Windows

10 things you can do when Windows XP won't boot

If your computer powers up okay, but the Windows XP operating system won't boot properly, you have some troubleshooting ahead of you. Here's a look at the likely culprits and what you can do to fix the problem.

When your computer hardware appears to power up okay, but the Windows XP operating system won't boot properly, you have to begin a troubleshooting expedition that includes getting into the operating system, determining the problem, and then fixing it. To help you get started on this expedition, here are 10 things you can do when Windows XP won't boot.

This blog post is available in PDF format as a TechRepublic Download. This entry was originally published as an article on January 26, 2006.

#1: Use a Windows startup disk

One of the first things you should reach for when troubleshooting a Windows XP boot problem is a Windows startup disk. This floppy disk can come in handy if the problem is being caused when either the startup record for the active partition or the files that the operating system uses to start Windows have become corrupted.

To create a Windows startup disk, insert a floppy disk into the drive of a similarly configured, working Windows XP system, launch My Computer, right-click the floppy disk icon, and select the Format command from the context menu. When you see the Format dialog box, leave all the default settings as they are and click the Start button. Once the format operation is complete, close the Format dialog box to return to My Computer, double-click the drive C icon to access the root directory, and copy the following three files to the floppy disk:

  • Boot.ini
  • NTLDR
  • Ntdetect.com

After you create the Windows startup disk, insert it into the floppy drive on the afflicted system and press [Ctrl][Alt][Delete] to reboot the computer. When you boot from the Windows startup disk, the computer will bypass the active partition and boot files on the hard disk and attempt to start Windows XP normally.

#2: Use Last Known Good Configuration

You can also try to boot the operating system with the Last Known Good Configuration feature. This feature will allow you to undo any changes that caused problems in the CurrentControlSet registry key, which defines hardware and driver settings. The Last Known Good Configuration feature replaces the contents of the CurrentControlSet registry key with a backup copy that was last used to successfully start up the operating system.

To use the Last Known Good Configuration feature, first restart the computer by pressing [Ctrl][Alt][Delete]. When you see the message Please select the operating system to start or hear the single beep, press [F8] to display the Windows Advanced Options menu. Select the Last Known Good Configuration item from the menu and press [Enter].

Keep in mind that you get only one shot with the Last Known Good Configuration feature. In other words, if it fails to revive your Windows XP on the first attempt, the backup copy is also corrupt.

#3: Use System Restore

Another tool that might be helpful when Windows XP won't boot is System Restore. System Restore runs in the background as a service and continually monitors system-critical components for changes. When it detects an impending change, System Restore immediately makes backup copies, called restore points, of these critical components before the change occurs. In addition, System Restore is configured by default to create restore points every 24 hours.

To use System Restore, first restart the computer by pressing [Ctrl][Alt][Delete]. When you see the message Please select the operating system to start or hear the single beep, press [F8] to display the Windows Advanced Options menu. Now, select the Safe Mode item from the menu and press [Enter].

Once Windows XP boots into Safe mode, click the Start button, access the All Programs | Accessories | System Tools menu, and select System Restore. Because you're running in Safe mode, the only option on the opening screen of the System Restore wizard is Restore My Computer To An Earlier Time, and it's selected by default, so just click Next. Then, follow along with the wizard to select a restore point and begin the restoration procedure.

#4: Use Recovery Console

When a Windows XP boot problem is severe, you'll need to use a more drastic approach. The Windows XP CD is bootable and will provide you with access to a tool called Recovery Console.

To boot from the Windows XP CD, insert it into the CD-ROM drive on the problem system and press [Ctrl][Alt][Delete] to reboot the computer. Once the system begins booting from the CD, simply follow the prompts that will allow the loading of the basic files needed to run Setup. When you see the Welcome To Setup screen, shown in Figure A, press R to start the Recovery Console.

Figure A

Recovery console
You'll then see a Recovery Console menu, like the one shown in Figure B. It displays the folder containing the operating system's files and prompts you to choose the operating system you want to log on to. Just press the menu number on the keyboard, and you'll be prompted to enter the Administrator's password. You'll then find yourself at the main Recovery Console prompt.

