Thursday, December 13, 2018

Computer Disasters and Recovery

Three and a half years ago, I wrote an article about prepping for an upgrade to Window 10. It's still relevant, because there are still people using earlier versions of Windows, but I need to expand on having a “Live CD/USB” on hand before starting.

Most laptops and desktops sold today run some flavor of Windows. I can hear the Apple fans winding up in the background, but I am going to ignore them for one very good reason: I have no experience working with Apple products. I'm not going to try to give advice on something I know nothing about, so if you run anything with a Macintosh OS, you'll have to look elsewhere. Proprietary hardware tends to require specialist repair, so I stick with what is readily available and somewhat open-source.

I am the default IT tech for most of my family and a few close friends. I'm not a computer expert -- I have no schooling or certifications to put on a resume -- but I've been working with them since the days of punch-cards. I've built most of my own desktops over the last 30 years, and have learned a lot through research and by making mistakes. Upgrading the operating system (OS) used to be something that had to be done every two or three years, so I've had plenty of practice.

Repairing or restoring computers has been a puzzle that I've mostly enjoyed for quite a few years, and one of my most important tools is a “Live CD”. This is a method of repairing (or at least accessing) the software on your computer, and will not work if the hardware has been damaged. A PC with an intact hard drive can be salvaged by installing the drive in an external enclosure, but the possibility of a broken hard drive is the reason we have to back up our data.

(Sorry, but the tools and techniques for recovering data from a broken hard drive are way beyond a blue-collar budget. That is a specialist service reserved for governments and corporations with large budgets.)

Windows 10 is a fairly stable OS after three years of tweaks and updates. I know it has problems -- name something in this world that doesn't -- and a few of those problems can keep your PC from running. Viruses and malware are the main issues, but once in a while you'll find a corrupted file or two that will shut everything down and lock you out of your important files. Since I'm writing this on a PC and you're likely reading it on one, we can agree that they have become an important part of our daily lives. We can survive without them, but they usually make life easier and allow us to store huge amounts of information in a very small space. If you have your important data or documents stored on a computer and it locks up for some reason, here's one method to try to get them back.

Live or Rescue CD
A “Live” CD or USB stick will contain a complete OS capable of being run from the CD/USB. You don't need to install anything; just insert the media and boot up your PC. Most computers made in the last ten years or so will try to boot (start) from the CD/USB before trying the hard drive. If not, you'll need to interrupt the startup sequence by pressing F8 or the Delete key right after you hit the power button. You may have to hit that key repeatedly just to make sure you send the interrupt signal at the correct time.

Once you see a screen like the first picture below, you'll have to scroll through the options in the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) to set the “boot sequence” to try to start from the CD/USB first. An example is shown in the second picture. The BIOS is software that is installed on the main board of your PC at the factory. There are several different BIOS types, but they will all have the same basic options. Follow the prompts to save the changes and restart your PC with the Live CD in the drive.

Once your computer reboots using the Live CD/USB, you'll have a very small operating system that will allow you some access to your files. You can use this chance to back them up to another drive or attempt to repair your original OS if that is an option.

Which Live/Rescue CD should I choose?
Almost all of them run some flavor of Linux, a free OS that has been around for many years. It's free because most of the development is “open-source”, meaning that it's done for free by enthusiasts and not a corporation. Updates are tracked on free websites, and there are several equally good version out there. There are issues like lack of drivers for new software until someone gets around to making them, which keeps most non-geeks from using Linux, but it is also hard to write viruses and malware that will work which means it's more secure.

I have several copies laying around for differing uses. Here are my top picks:

A very powerful toolbox full of programs that will let you access and repair most software problems. I've used this one several time to restore laptops that were  dropped and had bad portions of their hard drives.

This one has been around since the days of floppy drives, and it still works. If you see someone on eBay selling a rescue CD, they have probably just burned a copy of this free utility and are charging for someone else's work.

For when you want to access a computer but don't have the password, or you don't want to leave any traces of your activities. This one is a hacker's friend, because it will let you into a locked computer once you've learned how to use it, but it also has ethical uses like accessing computers locked by ransomware. This one is for advanced users due to some of the anonymity features.

This is a complete replacement for Windows, but will run from a USB stick and let you into your files. I've run several computers on Ubuntu over the years, and it was the OS I installed on the laptop I gave my 75 year-old completely computer-illiterate mother. She couldn't screw it up in 5 years of trying, so it's safe to say it's a stable, secure system.

As we've written before, always back up your important data, but if you lose access to your files and haven't done a recent backup, one of these tools may help. They're free, so it costs no more than what you will pay for the CD or USB stick to store it on and it's always nice to have more tools around. My main problem is finding where I put the blasted CD, so I end up downloading it again for every job.

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