Help Me See What's In The "Hidden" Partition
July 27, 2006 6:34 PM   Subscribe

My laptop comes with a "hidden" partition that is approximately 1.5GB in size that contains drivers, configuration settings, recovery utilities, etc. How can I see what's inside and browse that partition? I have tried assigning a drive letter using Partition Magic - but that returns error messages. I would like to take a peek for a couple of reasons, but the major purpose would be to grab the drivers and perform a clean install of XP, free of all the "crapware" that is all over the C: drive. Any ideas?
posted by Gerard Sorme to Computers & Internet (17 answers total)
Ohh good question... I have that too, on my IBM.
posted by yevge at 6:41 PM on July 27, 2006

I'd do this with a Linux recovery/live cd as if I were trying to 'rescue' a corrupted disk. Boot from recovery cd, see if you can mount the partition read-only, then copy stuff from it. The problem I see here is that if the manufacturer did something sneaky to make the partition hard to mount or unrecognizable, you'd have to use a tool like fdisk to properly access the partition.

If an automatic tool like Partition Magic can't do it, you're going to have to do a fair amount of studying to unlock this, or get lucky and find somebody on AskMe who's familiar with this cloaking maneuver. Can you give us the manufacturer and model number?
posted by onalark at 6:42 PM on July 27, 2006

For IBM laptops, at least, you can simply download all the software / drivers / etc in the service partition from the web. Newer models can even create a set of recovery cd's from that partition. You can then safely blow the service partition away altogether and regain the space.

Personally, I simply grab only the drivers I need, and a windows disk, and install the absolute bare minimum. YMMV.
posted by coriolisdave at 7:06 PM on July 27, 2006

Yes, I would simply download them from the appropriate vendor's site. This looks like more work at first, but once you do it the first time you can just bookmarks the pages. Then in the future it is easy to download the newer versions. The ones on the hidden partition are guaranteed to be older versions (and if they aren't now, they will be eventually) and using up-to-date drivers helps with stability.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:09 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: The laptop I am referring to is an ACER ASPIRE 5002.

coriolisdave, when you say, "only the drivers I need," that is what I want to do as well, but what would those be? I can only think of ATI audio/video, pointer pad (whatever you call it), CD/DVD writer, what else that XP wouldn't auto-detect and would be system specific?
posted by Gerard Sorme at 7:27 PM on July 27, 2006

I went through this exercise on a friend's Packard Bell iMedia desktop machine. It was a pain in the arse.

The first thing I did was stick a spare hard disk drive on the same IDE cable, and use the Trinity Rescue Kit to make a block-for-block backup of the existing disk; because I knew that without one, I'd stuff things up totally. In fact I had to restore from that backup twice.

What I found on the recovery partition (which was marked with partition type 0x1C, "Hidden FAT32 (LBA)", which stops Windows from mounting the partition but doesn't stop Linux) was a DOS-based automated reformat and recovery system. The Windows image, the preinstalled apps and drivers were not easily accessible; they were all compressed and archived into bizarrely numbered files in some password-protected format (I forget which one, but I didn't have either a decompressor or any reasonable way to find the password in any case).

I was so annoyed at the boneheaded stupidity of this arrangement that I spent two days of solid fart-arseing with it to bend it to my will.

This involved (a) tracing my way from AUTOEXEC.BAT through the rest of the recovery sequence (b) inserting EXIT commands at appropriate points in certain batch files (c) figuring out how their app-selecting INI files worked so I could turn off the automated installation of Norton Antivirus, which was the only thing I knew I'd have trouble getting rid of by other means (d) figuring out what their scripts were doing to the partition table between reboots, and when, and why.

At the end of all this nonsense, I had the thing set up with three partitions: a 20GB system and software partition, a 50GB user partition, and my own 10GB hidden FAT32 partition containing a complete compressed image of the clean system/software partition. So next time we need to do the wipe-and-rebuild exercise, all I have to do is overwrite the system/software partition from the compressed image - a ten minute job - and he's up and running on a clean system with all his user-created data intact.

