How-To Geek

How to Use a Windows Installer Disc to Back Up Your Files When Your Computer Won’t Boot


If Windows won’t boot, recovering your files can be a headache.  You do n0t have to pull the hard drive or use a Linux live CD – you can use a Windows installer disc to quickly back up your files.

We have included steps for both Windows 8 and Windows 7 here – the process is basically the same on each.  You can use a Windows 7 disc to back up files from a Windows 8 system or vice versa.

Boot From a Windows Installer Disc

First, insert a Windows installer disc (or a USB drive with the Windows installer on it) into your computer and restart your computer.  If everything is working properly, you will see a “Press any key to boot from CD or DVD” message.  Press a key to enter the installer.  If you do not see this screen, you may need to change the boot settings in your computer’s BIOS.

Click the Next option and select Repair Your Computer.  You will see this option at the bottom-left corner of the window, whether you are using a Windows 7 or Windows 8 installer disc.

If you are using a Windows 8 installer disc, select Troubleshoot > Advanced Options > Command Prompt.

If you are using a Windows 7 installer disc, select the Restore your computer using a system image you created earlier option, click Next, click Cancel, and click Cancel again.

You will see the System Recovery Options window – click Command Prompt to launch a Command Prompt window.

When you see a Command Prompt, type notepad and press Enter to launch a Notepad window.  Click File and select Open in the Notepad window.

Ensure you select the All Files option at the bottom of the window, and then click the Computer option.

You can use this Open dialog as if it were a Windows Explorer window – select files and you’ll be able to copy and paste them elsewhere.  If you connect a USB drive or removable hard drive to your computer, you will be able to copy-paste files onto it.

Do not double-click any files or Notepad will try to open them, possibly freezing.  If Notepad freezes on you, go back to the Command Prompt window and type taskmgr to launch the Task Manager.  You can end the frozen Notepad task and re-launch Notepad.

Once you are done copying your files off your hard drive, you can close the windows and shut down your computer.  Or, if you plan on reinstalling Windows anyway, you can now begin performing a clean installation with your files safely backed up.

We would like to thank Ruja in the How-To Geek Forums for showing us this trick.  It’s very clever, and we wanted to bring it to our readers.  Thanks, Ruja!

Comments (35)

  1. Syed Balal Rumy

    Good one.

  2. Mike

    I always throw a copy of explorer++ on the usb drive when I do that. Much better than using file open dialog boxes.

  3. Neville

    This is very helpful thanks a million

  4. Carlos C

    I personally would still prefer using a linux live cd for this task, yet there is no denying that launching notepad and using the open dialog window as an explorer session is a super cool and useful trick.

  5. phil4a

    Why not use a program like Acronis which gives you a boot disk and you can restore your computer as it was the last time it was working well.

  6. michel

    what? how do you copy the files? where do you paste them? One single file at a time? This is practically useless.

  7. Dheeraj Thedijje

    Wow amazing trick, beside this we can also us the live linux DVD/CD to do the same, you could also suggest the repair the start up problem for the Windows PC, no one needs to be so tricky!

  8. Kevalin


    “If you connect a USB drive or removable hard drive to your computer, you will be able to copy-paste files onto it…”

    Reading if fundamental; comprehension, priceless.

    If the drive you connect to has the space, you should be able to paste pretty much the entire drive to it, without having to do it file-by-file. Or, yes, you can cut and paste individual files if you’re only looking to salvage files that have changed or been added since your last backup, assuming you have one (and that also answers phil4a’s question, since most of us don’t do full daily backups).

    This information is hardly “useless” if it makes the difference between salvaging important work, and having to completely re-do it. After all, most people don’t get (or recognize) the warning signs that might save them from a sudden and “unexpected” crash.

  9. whs

    This is very neat. Thanks Ruja for sharing.

  10. mgo

    Yet another useful tip for effective computer management. Thanks!

