How can I salvage my data from a Vista laptop that won't boot?
March 15, 2010 4:49 PM   Subscribe

My laptop's Vista install is borked and now it won't start up. How can I salvage my data?

I have a Gateway W3040UA laptop running Windows Vista. System performance had been degrading for awhile. I was messing around with the system restore control panel, and somehow managed to screw it up even worse to the point where it wouldn't boot -- the screen would just stay dark on restart.

So I booted from a Vista install CD and tried using the various repair options to no effect. I have two partitions on my drive -- a 150 GB partition which had all my stuff on it, and a 10 GB partition called "recovery." I couldn't seem to use the small partition to recover anything, so I used the Vista installer to format it and I tried to install a clean copy of Vista there. It got partway through the install, tried to restart, and hung on restart again, so the install didn't finish.

I went back into the Windows installer and formatted the partition and tried again to install, but now the installer says it can't find a drive it can install to.

To make it still worse, I tried running the memory diagnostic tool on the install CD, which ran until it had to restart, at which point the screen stayed dark, just like before. So now every time I start up, if I don't boot from the Vista CD, the memory diagnostic tool pops up and wants me to select the drive it's supposed to be diagnosing. If I select the small partition it gives me an error and won't do anything. If I hit escape the computer reboots. If I select my main HD partition, I can get to the startup menu, where no matter what I choose, it will load windows, briefly flash a BSOD-looking screen, and then restart.

posted by ludwig_van to Computers & Internet (5 answers total)
Best answer: Make a Knoppix disc and copy your data over to something external. Wipe the hard drive and reinstall your OS.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:51 PM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sounds like an overheating issue to me. Dust accumulates in the cooling fan so it doesn't cool efficiently, leading to excessive CPU heat which can damage the hard drive. The usual sign of this is the cooling fan running loudly all the time, even when the computer is idle.

Sounds like the hard drive is dead or dying. Order a new one and see if you can reinstall Vista on it. Also clean out the dust. I can't find any info about your model, but on some laptops, you can unscrew the back cover to clean it. Otherwise, try a can of compressed air?

Also buy an external hard drive enclosure (like this one), put the old hard drive inside and use it like a USB drive. If you're lucky, you might be able to get some or all of your data off of it.

To avoid overheating issues, you can download this program, which takes the laptop's temperature. If things are getting warm, you know it's time to clean out the dust again.
posted by AlsoMike at 5:27 PM on March 15, 2010

Get the manufacturer of the hard drive and download their diagnostic program. If it fails, get a new one. If it doesn't fail, run a "low level format" or whatever their equivalent is, and run the test after that.

But for sure, if the hard drive is disappearing, it is bad. Heat *may* have been the cause, but probably not. Laptop drives aren't terribly robust.
posted by gjc at 8:45 PM on March 15, 2010

If you're more comfortable with windows than linux, you can make a bootable CD from UBCD. Then do as Blazecock Pileon sez and copy the files off to another computer.
posted by trinity8-director at 9:52 PM on March 15, 2010

My advice is that it's probably a failing drive, and your best bet is to get it to your closest professional data recovery shop if that's an option for you.

This doesn't necessarily mean forensic clean-room type stuff - though that will be an option. A proper outfit will analyze the drive, give you a quote as to what's wrong, you tell them what you want recovered, and away you go - you might end up with your data on a stack of DVDs in a couple of days, or on a new drive (or both) - or you might end up being offerred the foresnic route if the drive is really toasted, which is probably cheaper than what you think.

Either way - if you are dealing with a failing drive, any use of the drive could be further damaging your data, so unless you are fairly certain of what you are doing, please seek a professional. You won't regret it.

(PS: Make backups)
posted by TravellingDen at 7:31 AM on March 16, 2010

« Older Piano: How long will it take for me to play at...   |   Call all Database Gurus! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.