May 13, 2012

How To Restore Windows When Your PC Won’t Start

You turn on your PC. Windows boot-up times usually take a short while, so you pick up your phone, like you do every morning, and check your email there first. After a few minutes, you look back up and all you get is some error line. No Windows desktop. No Windows login screen. Just some text on a black background with some error code. This isn’t looking good.

So you reboot again. You try Safe Mode. You try a previous setting of Windows. You try all available options and you get the grand result of… nothing. This really isn’t looking good.

Oh Sweet Windows

To be fair, Microsoft’s operating system has evolved into an exponentially more stable software over its multiple iterations. Basically, it became more reliable as it matured — hopefully, just like you. However, it’s still far from perfect. As such, it’s still not that uncommon to encounter instances when OS files get corrupted, leading your computer to hang, slow down or, as in the case above, refuse to load properly. Crap happens, as our wise ancestors so adequately put it.


Wiping your disk clean for a reformat and installing a fresh instance of Windows is the easiest way out of this mess. However, that also means losing all your files in the computer, as well as all the software you installed, along with their various plug-ins, add-ons and settings.

If you’re going to go this route, make sure you don’t have any important files stored that aren’t backed up sitting in the hard drive. In case you do, try to get them restored first, pulling out the hard drive, accessing it from another computer and copying the data. You can also run a file recovery program, if necessary.

Repair Windows From the Desktop

If you don’t want to take the chance that you could lose any data, you can try repairing Windows first. Should your Windows installation still allow you to enter the desktop, then the process should be easier.

1. Check what service pack is included in your Windows installation disk. That should be the latest service pack in your computer. Uninstall all non-compatible service packs (e.g. if you had an early version of Windows 7 without SP1, remove SP1 from your computer before the reinstall). You can do this from Control Panel -> Programs and Features -> Installed Updates.
2. Once you’ve verified you have compatible service packs on both the installer and on your PC, insert the Windows install disc into your optical drive. Run setup.exe and hit the Install Now button.
3. When you get to the install options, choose Upgrade (important: resist the urge to automatically pick Custom), which will restore all Windows files to their original state, all while keeping as much of your files, programs and settings as possible. After that, just let Windows do its thing, while you play Temple Run or actually go out to get some sun.

Repair Windows Without Going To the Desktop

Go into your computer’s BIOS settings and set the machine to boot from its optical drive, instead of from the hard disk. Then, insert the Windows installation disk and reset the computer.

The system should then start up and prompt you to confirm the boot-up from disc. Hit the key and wait for the first screen to load (which should be the familiar Windows language selection screen).

After you finish with that screen, you’re going to be prompted about what you want to do. Choose the option to “Repair Windows” or “Repair Computer,” which will lead you to another list of options. You can, pretty much, perform trial and error on each one of the options, testing afterwards to see if it fixes the problem and going back to the Repair screen when it doesn’t. The available tools are:

  • Startup Repair. This will check for and patch up corrupted Windows startup files, which will, hopefully, allow you to boot into Windows afterwards.
  • System Restore. If you set Windows to do scheduled backups, you can use this tool to restore the OS to an earlier time. If you didn’t, then it won’t do you any good. Do note that you can lose some changes, settings and add-ons doing this.
  • System Image Recovery. Similar to the above, except it restores from a system image you saved earlier. Again, if you set Windows not to do any automated backups, there’s a good chance this will be useless to you.
  • Windows Memory Diagnostic. This checks your memory for hardware errors, just to ensure it’s not what’s causing your problems with Windows.
  • Command Prompt. This takes you to the Windows command prompt, where you can run command-line tools. The one you’d want to use for repair is Windows’ System File Checker (sfc.exe), which finds and repairs errors in your system file. The full command is: “sfc /scannow /offbootdir=[DRIVELETTER]:\ /offwindir=[DRIVELETTER]:\windows”. There’s a good chance you’ll have to run SFC multiple times until it finds no more errors before you can get the system to work in a stable enough state.

Repair Windows Without An Installation Disc

If you have a Windows installer in hand, you can create a System Repair Disc using somebody else’s Windows computer. Do note that it needs to be the same Windows version (XP, Vista, 7). To create this, hit the Start bar, type “System repair” on the Search textbox, and select Create a System Repair Disc when you see it. From this point, all you need to do is follow the prompts. Note: You need a blank disc where Windows can write the repair program into.

Hardware Problems

Here’ where it really hurts: when you can’t boot from either a Windows installation disc or a System Repair Disc. Usually, that points to a hardware problem — one that you’ll have to take to a shop for actual testing and repairs. Of course, you can always pull out the toolbox and work on it yourself. Unless you know what you’re doing, though, that’s probably not the best idea, as the issue can range anywhere from your hard drive to your dynamic memory to your processor.

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