  11. SeaDevil

    A much better and easier idea is this: when you get to the recovery window, select command prompt,,,then type BOOTREC.EXE C: /fixboot then BOOTREC.EXE /fixmbr then CHKDSK C: /F

    AND voila…you can restart normally… when I install a linux distro to dual boot with windows, then delete the distro partition when done, I do this to repair the grub/startup menu to restore the windows bootup menu. I also created the windows recovery disk to speed the recovery process too.

  12. Nick

    A trick I just learned a few weeks ago:

    Instead of clicking System Restore and then cancel twice, when the language prompt comes up on Windows 7, just hit Shift + F10, and it’ll bring a command prompt window right up! Just a preference thing I suppose, but I do love it

  13. Penguin Power

    I still prefer a Linux live boot and not just for file maintenance/recovery either. The GParted utility and nearly any file manager like Nautilus (included in most any major Debian-based distro) is worth so much more than it’s free price tag. You simply can not use anything Microsoft based to copy files if two or more drives have the same UUID signature – even if one of those drives is completely blank. But you can sure as heck use an Ubuntu/Mint/etc. live boot distro and it’s native file manager. Ask me how I know! (OK, not really.)

    But if you’re brainwashed into needing some kind of Windows based GUI tool like the Notepad file manager to do basic stuff and have no idea what certain ancient MS-DOS tools like “xcopy” or “copy” can do, to say nothing of possibly creating a batch file with notepad, then this looks like a good alternative. It’s certainly creative enough should you happen to find yourself in a McGyver type situation with only a Windows boot disk and some blank media – and with no command-line experience.

    So perhaps now is a good time to make a backup or two including a partition backup so that you don’t have to reinstall Windows all over again from square one? (Just suggesting.)

    But then, maybe some people might actually enjoy taking a day or two out of their lives to download and install all those boring updates as well as all that other stuff. Let’s face it, some people enjoy pain. How else can you explain “Windows”? (Get it? “Window pains”?!)

  14. Terry

    Thanks Chris for letting us know about this trick. This is very helpful.

  15. Areeb

    Thanks for the tip Chris.

  16. efemmeral

    So helpful! Thanks for sharing!

  17. Ruja

    You are welcome, thanks for publishing this!

  18. tu.nguyen

    Thank so much ! So helpful

  19. DCTudu

    Thanks a lot pal.
    Actually i know this trick works in windows previously but with Windows CD, its awesome.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Keep it up.

  20. Candace

    this sounds great but my cd/dvd drive won’t open

  21. 1and1madeyou

    Nice that’s a keeper howtogeek is one of to top go to for help. keep up the good work geeks
    Power to the GEEKS!

  22. ank91

    why dont make a WIN PE V3 with explorer support.

  23. Vikas Sharma

    Nice one,

  24. bazzer

    have to agree with Michel above; incomplete and useless unless you already know
    how to do it

  25. Erik

    How about drives using full-disk encryption, like TrueCrypt?

  26. roshan

    Really nice and simple trick to backup :)

  27. Tunde

    to Penguin Power
    the xcopy and copy commands, will not work with long files “effectively”. you’ll just get a load of difficult to identify files… more frustration.

  28. rmath97

    For those who say Linux Distro is a better option…

    When you FORGET to make such a bootable drive or you make it only when it is needed, AND you have an OEM (Windows 7, because Windows 8 supports it natively) this method is useful even when you don’t have a disk available, or your laptop does not have a CD/DVD drive.

  29. Sathya65

    The same thing i am doing for a year if i had problem in booting windows.

  30. Sathya65

    Also i use command prompt to copy files.

  31. Widodo Hendrartono

    How about pre-installed windows7?

  32. Jazz62

    Have used the file open window to perform quick file management before, but being able to do it from an install disc when your system disc is munged is brilliant. Great tip.

  33. Mohamed

    Do you have something similar that i could use on XP… my old laptop crashed and i really need to recover some data.

    thanks in advance


  34. Julien

    I had to do that few months ago, it’s almost the only way to recover files on a RAID config.
    Booting on a Linux CD can’t get you to read/write on every RAID config.

    Nice to see that someone did a “how to” for this.

  35. Fayyaz

    Use mini xp bootable cd .just boot from has windows explored which gives you freeda

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 01/24/13