Figure B

Choose your OS

#5: Fix a corrupt Boot.ini

As the Windows XP operating system begins to load, the Ntldr program refers to the Boot.ini file to determine where the operating system files reside and which options to enable as the operating system continues to load. So if there's a problem rooted in the Boot.ini file, it can render Windows XP incapable of booting correctly.

If you suspect that Windows XP won't boot because Boot.ini has been corrupted, you can use the special Recovery Console version of the Bootcfg tool to fix it. Of course, you must first boot the system with the Windows XP CD and access the Recovery Console as described in #4.

To use the Bootcfg tool, from the Recovery Console command prompt, type

Bootcfg /parameter

Where /parameter is one of these required parameters:

  • /Add--Scans the disk for all Windows installations and allows you to add any new ones to the Boot.ini file.
  • /Scan--Scans the disk for all Windows installations.
  • /List--Lists each entry in the Boot.ini file.
  • /Default--Sets the default operating system as the main boot entry.
  • /Rebuild--Completely re-creates the Boot.ini file. The user must confirm each step.
  • /Redirect--Allows the boot operation to be redirected to a specific port when using the Headless Administration feature. The Redirect parameter takes two parameters of its own, [Port Baudrate ] | [UseBiosSettings].
  • /Disableredirect--Disables the redirection.

#6: Fix a corrupt partition boot sector

The partition boot sector is a small section of the hard disk partition that contains information about the operating system's file system (NTFS or FAT32), as well as a very small machine language program that is crucial in assisting the operating system as it loads.

If you suspect that Windows XP won't boot because the partition boot sector has been corrupted, you can use a special Recovery Console tool called Fixboot to fix it. Start by booting the system with the Windows XP CD and accessing the Recovery Console as described in #4.

To use the Fixboot tool, from the Recovery Console command prompt, type

Fixboot [drive]:

Where [drive] is the letter of the drive to which you want to write a new partition boot sector.

#7: Fix a corrupt master boot record

The master boot record occupies the first sector on the hard disk and is responsible for initiating the Windows boot procedure. The master boot record contains the partition table for the disk as well as a small program called the master boot code, which is responsible for locating the active, or bootable, partition, in the partition table. Once this occurs, the partition boot sector takes over and begins loading Windows. If the master boot record is corrupt, the partition boot sector can't do its job and Windows won't boot.

If you suspect Windows XP won't boot because the master boot record has been corrupted, you can use the Recovery Console tool Fixmbr to fix it. First, boot the system with the Windows XP CD and access the Recovery Console as described in #4.

To use the Fixmbr tool, from the Recovery Console command prompt, type

Fixmbr [device_name]

Where [device_name] is the device pathname of the drive to which you want to write a new master boot record. For example, the device pathname format for a standard bootable drive C configuration would look like this:

DeviceHardDisk0

#8: Disable automatic restart

When Windows XP encounters a fatal error, the default setting for handling such an error is to automatically reboot the system. If the error occurs while Windows XP is booting, the operating system will become stuck in a reboot cycle--rebooting over and over instead of starting up normally. In that case, you'll need to disable the option for automatically restarting on system failure.

When Windows XP begins to boot up and you see the message Please select the operating system to start or hear the single beep, press [F8] to display the Windows Advanced Options Menu. Then, select the Disable The Automatic Restart On System Failure item and press [Enter]. Now, Windows XP will hang up when it encounters the error and with any luck, it will display a stop message you can use to diagnose the problem.

#9: Restore from a backup

If you can't seem to repair a Windows XP system that won't boot and you have a recent backup, you can restore the system from the backup media. The method you use to restore the system will depend on what backup utility you used, so you'll need to follow the utility's instructions on how to perform a restore operation.

#10: Perform an in-place upgrade

If you can't repair a Windows XP system that won't boot and you don't have a recent backup, you can perform an in-place upgrade. Doing so reinstalls the operating system into the same folder, just as if you were upgrading from one version of Windows to another. An in-place upgrade will usually solve most, if not all, Windows boot problems.

