What saved the day -- and thousands of photos and other files -- was a simple technique I've used for years.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
Installation disk can help rescue your computer

Sept. 7, 2008

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2008, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2008, The Post-Standard

   When my friend Bob couldn't get his laptop to boot up, he handed it to me and told me to work some magic. What I did wasn't magic, but it surely seems that way if you're not a geek like me.
   I slipped a CD in his laptop's drive slot and turned it on. I held down one of the keys to tell the computer to boot up from the CD drive. If it booted up OK, I told Bob, then we would know his laptop was fine but its hard drive was bad. If I didn't boot up at all, we'd have to suspect that the laptop itself had quit working.
   A half minute later, his laptop was smiling at us. It had booted up just fine from the CD. I ran some tests on his computer's hard drive and saw that the files were scrambled. The hard drive was in its death throes, and each time I looked through its files and folders I saw fewer and fewer. I quickly copied off as many files as I could -- I was actually able to save all 20 gigabytes of Bob's photos -- and watched as the drive finally chirped twice and died.
   Bob and I replaced the drive with a new one -- a much bigger new one, in fact, spending less than $100 for a 160 gigabyte notebook drive -- and got his laptop's software up and running again easily. Bob's not a computer guy like me, but he did most of the work taking his laptop apart, changing the drive and putting everything back together. (But he's a pastor at our local church, so maybe he had a direct line to a different kind of expertise.)
   What saved the day -- and thousands of photos and other files -- was a simple technique I've used for years. It works on both Windows PCs and Macs. Here's how simple it is: When your computer won't boot up, put a Windows or Mac installation CD in the CD drive and boot from that. In nearly every case, the computer will come to life, and you'll get a chance to recover the files or maybe even fix the hard drive.
   Windows PCs do this in one of two possible ways. On many PCs, simply putting a bootable CD into the drive and rebooting will force the PC to boot from the CD. (Use a Windows installation disk. It will be bootable.)
   If this doesn't happen, you'll have to stop the bootup early in the procedure to get the BIOS (Basic Input-Output System) menu to show up. Look at the screen while your computer is starting up you should see a notice about how to get into the BIOS setup menu. Usually, you press one or two specific keys. In that menu, look for a "boot sequence" setting (or something with similar wording) and change it so the CD drive is first in the sequence.
   Mac users can tell the computer to boot from the CD drive by holding down the "C" key as soon as the Mac sounds a chime during bootup. You put a Mac OS X installation disk in the drive, then reboot while pressing that key.
   Once your computer boots up from its installation disk, you can try to rescue files a couple of ways. If you have an external USB drive, you can plug it in and try copying files to it. That's the easiest way. Or you can use the "Repair" function on a Windows installation CD to try to fix Windows, or use the Disk Utility on a Mac installation disk (it's in the menus) to repair the drive on a Mac.
   Mac users who have another Mac handy can also use Firewire Target mode. Connect a Firewire cable between two Macs -- turn them off first -- and boot up the bad one while holding down the T key. You'll see a big Firewire symbol on the screen. Now boot up the other Mac normally. The hard drive of the first Mac will show up on the desktop of the second one as if it were an external hard drive. (In fact, that's what it becomes.) Try dragging and dropping files from that drive to the second Mac.
   Of course, this emergency technique should not replace regular backups. Unfortunately, most computer users don't back up their files. Take a look at last week's column, at www.technofileonline.com/texts/tec083108.html, for one method of backing up -- disk cloning -- that's easy to do and very thorough.