Hardware or Software??

Oh, No! Something’s just gone horribly wrong with your computer! Is all your data lost? Your precious pictures? Noooo! What could be wrong?

Don’t panic. A majority of the time, your data is still there, even if you can’t get to it. It would be nice to know, though, whether the problem is hardware (the hard drive and other physical parts of your computer) related or software (The programs, including Windows, that make your computer run) related.

Here’s a (relatively) easy way to find out.

Let’s back up a minute. When you turn on your computer, the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) on the main board (motherboard) goes looking for some source of boot software. Normally, it looks to the hard drive and finds some version of Windows, and boots from that. If Windows has gone south for some reason, the BIOS usually has no alternative. You can, however (in most cases) also provide an Operating System on a CD or USB stick, and have the computer boot from that. Enter the Boot Disk.

If there’s nothing wrong with your PC’s hardware, a boot disk will allow you to start it even if your Windows installation is completely hosed. This will not work if your PC is getting no power, the video has failed, or the motherboard or processor has gone bad. It will work even if your hard drive is shot, but in that case, you will probably have to go to a profe$$ional for the data recovery. Since roughly 95% of computer problems are software-related, it’s worth a try.

There are a number of options – free and paid – for boot disks. You can boot from a Windows installation disk, which might tell you whether your computer hardware is working properly, but won’t help you get your files back.

What you need is a CD (or USB drive) that has a self-contained operating system so you can back up files as well as see if your hardware is working. Sometimes these don’t work for a variety of reasons, but often they do, especially on older machines.

Two that I use frequently are Hiren’s boot cd and a popular version of Linux known as Ubuntu. Now, both of these are pretty huge downloads, so if you have a slow connection be prepared for a couple of hours of downloading. Your completed download will be an .iso file, and you cannot burn this directly to a CD. You’ll also need a program such as Imgburn to “unpack” and burn the file to a bootable CD.

If you don’t have a CD drive, you’ll need a tool such as Rufus to make a USB drive bootable.

You’ll also need to configure your BIOS to look for an operating system on the CD or USB drive. It’s not a bad idea to do this ahead of time. Just set the BIOS to always look for boot media on a CD or USB first, and the hard drive second. If it finds nothing to boot from in the other drives, it’ll go straight to the normal Windows installation. Note that this will slow down the boot – by a few seconds – as the BIOS looks in those other places.

Whew! Now you have an alternate way to start your computer, just like the pros do! While both of the OS downloads I mentioned earlier do not work exactly like the Windows you’re used to, either will allow you to copy, read, and delete files, as well as possibly diagnosing whatever problem you might be having.

For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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