Backing-Up a Non-Booting Windows PC

1. Introduction

A companion web page to this one ( gives advice on procedures for fixing start-up problems with Windows XP systems. If none of the remedies suggested there is successful and you need completely to erase and reinstall your Windows system, then this document describes a procedure for taking back-up copies of your own files from the non-working system. Once the Windows system has been reinstalled, the backed-up files can be restored back onto the machine. Note that the machine's hardware must be functioning normally to use this procedure.

Note that if the problem Windows system is still useable, you could skip to the section What to Back Up and perform the backup from within Windows. Alternatively, you could use a standard Windows XP utility called the [Files and Settings Transfer Wizard] accessible from the [Start/Programs/Accessories/System Tools] which can much simplify the task and of backing up your files and settings to an external medium and then restoring them to a fresh system.

The pre-requisites you need to have in order to use this guide are as follows:

  • A CD-reading drive on the non-booting PC
  • A suitable backup storage device, either internally fitted in the machine, or externally connected via USB etc.), e.g.
    • CD writing drive
    • DVD writing drive
    • USB flash pen drive
    • Additional hard disk drive
    • Zip disk drive
    • floppy disk drive (if only VERY small amounts of data are involved)
  • A (Knoppix CD - see below. (Note that an Ubuntu "Live" CD can also be used if Knoppix is not available - the section below for notes relating to the use of Knoppix).

2. Running Your System with Knoppix

2.1. What is Knoppix?

Knoppix ( is a free version of the Linux operating system that is prepackaged to run entirely from a CD. It therefore does not need to be installed onto your computer's hard disk. Knoppix has a graphical interface which is similar in style to Microsoft Windows and should be easily useable by anyone who is familiar with Windows XP.

2.2. Obtaining a Knoppix CD

You will need to download the Knoppix software and burn it to a CD. This can be done using the machines in the IT Services Help Centre.

  • Go to a Knoppix download site, listed at and download the current English release - the file will have a name such as: KNOPPIX_V4.0.2CD-2005-09-23-EN.iso (this is Knoppix version 4.02, released on 23rd September 2005, in ENglish). The .iso extension signifies a CD ISO image file - this will typically be around 700 Mbytes in size so may take a while to download.
  • Use the PC's CD-writing software (e.g. Nero, Roxio etc.) to burn the ISO image to a blank CD. CD-writing software usually has a specific option for doing exactly this.

Note that some distributions of Knoppix may lack the CD-writing utility described later on this document.

2.3. Booting Your Machine from a Knoppix CD

To boot (i.e. start up) your machine from the Knoppix CD, switch the machine on and immediately insert the CD into the CD drive. You may see a message on the screen telling you hold down a key, usually the <C>.

If your machine appears not to be starting up from the CD, you may need to change the "boot priority" settings on the machine's BIOS Setup screen. To access this screen, you need to press a key (usually <F1>, <F2>, <F10> or <DEL> depending on the machine's manufacturer and model) - there may an onscreen message about what to press, or it may be mentioned in the computer's user guide. On the Setup screen, look for a setting called something like Boot Priority and use the menu controls to make sure that CD drives have a higher priority than hard-disk drives. Save the new settings and restart the machine.

On the initial Knoppix screen, the system will pause with the word boot: displayed at the bottom. Just press the <Return> to continue booting into Knoppix.

When Knoppix has finished starting up, the system may display a web page about Knoppix. Click on the X in the top right corner of the window to close it.

2.4. Using Knoppix

The Knoppix interface is similar to Microsoft Windows in many respects. It has a Desktop on which icons are placed for resources such as programs or disk drives. Your machine's main hard disk will normally appear as Hard Disk Partition [hda1]. If you single-click on the icon it will display the drive's contents in a window. Any other drives you have connected, e.g. external USB pen drive or hard drive should also have icons. You can insert additional USB devices at any time and a corresponding icon should appear a few seconds later. Because Knoppix runs from CD, it sometimes takes longer to respond than you may be expecting.

You can move or copy files and folders in Knoppix in the same way as Windows, by:

  • Dragging and dropping
  • Cutting and pasting using the Windows-style right-click menu options.
  • Using the [Copy to] and [Move to] right-click menu options.

A bar along the bottom of the Knoppix desktop display has further options - the large K is the equivalent of the Windows Start button.

2.5. Writing to External Devices with Knoppix

You may find that when you try and write to an external storage device with Knoppix, it seems not to work. If you look at the status bar at the bottom of the target window, you may see a message of the form You cannot drop items in a directory in which you do not have write permission. If this happens, you probably need to change the ‘Read/Write Mode’ of the target disk partition. To do this:

  • Right-click on the device's icon on the desktop
  • On the local context menu that appears, choose [Actions] and then [Change read/write mode] and then click the Yes button on the confirmation screen.