Performing a Windows XP in-place upgrade is pretty straightforward. To begin, insert the Windows XP CD into the drive, restart your system, and boot from the CD. Once the initial preparation is complete, you'll see the Windows XP Setup screen (shown earlier in Figure A). Press [Enter] to launch the Windows XP Setup procedure. In a moment, you'll see the License Agreement page and will need to press [F8] to acknowledge that you agree. Setup will then search the hard disk looking for a previous installation of Windows XP. When it finds the previous installation, you'll see a second Windows XP Setup screen, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C

In-place upgrade

This screen will prompt you to press R to repair the selected installation or to press [Esc] to install a fresh copy of Windows XP. In this case, initiating a repair operation is synonymous with performing an in-place upgrade, so you'll need to press R. When you do so, Setup will examine the disk drives in the system. It will then begin performing the in-place upgrade.

Keep in mind that after you perform an in-place upgrade or repair installation, you must reinstall all updates to Windows.

About

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

51 comments
jackherrera
jackherrera

Hello its really nice for me because more then 10 days i faced some problems of my laptop. When i start the window then window got a error massage. I am so worried about this problem

Vanerl
Vanerl

On my XP laptop, I got error message:

Windows could not start because the following file is missing. <windows root>\system32\ntoskrnl.exe. To get out of problem, Windows Boot Genius fromhttp://tinyurl.com/Windows-Boot-Genius saved my life efficiently!

janxharris
janxharris

In #1, what does one do if one can't find the three files suggested? That is:

Boot.ini

NTLDR

Ntdetect.com

leg456
leg456

YOUR IT PERSON(S) WHO WROTE THIS ARTICLE DID A AWESOME JOB. THANKS

shmrckcarebear89
shmrckcarebear89

You can't do squat... After the unit starting blue screening and crashed, I went to put the Operating Disk in to re-install Windows XP as instructed. It will say 'starting system recovery', and then go to a black Gateway screen that says 'please wait...' for hours (literally). The laptop will not go past that screen or load the system recovery to re-install Windows. This is now the second laptop that I've seen have that same problem in the past 2 months. So the question is, what do you do when you can't access System Recovery and it won't start any other way either?

iwmpop
iwmpop

Great-Can you tell a starter like me how to create a backup to restore from - and will it work similarly for Win Vista?

free962
free962

So many things that one can try ,glad you give all these tips on how users can fix them. Fabio the computer guy mycomputerdidwhat.blogspot.com

jared_at_prime
jared_at_prime

Load it with Gentoo. Or if you are scared a total noob and like the look and feel of windows, you can install Ubuntu.

joehanssen
joehanssen

why is "intall linux" or buy a MAC absent?

humans-enabled.com
humans-enabled.com

If Windows has died, this is a perfect opportunity for you to enjoy the wonderful freedom of Linux and the universe of free software that is available for Linux users. Try it out, what have you got to lose? First, if you don't have a USB thumb/external drive, or Online Backup account, or maybe some CDs to burn and save your data, STOP WHAT YOU'RE DOING AND GO GET A BACKUP SOLUTION BEFORE PROCEEDING. Next, go and download a Linux LiveCD (in *.iso format) from any of these websites: http://www.ubuntu.com/GetUbuntu/download http://livecdlist.com http://distrowatch.com So now that you have the *.iso file, burn it to a CDR (if you're doing this from Windows, download the free *.iso burning software CDBurnerXP or DeepBurner). Once you have burned the Linux LiveCD, put it in the CDROM drive of your broken Windows XP computer and boot it up. This is where the magic of Linux begins. Once you have booted to the Linux LiveCD(in this case Ubuntu), plugin your backup media. Then navigate to your Windows files and copy over anything you want to have backed up to your backup drive. While booted up with the Linux LiveCD, you can also check to see how well Linux works on your computer. If it works good, go ahead and install it. Congratulations on your journey to Freedom!! Shannon VanWagner http://healthysystem.blogspot.com

cjcoats
cjcoats

Boot from a "live-disk" Linux CD and have a full-fledged OS and desktop to use for your repair work.

jonybader
jonybader

Before you perform an in-place updgrade, make sure the CD you are using is at the same service pack level as the existing Windows installation. You can create a slipstreamed CD (Google slipstream windows xp) if your original disc does not have the correct service pack. If you don't do this, it can (and frequently does) cause problems with the new installation.