Unless you have a spare external HD lying about, and you're well familiar with Linux command line tools, DOS, batch files and scripted Windows installs, I'd seriously recommend getting rid of your crapware by other means.

You might also try checking your laptop manufacturer's support website to see if current drivers are available for download; if they are, just use a standard Windows XP OEM installer disk plus the downloaded drivers. This will probably work - at worst, you might need to reactivate Windows over the phone.

In my experience, the Microsoft call centre folks are cooperative when you call them to do this. As long as you're running the same flavour of Windows that came preinstalled on your laptop, and as long as you're not using the laptop's licence key to make Windows work on some other machine, they're happy.
posted by flabdablet at 7:28 PM on July 27, 2006

Ah, Acer. I've dealt with their recovery system too. It's a fully automated pain in the arse, too.

Fortunately, Acer also offers a complete set of drivers on their website. I have successfully built up an Acer machine using a standard Windows XP OEM installer disk, the drivers from the Acer website, and the licence key stuck on the box. It activated fine over the Internet, and didn't even need a call to Microsoft.
posted by flabdablet at 7:34 PM on July 27, 2006

Typically, you'll want to install chipset drivers, then video drivers, then sound drivers, then anything else that the inbuilt Microsoft stuff doesn't seem to be supporting properly.

I strongly recommend the three-partition layout I used on the Packard Bell, by the way. Once you've got your system partition minimally functional, use the Trinity Rescue Kit's partimage tool (or whatever) to make a compressed snapshot of it in your hidden partition in case you stuff up account creation and/or software installation. Every time you create a user account, move its profile onto your user partition. When you've created all your user accounts and installed the software you want and you're happy with everything, make another compressed snapshot of the system partition.

Your next wipe-and-reinstall will then take you no more than 15 minutes.

You can save a fair bit of space in the snapshots by deleting pagefile.sys and hiberfil.sys from the partition you're imaging before you copy it (do this from Linux, because Windows will always have those files in use).
posted by flabdablet at 7:40 PM on July 27, 2006

OK, then.

Which manufacturers DON'T do all this crazy stuff? Which ones simply sell you a computer and an OS and don't presume that you are an absolute idiot who doesn't need to have this stuff locked away?
posted by megatherium at 8:11 PM on July 27, 2006

- who needs to have...
posted by megatherium at 8:13 PM on July 27, 2006

Sony doesn't do this. Their Vaio's come with a lot of crapware but they ask you to build a recovery disk on first boot and registration.
posted by ptm at 8:30 PM on July 27, 2006

Fujitsu doesn't do it either.
posted by kindall at 9:07 PM on July 27, 2006

Sony -does- do it.

Take any vaio laptop and hold down F10 while booting.

You'll boot into a recovery tool that allows you to completely wipe the C drive and/or the D drive.

I got beat down by a pretty bad trojan a few weeks ago and used that tool to dump my whole C drive and reimage it but kept my D drive which contained my actual data and files intact. Worked great!
posted by JFitzpatrick at 11:35 PM on July 27, 2006

Apple doesn't do it.
posted by onalark at 11:42 PM on July 27, 2006

My new Toshiba laptop came with all this shite intalled on it too. It didn't come with a Windows disk though so had to rebuild one from the c:\i386 folder and SP2). Also I backed up activation so didn't need to go through that either. And yeah, it was no big deal getting drivers and so on - the manufacturers website had them all but if you're worried you could backup and write to CD with something like the MyDrivers trial.
posted by ed\26h at 12:53 AM on July 28, 2006

These hidden partitions are almost always formatted as plain FAT32, but often have non-standard partition id that mean the windows will not mount them.
If you are handy with a disk editor, you can edit the partition table and change the partition id to 0x0C. The partition will then show up in Windows after you reboot.
Or you could boot a Linux LiveCD and mount the partition as FAT32.
posted by AndrewStephens at 2:27 AM on July 28, 2006

Bart PE lets me see both partitions, and copy files between them.

Third, PackardBell recovery system is pain in the kazoo
posted by yoHighness at 10:34 AM on June 1, 2007

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