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Backing-Up a Non-Booting Windows PC

1. Introduction

If  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. There is also a help document if you are having start-up problems on Windows 7 machines.

Note that if the 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 utility called the [Windows Easy Transfer] tool accessible from the [Start/Programs/Accessories/System Tools] which can 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 or USB port 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
  • Ubuntu or Knoppix DVD or bootable USB drive (details of how to download and make these are listed below).

2. Ubuntu

Based on the linux operating system, Ubuntu is a freely available, open-source operating system for PC and Mac. Once the installation image is burnt to disk or USB drive Ubuntu can be booted without being installed. To boot into Ubuntu you must first create a bootable DVD or USB Drive. 

Download the image file from the Ubuntu website ( this will be a file named something like 'ubuntu-14.04.2-desktop-amd64.iso'. If you are creating a DVD you can use the 'Windows Disk Image Burner' tool (which will be launched if the file is double-clicked) or 'Disk Utilities' on a Mac. Once the Image is burned to the DVD it will be visible as a Ubuntu install disk.  

Creating a bootable USB device involves a similar process but requires a third party piece of software to be used in order to burn the image file. Once you have the desired disk image, download a program such as Universal USB Installer, which can be obtained here ( This is a standalone program and as such doesn't require any installation, just open it, select the USB Drive from the list (Double check the correct volume is selected!!) and then select the disk image that you want to burn. On a Mac this process is slightly more long-winded and requires some knowledge of the terminal. This is best not performed by inexperienced users but if you feel confident then an excellent guide to the process can be found here (

Once the bootable media device has been created, the system must be restarted. You should then access the boot menu, which on a windows machine, can usually be found by tapping <f8>, <f9> or <del> after the BIOS image has been presented (If in doubt check the manual for your motherboard). On a Mac a similar menu can be accessed by holding <C> on startup. 

You should then have the option to boot from the desired media device. If you have been successful in creating the image then Ubuntu should initiate it's boot sequence. Ubuntu features a very similar user interface to Windows and OS X so users should be able to navigate to any required functions quite quickly. 

2.1 Windows 8

Due to the way it shuts down there seems to be issue when trying to mount hard disks in Ubuntu on a machine running Windows 8. If the user tries to view the disk containing the Windows system partition an error message will be displayed similar to 'Unable to mount 120GB Volume'. There are a few workarounds but they are quite complex and not advised for the inexperienced user. If users are experiencing this problem then they are advised to use Knoppix instead of Ubuntu.

An image for Knoppix can be acquired in much the same way as Ubuntu and burnt to removable media using Universal USB Installer or similar. Knoppix is available from here (, the required file will be called something like 'KNOPPIX_V7.4.2DVD-2014-09-28-EN.iso' and will be about 4GB in size.  

Once Knoppix is loaded, any drive can be accessed by clicking on the 'knoppix' file on the desktop then finding the drive under 'Places'. Right click on the drive and select 'mount' and you will be presented with the following dialog box: 

Mount NTFS screen

For most functions Mount partition "read-only" mode will be fine but if you want to delete or copy files to the drive then you will have to select the third option. 

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 7 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 7

Windows 7 has a top-level folder on the C: drive called Users. 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 either C:\Program Files(x86) or 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 4 November 2019