britontn
britontn

If you have another system that is running properly uou can do the following: Strap the HDD of the non-booting system to another system as a slave and boot. Copy C:\Windows\Repair\config.nt to c:\windows\system32 Replace existing file. Return HDD to original cpu and boot. Always work for me.

michael1r
michael1r

What??? My Computer, double-click the drive C icon to access the root directory, and copy the following three files to the floppy disk: Boot.ini NTLDR Ntdetect.com What file are these in?

michael1r
michael1r

What??? 1st line.............. My Computer, double-click the drive C icon to access the root directory, and copy the following three files to the floppy disk: Boot.ini NTLDR Ntdetect.com What file are they in?

michael1r
michael1r

What??? 1st line.............. My Computer, double-click the drive C icon to access the root directory, and copy the following three files to the floppy disk: Boot.ini NTLDR Ntdetect.com What file are they in?

spufidoo
spufidoo

Format c:\ and install Linux. Mandriva 2008 or Ubuntu 8.04 are easy, clean, and full of features.

taryn
taryn

IE 7 update crashed PC into endless reboot: Couldn't get into Safe Mode, so checked Bios, recovery, chkdsk,sysboot, etc. It said it was all fine. I only have the XP Pro sp 1 Install CD, not sp 2, so when I tried to repair,it didn't work, and when tried to reinstall, it MOVED all my stuff onto my 2nd drive, D, and put Windows on C! (My previous installation, which was upgraded to SP2, and wouldn't boot, is now a "page file") There is very little I can do now but get online. Nothing will download, not on any site. How can I get everything on D, back on c?? Try Re-installing with the WinXP sp 1 disk again and go into Repair "D"? I can move the files on D, I have most everything backed up, but I can't open any program on D, where my OS still sits, unusable. Can't use System Restore because my PC thinks it's new now on C, and thinks there is no restore points. I have looked at restore files on D, but hesitant to try manual fix that way in this condition. Should I try copying the 3 files listed in #1 above? I found THREE NTLDR files on D! (2 were service pack upgrades). When I tried Repair before it "couldn't find" my NFLDR file. PC: Windows XP Pro SP2 (on D, SP 1 on C now) No computer maker but myself and an online place I get the barebones. AMD 64 X 2, dual-core 4400 2.2 ghz, 2gb ram, nvidia 8800GT vid card, 3 hard drives, one external backup, 2 installed, c master, d slave, no floppy drive, 2 DVD-RW drives. ASUS mobo A8 SLI. Any suggestions? I've never had a problem before with updates. Ps. Did viral, malware and spyware scans before this happened and they were clear. Always do regular sys maintanence. Have AVG, Spybot, and Ad-Aware, use firewall. Thanks!

Gis Bun
Gis Bun

I've used System Restore at various times on my PC and others to bring back a Win XP PC from near death. One thing I have noticed is that it will occasionally delete a file or 2 after restoring. I had in one case a non critical application disappear after a system restore. As the "system" drive is the boot drive, why does it go elsewhere as well?

me19562
me19562

Excellent blog. The only thing that I believe it's wrong in the list is #3. If Windows don't boot at all system restore can't be use.

bboyd
bboyd

We still have floppies? Except for a rare desktop that runs old software or some silly Allen-Bradley key disk, all the stations around me and at home are sans floppy. Last time my home systems had a floppy in them was 2002. After loosing many hours of work to flawed disks and the pain of remaking my work lost I've determined to never touch them again. My transfer started with a mini-CD with drivers and a 32MB flash drive. Now its a full blown combat CD filled with utilities and an 8GB. Thats larger than my whole hard drive back then. I'd think instructions on making a start CD would be more ubiquitous. Then link to how to make a boot flash.

razumny
razumny

I'd try removing all CD-ROMs, Floppy Disks and USB Drives first, otherwise I'm all with you.

gregu33701
gregu33701

chkdsk /r is a big one where we work, fixes a lot of non bootable xp pc's

darpoke
darpoke

of respect, may I point out that full-body caps in a message is the textual equivalent of shouting? We have a freelance colleague where I work who frequently uses capitals in his emails and the result is that they come across as aggressive and few of us like to receive them. Of course, he's also the kind of person who marks *every* *single* *email* as priority. So it's not just the caps that put folk off. But they certainly don't help endear people to him either. Again, I mean to cause no offence. I frequently come across as an ass without using any capitals at all. But then that's me.

