "Search for Windows installation files". Since you have already copied your Windows setup CD files onto your hard disk earlier, and you know where it is, you should click "No". The process of searching for the files takes a long time - it's much faster to specify the location of the Windows installation files manually.
In the displayed dialog box, if you clicked "No" in the previous step, you will be greeted with a blank field for the "Source". Click the "..." button beside the empty "Source" field. In the dialog box that opens, select the folder where you copied your Windows setup disk files. Click OK.
If you do not have a Windows CD/DVD drive, but have a folder named "C:\I386" on your hard disk containing the Windows setup files, select drive C: in the dialog box that opens. Note that I said to select drive C: and not C:\I386. PE Builder will automatically get the files from the I386 folder of the drive you specify.
In the "Media output" section, select "Burn to CD/DVD".
Click the "Plugins" button at the bottom of the window.
In the window that appears, you will see a list of programs prefixed by "Yes" and "No". A program prefixed with "Yes" means that it will be included on your rescue CD, and one with "No" means that it won't.
Not all programs listed here are actually available - some of them require that you buy the software yourself and manually include it here. Other programs conflict with Sherpya's XPE software which we will be using.
Click the "A43 File Management Utility" line. It will be highlighted. Click the "Enable/Disable" button at the bottom of the window. You will see that the "Yes" flag changes to "No". Although "A43" is free and included in the default BartPE installation, it is redundant since XPE automatically bundles in Windows Explorer.
In the same manner, do the same for the following items. Note: to enable or disable the item, simply click the "Enable/Disable" button. The button acts as a toggle - clicking it when it is enabled will disable it and vice versa.
Bart's Stuff Test (free edition) - disable this. It is used to stress test hard disks.
BartPE Installer v2 - disable this. It is used to install BartPE onto your hard disk.
Drive Snapshot - disable this. This is a useful commercial backup and restore program. Alas, the trial copy that comes with BartPE has expired, so unless you are prepared to buy the program, it's pointless to include it.
Nu2Shell - disable this. We will be using XPE instead.
PENETCFG: Automatically start PE Network configurator - disable this. Not needed since we have XPE.
PENETCFG: PE Network configurator (the Truth) - disable this. Not needed since we have XPE.
RpcSS needs to launch DComLaunch Service first - SP 2 only - enable this.
Startup Group - disable this. Not needed since we have XPE.
When you are done, click the "Close" button.
Place a blank CD-R or CD-RW into your CD/DVD drive. Click the "Build" button. A message box asking you whether you want to create a directory will appear. Click "Yes". Read the Windows License that appears, and if you agree, click the "I agree" button. A new window showing the progress of PE Builder will be shown.
If you receive error messages when the process stops, you can use the "<<" and ">>" buttons at the bottom of the window to step through the errors. Errors like "Error: SetupDecompressOrCopyFile()" means that your setup disk is missing some files. One possible reason is that you are not using Windows XP Service Pack 2 for your source. There's no solution to that other than to use the procedure described in How to Create a Bootable Windows XP Setup CD/DVD on a Preinstalled Windows System to slipstream Service Pack 2.
If all goes fine, PE Builder will start burning the CD-R or CD-RW when it finishes collecting the files. When it is finished burning and verifying the disk, and you see the words "Building done..." (among other things) in the window, click the "Close" button and quit PE Builder.
Reboot your computer with the Windows rescue CD in the drive to test your Windows "LiveCD". Note that the startup sequence is extremely slow, since you are booting from a CD and not a fast hard disk. Likewise, loading and running programs from the rescue disk also takes longer. This is normal for a modern operating system running from a CD.
The default BartPE with XPE disk that we created has a "classic" Windows theme. The taskbar is on the top of the desktop, but you can drag it down to the bottom if you wish. If the taskbar disappears from the screen, just move the mouse to where the taskbar is supposed to be and it will reappear. We will fix this behaviour and customize the rescue disk further in the next tutorial.
Congratulations. You have created a working Windows rescue disk, far more useful than the "startup disk" created by Windows. With this CD, you can already rescue files from an NTFS system, defragment the hard disk and even surf the Internet!
If you wish, you can read the next tutorial on how you can customize your emergency Windows rescue disk.
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