Nick was consulting me on the purchase of a new lap-top when he mentioned that his old Dell machine had gone 'kaput' and would not boot-up at all—typically, no backups had been done so his live data was at serious risk.
My first thought was to attempt a start-up from a 'bootable' CD which would quickly determine whether the problem was with the hard-disk or some other component.
The F2 Key is typically used to enter the system setup area before the Windows operating system loads—this enables you to change the boot sequence though most recent PCs are already set up to load from a 'systems disk' (such as the Windows CD), if present.
If the hard disk is readable, it may be that the Windows system files are corrupt and can possibly be restored with a 'repair' installation—a full Windows installation will, in principle, overwrite everything on the disk.
If the disk is readable but not accessible with your PC, it should be possible to take it out and use it on another PC—lap-tops are a bit trickier than desk-tops for this as the disk bays and connections are not so 'standardised'.
If the disk is not readable, you are basically 'stuffed' but you will have learned a valuable lesson which is to perform regular backups in future.
In this case, I managed to boot-up using a Norton Ghost recovery disk which is typically used to restore from a backup though it has some additional utilities to perform various disk operations.
Nick's computer seemed to work OK, apart from the fact that the disk partition information had disappeared and the Windows operating system was not recognised—at this point, I was running the machine from a version of the DOS operating system contained on the Norton CD.
The Norton software managed to recover a Dell DOS partition which had utility programs for testing the hardware, etc, though it appears that the utilities supplied with Ghost do not recover Windows partitions or any data that they might contain.
There is plenty of software about which claims to recover deleted partitions and files though most of it needs a live Windows system to operate in—DOH!!
Question—How is it possible to recover deleted files?
This is all a matter of what is meant by 'deleted'.
In a Windows system, the initial process of deleting a file simply moves it to the 'Recycle Bin' which is just a special Windows folder from which the file may be easily restored to it's original location.
When the file is actually deleted, by emptying the Recycle Bin or running the 'Disk Cleanup' routine, the data still remains in place though all references to it are removed from the disk 'Directory'.
The act of deleting files simply frees-up the disk space for future use and the data won't actually be deleted until other data is written over it—which might not happen for a long time if you have plenty of free disk space.
If the data still exists on the disk, it is entirely capable of being read.
After a few internet searches, I came up with Active@ Boot Disk which comes in DOS and Windows versions—both versions create a bootable CD which runs either DOS or a 'lightweight' version of Windows Vista.
The Windows version can also create a bootable USB disk and has a more-comprehensive set of recovery tools.
In this instance, I chose the DOS version due to it's lower memory requirements—like many older PCs, Nick's was purchased with the minimum 256k memory then recommended to run Windows-XP.
Many of these 256k systems now struggle with running the much-updated Windows-XP.
In the event, the DOS version successfully recovered the C: partition and it's files—using one of the Norton Ghost utilities, I was able to drag the required data files to an external USB disk before attempting a full recovery of the system.
These data files were successfully transferred to Nick's new lap-top.
Naturally, the lap-top still wouldn't boot-up from the hard-disk which would have been just too easy.
Neither was I able to perform a successful 'repair' installation which would have left all existing programs and data intact—in all versions of Windows, trying to repair a corrupted system is a rather 'hit and miss' process which often fails.
I was, however, able to perform a fresh Windows installation to produce a 'clean' PC which will be perfectly good for not-too-demanding applications such as email and simple internet browsing—any other previously-installed software which is still required will also need to be re-installed.
Fortunately, all of the required software 'drivers' to match the installed hardware were available on the Dell DOS partition previously recovered.
I did notice that the CD/DVD drive was behaving erratically, sometimes giving rise to the dreaded 'blue screen of death' —this may well have been the cause of the original problem and not a virus as we had suspected.
Following advice on the Dell support site, I removed and re-installed the DVD which then seemed to work perfectly
Without wishing to labour the point, this recovery could have been done in about 10 minutes, without external assistance, if there had been a recent full system backup such as those produced by Norton Ghost or similar.
This should now be a useful back-up machine.
Point to ponder
if supposedly-deleted data can be recovered so easily, this clearly raises a security issue if your computer falls into the 'wrong hands' for any reason—I will be writing a separate article on that subject.