Five tips for dealing with Windows boot problems

Few computer issues are as frustrating as a non-booting Windows machine. Here are a few simple techniques that can help get you up and running.

Windows, ah Windows. When you work for us, you make our lives ever so much easier. But when you don't, you make our lives a living hell. One of the many possible flavors of havoc Windows can wreak is the inability to boot. There are many reasons why a Windows machine might not boot, and there are just as many possible solutions to resolve the issue.

In an ideal world, plenty of preparation would prevent such disasters. But in the real world, preparation is often forgotten or falls into the "too little too late" category. That doesn't mean that you need to toss your arms up in the air in the universal gesture of "I give" when this happens. There are steps you can take to avoid this. Let's take a look at a few of them.

1: Boot from the install disk

This solution, of course, relies on the chance that you actually have an install disk. So many computers are sold without them that this method is often overlooked. If you have an install disk, just boot from it and keep clicking until you get the option to Repair Your Computer. When you've managed to reach that point, it's just a matter of walking through a fairly painless wizard that should repair your non-booting Windows installation. Within this wizard, you will eventually get to a Startup Repair section. That's what you're shooting for.

2: Fix your MBR

The master boot record (MBR) is that partition (or sector) of your drive that holds critical information for the boot process. Without the MBR, your machine won't be able to boot. An MBR can be rendered useless in many ways. For example, say you are dual booting. In the process of installing the second operating system, you overwrite the MBR, and the original OS is not compatible with what the second OS has written. Whatever the reason, the solution is fairly straightforward. You need to get to the command prompt (you can do this using the installation disk in the same way you reached the Startup Repair option). Once you get to the command prompt, type bootrec /fixmbr. Now, if you've installed Windows XP to dual boot with Windows 7 (and you installed Windows XP last), you will notice that Windows 7 probably doesn't boot any more. You need to overwrite the Windows XP MBR with a Windows 7 MBR using the command bootsect /nt60 all. Note: Depending upon how you've installed your setup, you might have to replace all with a drive letter.

3: Try Safe Mode

If you're lucky, the inability to boot will be a simple issue that can be resolved from within Safe Mode. Safe Mode is a special mode for Windows that doesn't load all the drivers and subsystems that Standard Mode uses. To get into Safe Mode, hit the [F8] key as soon as your BIOS has posted. If you can get into Windows using Safe Mode, you can run chkdsk /r on your drive as well as a registry cleaning tool and other cleaning tools (rootkit, virus, etc.).

4: Back up

At the consulting firm I work for, we use Acronis. Acronis has a Universal Restore feature that will allow you to restore an image to different hardware. This works great IF the client manages their backups. (If they can't manage them, we manage them.) With a full backup image of the non-booting machine, you can restore using your backup tool software --as long as it offers a full restore from image. If your current backup solution doesn't offer a restore from image, consider migrating to one that does. This option will save you time and money in the end.

5: Reinstall

This is the last-ditch effort. It also points back to the previous option, with the hope that you have backed up all your data. As you well know, the reinstallation of Windows will wipe out your data as well as any installed applications. So going this route means you will not only have to transfer your data, you will also have to reinstall all applications. If you are not a large shop that works with pre-bundled images, you will have to take the time to get the machine back to where it was. This can be an incredible pain, so make sure you exhaust the other solutions before it comes to this. The good news about this option is that when your machine is back up, it will be factory fresh and will run like a champ.

Other solutions

Naturally, there are other options, but the above solutions are some of the more widely used methods of getting beyond a non-booting machine. I hope, for your sake, you do not make it all the way down to tip # 5. Fortunately, the install disk method is powerful and reliable, and it should get you back up and running -- provided you have an install disk.

What solutions have you found most effective when you run into Windows boot problems?

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