2.6. Burning CDs with Knoppix

The standard Knoppix CD includes a CD/DVD burning utility called K3b - accessed via the [Multimedia] section from the Knoppix [K] button. If you have a CD or DVD writing drive, you could use this as another backup medium.

On the K3b opening screen, click the icon New Data CD Project - this will open up a Project pane containing the icon K3b Data Project into which folders and files can be placed for burning to CD. Material can be dragged either from the desktop, or from K3b's upper pane - the hard disk will be located in the file tree as Root/mnt/hda1. The CD you create will have the same layout of files and folders as you set up within the K3b Data Project.

When you have finished compiling the CD contents, click on the Burn... button at the bottom right of the K3b window. After changing any burn settings (generally not needed) click on the Burn button.

2.7. The Ubuntu Live CD Option

If a Knoppix CD is not available, a similar product called Ubuntu could be used instead - you need the "Ubuntu Live" CD. Ubuntu is less attractive than Knoppix in that takes much longer to start up and also requires the PC's hard drive to be explicitly mounted before it can be accessed.

To mount the PC hard drive in Ubuntu:

  • On the [Applications] open up the Terminal applications. In the Terminal window type the command: sudo mount -o uid=1000 /dev/hda1 /mnt
  • On the [Places] menu, look for Computer then find File System, and look for /mnt amongst the list of folders. Click on /mnt to open the hard drive.

Ubuntu does appear to automatically mount USB flash drives, however.

To write files to CD, insert a blank CD into your CD-writing drive and the CD Writer utility will automatically launch. Click on Burn Data CD and Ubuntu will open a CD/DVD Creator window. Drag the all files to be copied to the window, then click Write to Disc.

3. What to Back Up

It is often impractical to back up the entire contents of your machine's hard disk(s). Although doing this might completely remove the possibility of losing anything important, the volume of data involved often makes this an unfeasibly complicated and time-consuming exercise and the large majority of the material would not be of any use on your restored system. The files and folders that you do need to back up are the ones containing material that you yourself have created.

The specific files that should be backed-up can vary according the version of Windows you are using, what applications you use for activities such as email, web-browsing etc., and your own working practices. The guidance below is based on a typical Windows XP system where you have followed the Windows convention and stored all your own files within the My Documents folder. If you have valuable material saved elsewhere, it is up to you to identify this and to include it in your backups.

Note - you cannot back-up Windows software applications - these will need to be reinstalled from scratch using each application's original installation procedure.

3.1. Windows XP

Windows XP has a top-level folder on the C: drive called Documents and Settings. Within this is a subfolder for each username that exists on the system, plus a folder called All Users. These folders are used to store a variety of information, including each user's My Documents folder, and also data relating to applications such as Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, and most other common applications. Ideally, you should make a back-up copy of the folder for each username, and also the All Users folder. The whole of the Documents and Settings could be very large (possibly several Gigabytes).

Alternatively, If your back-up space is limited, you could back up just the most important individual parts of each user's Documents and Settings subfolder. On your back-up drive, for each user you want to back-up in this way, create an new empty folder named with person's username. Then copy to that new folder, any of the following subfolders from the person's Documents and Settings on the machine's main C: drive:

  • My Documents - the person's main personal documents folder
  • Application Data - data from various applications including Microsoft Office and the Outlook Express address book
  • Local Settings - the Application Data/Identities subfolder includes Outlook Express local (e.g. POP) mail folders (probably not needed if you use an IMAP mail service and have no local folders). Note that this folder is normally not visible when running Windows.
  • Favorites - the Internet Explorer Favorites list
  • Desktop - the person's desktop folder
  • Cookies - small data files used by internet sites to record your preferences etc.

3.2. Other Applications

A few non-Microsoft applications store important data in other locations, typically within the program's own software subfolder in C:\Program Files. It may be possible, however, for this location to be changed by the user to some other place.

3.2.1. Endnote

The Endnote bibliographic program by default stores Styles, Filters, Templates, and Connections in correspondingly named subfolders of C:\Program Files\Endnote n (where n is the Endnote version number).

Endnote library (.enl) files are stored wherever the user chose to locate them - this may have been in the Endnote program folder, or maybe in the Examples subfolder.

4. Restoring the Back-up

After your have reinstalled your Windows systems, restoring your data is simply the reverse of the backing up process. However, Before you restore your data, you should:

  • Create a Windows username for each user whose data is to be restored. This is done via the Windows User Accounts control panel.
  • Set Windows to show hidden files and folders via the Folder Options [View] tab.

Then copy across each the contents of each user's backup folder to the corresponding Documents and Settings folder on the Windows system's C: drive. Copy the contents of each user's folder rather than the folder itself.

{NOTE. You may want to login as each user before copying the data from the backup, because if you copy the data as some other user, the intended user may not have the correct permissions for using it.}


Written by IT Services. Latest revision 8 April 2015