How to save files before reformatting computer if you can't boot into your computer also?
November 8, 2010 11:51 AM   Subscribe

Techsupport filter....Other variations of this question exist, but I think mine will be useful for the archives too. How can you save your photo, song, etc. files before reformatting a computer you can't log or boot into anymore?

A virus won't even let me boot into my computer. I took it to a large national chain tech support desk and they said they would have to do a fresh reboot on it and would save my files to DVD discs. I figured I could save the $125 and do this process myself. I know I have to get an OS loading disk to reboot the system. But, can I flip my files to a hard drive before that? Do I wait until after? I understand my programs will be lost.

I can get to a C: prompt.

Thanks in advance!
posted by skepticallypleased to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You have a few options:

1. Read up on MS-DOS commands - dir, cd, xcopy and use them to navigate the directory structure of your disk, copying your files to a USB stick as you find them.

2. Use a boot CD - there are various Linux 'live' CDs which will allow you to boot and run an operating system from a CD. Others may be able to advise which would be best for recovering your files.

3. Take out the hard disk and put it into a portable enclosure - they're pretty cheap and it's a straightforward job. Connect the now-portable hard disk to another PC - one with up-do-date virus/malware software - and retrieve your files that way.

4. Take this opportunity to upgrade/replace the hard disk. Install your operating system on the new disk, then go to step 3. When you've retrieved your files, format the old disk and use it as a backup disk, which would have saved you a lot of trouble in the first place :)
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 11:59 AM on November 8, 2010

If it has USB ports, a Linux LiveCD (there's a ton of 'em these days--Ubuntu and Knoppix are two big names) plus a flash drive is a pretty easy approach.

Boot from the CD (this might require changing BIOS settings), then navigate to the folders with your files, then copy them to the flash drive.
posted by box at 11:59 AM on November 8, 2010

Assuming you have your files in a separate partition, all you would need to do is boot up your computer with something like Clonezilla, and backup the data partition to an external hard drive or DVDs.
posted by bardophile at 12:01 PM on November 8, 2010

This may be paranoia, but I would never trust a machine presenting boot issues (even if it can be tracked to a virus) to create backup copies of my data. Having data on a single drive is even more problematic, and makes the procedure all the more important--could you confirm all the files are actually getting saved correctly, opening, etc. during the LiveCD backup process? Once you reinstall the OS, it's up in the air as to whether your data will still be recoverable.

I would say now is the time to spend a little money on an external hard drive caddy and a backup hard drive, which you should use bi-monthly at least. Always have a backup of important data. Right now, I wouldn't be satisfied (if I were you) unless I did the backup from an external caddy (which are on sale for <$30 this season) on a second known-stable machine. Basic drag/drop, and confirm the files are openable on the second machine before doing anything with the new OS on the drive. But that's a higher level of precaution than you might want.
posted by Phyltre at 1:08 PM on November 8, 2010

You might see if you can find a local independent shop that would just back the data up for you as well. We would do that for $28 or so probably where I work.

There is one big potential problem with putting your drive into an enclosure or hooking it up to another computer. If it is a particularly nasty virus like virut, then the other/new computer could easily become infected.

If it were me, I would use a MiniPE boot disk and burn the files onto DVDs. Then I would scan the DVDs for any viruses while in safe mode before doing anything with them.
posted by GnomeChompsky at 7:17 PM on November 8, 2010

Great responses here....thanks so much. I'm going to attempt the Linux solution. I'll move it to another older computer in case of a continued virus. I hope this helps some other people in a similar situation -- the tech support people were nice, but they add in a $40 diagnostics fee, a couple days turnaround, etc. and it adds up too. Thanks.
posted by skepticallypleased at 4:12 PM on November 9, 2010

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