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How do I use recovery disks on an empty hard drive?

I was recently given an old (2004) Dell Inspiron laptop, which used to have
Win XP Pro as the operating system. I say “used to have,” because the previous
owner did a complete format of the hard drive before giving the machine to me,
and it now appears to be blank. When I placed the Dell Recovery Disk in the CD
drive and tried to boot the computer so the OS could be re-installed factory
fresh, the only message that appeared on the monitor screen was “Boot mgr is
missing.” Is there some way to use another computer to install the boot manager
file on the HD? When I placed the HD in an external USB housing and looked at
the drive on my Win 7 computer, it appeared to be totally blank.

“Boot mgr is missing” isn’t surprising given an empty hard disk. And I’ll be
up front and tell you that even if you could put a boot manager on that hard
disk, it wouldn’t help. The boot manager would simply continue to look for other
things on the hard disk.

Things like the operating system.

Which isn’t there.

No, the first thing we need to do is to boot from the Recovery CD.

Unfortunately, even that has only about a 50/50 chance of working.

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Booting from the CD

“Boot mgr is missing” simply means that your computer’s BIOS has looked at
the hard disk for the next step in the boot process and found nothing
there.

Not surprising, since the previous owner wiped the hard disk.

The real problem is that the BIOS shouldn’t even be looking at the hard
disk. What you want it to do is to first look at the CD you’ve inserted, and if
it’s present, boot from that instead. Doing that doesn’t require that there be
anything on the hard drive at all.

I would love to be able to tell you step by step how to get your
computer’s BIOS to check the CD first, but I can’t. Unfortunately, exactly how
you get into the BIOS settings and once in, where to look for what’s called the
“Boot Order” varies dramatically from computer manufacturer to manufacturer,
and even model to model.

So, the best that I can offer is to check the documentation for that particular model
of computer. You can probably download it from the manufacturer’s support website.

Typically, it involves pressing a specific key as the BIOS performs its self
tests, and then navigating through a series of menus to locate the boot order
option, and then set the CD drive to be before the hard disk drive.

When recovery disks work

Once you’ve booted from the CD, the recovery software will guide you through
the process of restoring the machine to its factory-new condition.

That may be as simple as just a lot of copying followed by a reboot, or it
may be as complex as having to run and work through Windows Setup.

Either way, the key is that everything you need is on the recovery media
because there’s nothing on the hard disk.

Why recovery disks might not work

It’s unusual for recovery disks to actually have everything you need.

It’s not uncommon that they do not contain a copy of Windows that
can be reinstalled.

Instead, the recovery disk assumes that there is a recovery partition,
possibly hidden, on the hard disk that has all that information. The recovery
disk then steps you through the process of copying the information from that
hard disk’s recovery partition to the main partition, restoring your system to
its factory-new condition.

It’s faster and cheaper than having everything on separate recovery CDs, and
it avoids some Windows piracy issues as well.

Unfortunately, if you have a new, empty hard disk, or if the hard disk in the
system doesn’t have the recovery partition any more because it’s been wiped,
then the recovery disk can’t recover.

There’s no recovery partition to recover the information from.

The solutions in a case like this are:

  • Contact the manufacturer and appeal to them for an installation, not
    recovery, disk. This is unlikely if the machine has changed hands, or the
    original operating system is very old – like Windows XP.

  • Purchase a retail copy of the operating system. You can then install it,
    perhaps updating hardware-specific drivers from the computer manufacturer’s website.

  • Switch to a free operating system such as Linux.

Change the BIOS setting, see if booting from the recovery disk will actually
recover for you.

If it does, consider yourself lucky.

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12 comments on “How do I use recovery disks on an empty hard drive?”

  1. I have found in my Career as a phone tech, for a major office supply (and computer) store, that Dell’s website has a pretty good walkthru of using their recovery software from CD or DVD. It is however not the easiest thing to find from the site. I would post a link, but there is no model number. Searching the Dell Service Tag Number at Dell’s support site is getting about half way there tho.

    Reply
  2. I use the recovery disks all the time and for the most part they work very well. To be honest I have never heard of a recovery disk that that pulled info off the hard drive. The recovery partition on the hard works great up to the point where your hard drive is actually failing, at that point you need a recovery disk. As you said, if your operating system is old, ie windows XP you probably won’t be able to get one and you will have to load in your operating system by hand. Again the point I was trying to make is that in my experiance, I have been doing warrenty work since 2006 and have replaced a ton of hard drives, recovery disks usually work quite well.

    Reply
  3. For Dell computers, you can typically press the F12 key to get a one-time boot option. Use that and arrow down to the CD to boot from your recovery disk.

    Reply
  4. 2 days ago I formatted and reinstalled windows 2000 on the original Dell desktop. Fortunately I knew enough to boot from the CD, I then updated Windows, and it worked fine up to a point.
    When I tried to download adobe flash to play videos I got “The procedure entry point setDlldirectory could not be be located in the dynamic link library KERNEL32.Dll” Huh? Any idea what this is about?

    The only other problem I encountered was when I tried to open the sidebar on Google Desktop (which was running well {but slow} before the reinstall) I got “CDI+ needed”, I downloaded and clicked this but maybe I’m putting it in the wrong place, b/c nothing happened. Again, any ideas?

    It shows that reinstalling an old system like 2000 or XP brings its own problems.

    BTW last year I tried to get an XP installation disk from HP – they laughed at me!

    Reply
  5. I wonder if the previous owner formatted only the C: partition, and the recovery partition is still there. In that case, after setting the boot order and booting from the recovery CD and following the recovery steps might work.

    Reply
  6. you can still purchase XP online. I’m having an XP Pro machine built as I type this and the person has many current business customers still using XP. If you do purchase a copy of XP online make sure it is the whole package, not and Upgrade, so it will not look for a vaild operating system to upgrade form. If you should have an old copy of WIN98 or WINME that might be able to used by swapping CDs when asked for the system to upgrade from.

    Reply
  7. Dennis,
    Right on – I downloaded and installed 10.1 – now to see if it works OK. I agree with you about 2000 it is the most stable windows ever. I’ve had about 5 blue screens in 12 years. Thanks for the tip.

    Reply
  8. Dell and other such OEMs keep the OEM copy of Windows on a recovery partition and the recovery CD does a customized OEM install using that recovery partition. I am sure the recovery partition got deleted when the hard disk was wiped.

    Neither the OEM “will” nor your computer seller “can” do anything in such a situation. Your only alternatives are buy a new copy of Windows or switch to Linux. Ubuntu Linux is the most user friendly Linux distributions and is free!

    Reply
  9. OK Dennis, not only did Adobe flash work fine, but I found a version of Google Desktop on the same site. It works too.

    What a resource!

    Reply

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