One of the simple joys of FAT and Windows 9x is that when everything starts going wrong, you can boot with a startup floppy and straighten it all out via the command line. That’s typically not possible with a Windows NT/2000/XP system. These operating systems use the NTFS file system rather than FAT or FAT32. When you boot an NTFS system using a Windows 9x startup floppy, the NTFS drives don’t appear to exist. You can boot into the Recovery Console for a command prompt, but depending on security settings, it might not give you access to the entire drive. Although you can run certain repair utilities from the Recovery Console, you might not be able to copy important data files off the disk.

One workaround is to use a freeware utility called NTFS Reader for DOS (also available at most major shareware sites). This utility allows you to view the contents of any hard disk that uses FAT16, FAT32, NTFS4, or NTFS5 (including drives over 8 GB) and to copy files from the disk to any FAT16 or FAT32 hard disk or to a standard floppy disk (FAT12). The part about “any” hard disk is significant. This utility also supports old IDE drives, the latest ATA drives, and all SCSI drives. And although it’s billed as an NTFS reader, it could also conceivably be used to transfer files from FAT16 or FAT32 volumes to floppies or other drives as well.

Starting it up
NTFS Reader for DOS won’t run under Windows, so if you want to try it out, you must perform the following tasks:

  1. Create a bootable floppy disk. In Windows 9x, use Add/Remove Programs. You can also make a very basic floppy in Windows XP from the Format dialog box for the floppy drive. (If you do the latter, you’ll get a floppy containing the IO.sys, MSDOS.sys, and from Windows Me.)
  2. Copy the executable file, readntfs.exe, to the floppy.
  3. Boot from the floppy to a command prompt and type readntfs.

The main window that appears lists the stats for the first hard disk as a whole. Press the down arrow to see the statistics for a particular volume on that hard disk, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A
NTFS Reader for DOS reports the stats on an NTFS volume.

Viewing the files
To view the files on a volume, press [Enter]. The program scans the disk and then presents the top-level content. The scanning process takes about 10 seconds and reoccurs each time you change directories. Figure B shows the top-level directory listing for an NTFS volume. From here, you can select a subfolder (with the arrow keys) and press [Enter] to move into it, or you can select an individual file.

Figure B
This is a directory listing for an NTFS volume.

The program supports long filenames, even though they aren’t shown in Figure B. Pressing [Tab] toggles between the long and short names. When viewing the long names, you don’t get all the detail columns shown in Figure B; you get only the filename and size. To preview the content of a file, select it and press [Enter]. By default, it appears in hexadecimal code, as in Figure C, but you can switch between this and normal text mode by pressing [Tab]. Pressing [Esc] takes you back to the file listing.

Figure C
Viewing the contents of a selected file

Searching for a file
One of the main drawbacks of this program is that every time you change directories, there’s a delay—around 10 seconds—so browsing through dozens of folders could be tedious. However, a Search feature lets you locate files using the exact filename or standard command-prompt wildcards.

To use the Search feature, press [Ctrl]F. A box will prompt you to enter your file specification. Enter an exact name or a wildcard. For example, to retrieve all the .doc files from the disk, search for*.doc and press [Enter]. The program locates the first file that matches your specification, as shown in Figure D. From here, you can press [Enter] to jump to that file’s directory or press [Ctrl]F again to keep looking.

Figure D
Searching for a file can be quicker than browsing for it.

Copying a file to another disk
Of course, the main purpose of this utility is not just to poke around on a drive but instead to salvage something from it. You do that by copying the file to a FAT drive. To copy a file, select it and press [Ctrl]C. A Save In DOS Real Mode dialog box opens, as shown in Figure E. Select the drive you want to copy to. The drive letters available in this box will be different from the ones you’ve been working with so far because they exclude all non-FAT drives and include all FAT-based floppies. You can use the navigation keys listed in the dialog box to move around, and you can select OK when you’re ready to make the copy.

Figure E
Copying a file onto a FAT drive

Listing recoverable deleted files
One final note about NTFS Reader for DOS: This utility won’t recover deleted files, but it will show them. Deleted files appear in the file listing with a white block to their left. However, you can’t copy them to another disk., the company that makes this free utility, also offers commercial utilities for recovering deleted files. Active UNERASER, a text-mode utility similar to NTFS Reader for DOS, unerases; there’s also a Windows-based version called Active UNDELETE for FAT and NTFS.