darpoke
darpoke

about Macs is the 'Target Disk' function - boot the machine with the T key held down and it boots into target mode. At which point you can FireWire it to any working machine and browse it like any other external drive. What's nice about it is (i) you don't open or disconnect anything, and (ii) you can browse every physical drive in the target machine, including any optical media that's inserted. Why other OSes don't support it is beyond me. Actually, why other computer manufacturers don't use FireWire is beyond me. It's far faster than USB - even FW-400, which is rated slower than USB 2.0 (which is spec'ed at 480mbps) outperforms USB in large file data transfer. I guess the major issue is that you can't USB pcs together in the same way. Surely it could be jury-rigged to work over a crossover patch cable? Someone out there, if you're listening, develop this product, please!

shamittomar
shamittomar

Totally agree with you buddy ! Ubuntu is a real life-saver.

Gis Bun
Gis Bun

That's not true. System restore [through safe mode] will bring you back to a point in "time" where the PC functioned properly. Works fine with me whenever I needed to use it.

iShango
iShango

Floppies are still alive and well, although I'm sure the QC on the production line has been sacked. Just try ressurecting a machine with a broken raidset without a floppy. I have had to deal with high end gaming and cad machines when they die and no floppy means no data recovery.

Michael Treadwell
Michael Treadwell

I havent produced a machine for business use in 4 years with a floppy. There just is no need for such any more...most files people save are just too big. I know they are cheap, but why burden the machine with a device that is a non-use item?? I provide each new machine with a USB flash drive instead.

tech-heads
tech-heads

How out of date is this, come on Jody Gilbert, Senior Editor Floppy disks just dont get used anymore. Please update/revise for CD/DVD.

Zwort
Zwort

I mostly deal with a windows PE disc, and partition utilities such as Partition Magic. Restoring an Acronis image - either from the Acronis boot disc or from Bart PE/UBCD win - will leave a partition error, best fixed by the like of partition magic. Otherwise there will be LT problems. To hell with the console and other stuff!

wedge1
wedge1

Very good point. Also, chkdsk /F may fix the issue & complete faster because it doesn't check the physical media for bad sectors. May want to try that before a chkdsk /R on a busy day (like you have days that aren't busy?). 8^D

Zwort
Zwort

Agreed, absolutely. Excessive use of uppercase grates on my nerves too. In Usenet it's a 'conversation' killer.

Zwort
Zwort

Only two things are needed; 1) a drive imaging package from which workable operating systems can be restored - and it is beyond doubt that XP is a good OS in spite of snitty remarks from other cultists - and 2) a windows PE CD or USB drive. The latter can have an Acronis plugin, or use a variety of other imaging packages. With these two things important files can be retrieved and a OS can be restored. It goes without saying that working files/documents should be on a separate HD and that these should be backed up. Placing documents on the same drive that the OS tortures is folly.

andrew232006
andrew232006

There are so many peripherals out there using USB that steering the industry away from that would take years. And most of the time more speed isn't needed. I suspect if they're going to change to anything it will be USB 3.0 and I think the shift has already started. It's faster than firewire and will still work with all the old devices.

breathe
breathe

I agree - I just recently was able to "fix" a friend's computer when it was having the boot problem where the system would complete it's BIOS boot and begin a normal XP boot but immediately shut down. I was able to by-pass normal boot mode and get into Safe Mode and perform a restore from a restore point from couple of days prior to when the problem began. cheers!

suzanb
suzanb

Sooo... what do you do if you have an XP that won't boot and you've never installed a floppy drive if that's the only way to do it?

jrnesbit
jrnesbit

Have some respect for us old guys :) I still find use for booting from a dos disk now and then. Some people still don't have the latest technology and their systems may not be able to boot from cd or flash drive. Why do we need floppies, because a lot of the older technology is still around.

