How To Back Up Data From Computer That Won’t Boot

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Recently I have been on a spree of fixing unbootable OS’s for friends and family. A surprising fact that I discovered was that many of them were ready to reformat and perform a fresh Windows install, if only they could just backup their music, photos and the likes.

So here I am with a piece on how to back up hard drive data on your computer when the operating system won’t boot. The easiest most hassle-free way to achieve our objective is to use a Live CD. Period. Forget about all other ways and all the advice you get. If you have a functional CD drive and a Live CD or can arrange one then this is the way to go bro. You won’t regret it.

A Live CD, if you don’t already know, allows you to run an Operating System from your CD drive. There are lot’s of Live CD’s available on the Internet. A large number of Linux distributions are available as Live CD’s. Just pop them in, make a few choices and you get a complete OS on the fly with no changes to your data on the hard disk. You can do pretty much anything from there in, even update a status or two on Twitter/Facebook while waiting for the file transfers to finish. Here are a few Live CD suggestions if you care for one:

How would you burn a disc when the freaking operating system won’t boot? My apologies if you are reading this after the problem has occurred. I am afraid you would have to ask a friend to create a Live CD for you or you can use another computer if you have access to one. That being said, it is always a nice thing to prepare a couple of them beforehand for the rainy day. I say a couple of them because 1) most of them are free and 2) you never know if one of them decides it doesn’t like your video adapter (for example) and refuses to boot.

The links listed above will let you download an ISO file. Next step is to burn the ISO file to a disc. Here is a list of our favorite disc burning software to help you along.

  • Download the one you like and run it. Look for an option that burns an image file or ISO file to a disc.

how to back up data from non-booting computer

  • Choose the said option, let the software know where the ISO file is that you want to burn.

computer won't boot backup data

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  • Pop in a blank CD and the software should do the rest. When the burn process completes you should have a Live CD in your hands.

What If The CD Drive Is Broken Or Not Available?

A very valid scenario indeed, specially with the ultra thin laptops and netbooks these days. In such a case you can either use a USB CD drive or what we would call a Live USB stick. We have written about how you can create a Live USB from an ISO file or even from an installer CD. One thing to keep in mind is that some old computers just cannot boot from the USB drive.

Set The Boot Device Priority

Before your computer can boot from either a CD or a Live USB drive you might have to change the boot device priority from the computer’s BIOS settings. This is not as scary as it sounds. Follow along:

  • Power on the computer. Most computers will display a graphic depicting the processor or the manufacturer or some general information. If you look around you will also see that the computer prompts you with a Key combination that you can use to enter the BIOS settings page. Generally it is the F2 key but it can vary.
  • Hit the desired key (F2 if it is) and you are in. Now look for an option that lets you change the boot device. Different BIOS have it named differently and under different menus, but if you look around it should not be too difficult. The setting will list devices like CD drive, external drive, first hard disk drive and the likes.
  • You can move these devices up and down in the list. Make sure that CD drive (or external drive if you are using a USB key) is listed before the hard disk. You can change this back once have a functional Operating System. Save and exit.

We Are Set

Now restart the computer with the Live CD inside the tray and the computer should pick up the contents of the CD and load the contained operating system. You will get a fully functional system once the OS boots up. The Live OS should automatically detect your hard disk and list the various partitions as drives. From here on you can use the computer just as you would use it normally and you can easily back up the required files.

how to back up data on your computer

You would of course need an external media like an external USB disk or a USB flash drive depending upon the amount of data that you want to back up. Just copy the required files to the destination as usual. When you are done, just shut down the computer, take out the hard disk and now you are ready to format the computer or attempt any other fixes without worrying about the precious data on the hard drive.

Have you been in a similar situation before? How did you recover your important files and restore the system? We would love to hear and learn from your experiences.

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Comments (14)
  • Beau

    Ty! I used USB method because my computer would boot, but my computer in X was very laggy (I use Linux) but ctrl+alt+f1 worked, letting me into a lagless terminal. Everyone knows how much of a pain it is to backup data using terminal, so I made a live USB and loaded HBCD onto it. Then I booted it up and use parted magic

  • Jon

    Remove drive, place drive inside another computer. Boot other computer. Copy important docs. Install OS to drive. Copy important docs back. Remove drive, place inside original computer. Job done.

  • 1fastbullet

    QUOTE: My apologies if you are reading this after the problem has occurred.

    Um, maybe it’s just me, but if someone is reading this after the problem occurred, would that tend to indicate that they are on another computer?

    I’m thinking that, under the circumstances, explaining this is probably a waste of your time.

    Sort of like my reading it.

  • 1fastbullet

    QUOTE: My apologies if you are reading this after the problem has occurred.
    Um, maybe it’s just me, but if someone is reading this after the problem occurred, would that tend to indicate that they are on another computer?

    I’m thinking that, under the circumstances, explaining this is probably a waste of your time.

    Sort of like my reading it.

  • ROBERT LOUIS

    that should have read, hope you have a GREAT, NEW YEAR

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.