Zwort
Zwort

Indeed. Plus USB drives can be made DOS bootable (anything bootable) to solve, e.g., partition problems. Ah don't need no steeenkin floppy.

itmanager
itmanager

Did you ever try to install additional SCSI/SATA drivers when booting from an XP CD? You know, that 'Press F6' prompt you see at the bottom of the screen. If so, you've encountered the NEED for a floppy disk drive. The only way to install the extra drivers is via a floppy disk drive. Or, if you're saavy enough you can slipstream your own WinXP install discs. But most people can't/won't do that. Why Microsoft doesn't let you simply swap tine install CD for a driver CD and then back to the install CD is beyond me. Likely some lack of forthought on the developers of the installation software.

therealjunkman
therealjunkman

I have found some fairly recent Gateway Systems that 'hide' the floppy. The port for it IS on the Mobo... It's just not connected to anything. So, look for one before pulling out any hair. Just for the heck of it, I tried adding in a floppy drive to one of these Gateways, to see if it would even 'see' it. It did, and will. And yes, I could boot from the floppy. I didn't bother actually installing it, just laid in on the bottom of the case until I was done, then I pulled it, closed case up, and none the wiser. Don't assume there is no floppy! There could be a header on the Mobo for one. If the header is there, I'll bet you lunch, you can use it to boot.

breathe
breathe

I totally understand your frustration - I had very similar situation regarding the "NTDLR file missing" error earlier this spring when I built a new computer and wanted to use a hard drive from my old system as the boot drive on the new system. The catch was that to old system was set as dual-boot for Ubuntu and XP and I needed to install XP on the new system, since my Creative Labs E-Mu audio card doesn't support Linux. I also tried all of the recommended repairs including those you tried all to no avail...I was even having problems installing XP from scratch - kept getting the NTDLR error during the install process... I was finally able to install a clean instance of XP, but only after many frustrating hours of hair pulling and cursing MS. Still not sure which of the many things that I tried actually resolved the problem... Cheers

taryn
taryn

System Restore is useless then. I had a system rebooting itself endlessly after a MS IE 7 update recently. I couldn't get into the #4 above because there was no administrative password set. I tried almost everything in the article (just read this now). The system said the NTDLR file was missing. Of course, there was no floppy drive or any other back-up disk. Tried Bootcfg and fixboot. Tried original XP disk "Repair", didn't work. I ended up re-installing Windows XP on the main drive C:, and it partitioned drive D: (2nd HD) while keeping all C:'s info on D:, yet the apps and other files wouldn't work from D: when in the new C:. (Does this make any sense??) I am still working on this one. C:/ won't function properly, so I will have to start over.

anne.powel
anne.powel

They are easy and cheap and simply plug into a usb port. Once it's plugged in almost every system I've used recognizes it immediately so there's nothing to install. Or alternately use a bootable usb flash drive.

Zwort
Zwort

"Have some respect for us old guys"? Wow. I'll let you guess how old I am; I have four degrees, two of them postgrad; I have 8 years of military service behind me; I started using computers around 1979, and can remember learning basic/using the PET. I still work out and am still single, and managed to avoid generating more carbon burning units, by the skin of my teeth, though there is a woman on my horizon who has other ideas.... ....but I think that I am too old. Can you guess how old I am? :-) Oh, I remember using massive IBM floppy discs. Now let me see. They would be 5 1/4 and genuinely floppy I think. Oh, and I remember using punch cards in the forces and I know that the characters per line in SPSS for DOS were determined by the number of characters per line in punch card world, and a number of other things in SPSS were determined by the punch card. Old? I was a marksman on the Lee Enfield 303, never mind this modern .556, pressed steel crap. I do hope this was reactionary and 'old' enough for you! :-) (creak)

Harry44Callahan
Harry44Callahan

That's a major problem I run into. I like Microsoft's ERD Commander because it will hook up with your present install of XP and allow a System Restore! Not many will do that on XP, but some machines do need the disk drivers to recognize your OS install. It is ridiculous for MS not to use a CD there.

wedge1
wedge1

A developer at Microsoft lacking forethought? That's like saying "The sun burns your eyes when you look directly into it" or "Custer lacked forethought at Little Big Horn". It's almost too obvious a statement. I'm still LMAO about it, though. Thx. >^D

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