I wanted to address this for one simple reason: a dead machine that has the only copy of important files is so common.
I’ll look at the two most popular ways to recover your files — a software and a hardware option — but more importantly, I need to make sure everyone learns an important lesson from this situation.
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The software option: boot from a “Live CD”
If your machine is so broken you can’t boot from the installed operating system, your priority becomes salvaging the data from the hard disk before reformatting and reinstalling the OS from scratch.
One approach is to use what’s called a “Live” CD, DVD, or USB image of an operating system. The term “Live” refers to the fact that these images simply boot and run entirely from the media on which they’re stored, without requiring a hard disk or installation.
Many, if not most, Linux distributions can be used, and Linux Mint is a good distribution to for this. Using a different working machine, download an ISO image of the most recent version — 32bit edition, Cinnamon desktop if you’re not sure — and burn that to DVD, or use it to create a bootable USB drive.
Now boot your problematic machine from that media.
After Mint finishes booting, double-click on the “Computer” icon to open the Linux version of File Explorer, in which you’ll find icons representing the various drives known to the system, including your Windows hard drive.
You’ll need to figure out which icon actually represents your hard drive. Typically, the name listed will include the drive’s label in Windows, or you can use the size of the drive to help identify which is which.
Double-click the drive to open it and examine its contents.
When mounting fails
With recent versions of Windows, or if a machine’s sudden crash brought you to this situation, the drive may be in a state that cannot be opened by default, resulting in an error message.
This error is suggesting you mount the drive “read-only”. Attempting to open the drive with both read and write access is failing. Honestly, for what we’re attempting, read-only is safer anyway, as it prevents us from making accidental changes to the drive.
Click OK to dismiss the error. Now click on the Mint Start menu, in the same lower-left corner as Windows, and under Accessories, click on Disks.
The Linux Disks utility is very much like Windows’ own disk management tool. Click on the disk representing your Windows drive on the left, and if your drive has multiple partitions, click on the data partition (usually the largest), and then on the options gear icon below it.
In the resulting drop-down menu (not shown) click on Edit Mount Options…
This will open a fairly scary-looking dialog with a lot of terminology and settings you probably won’t recognize. The good news is that for what we’re doing, none of it matters — with two very specific exceptions.
First, if “Automatic Mount Options” is turned on, turn it off. This should enable making changes below.
Second, add the string “,ro” (without the quotes) to the string in the unlabeled text box above “Mount Point”. This adds the “read only” option.
Now click OK to save the options, and return to the disk management tool.
Click the arrow button to mount the drive.
You can close the Disks tool (click the “x” in the window’s title bar in the upper right corner).
Now when you double-click the icon for your Windows drive, it should open and display the contents.
Insert flash drive
Now you need somewhere to copy your files. Insert a flash drive or other external drive into one of your computer’s USB ports. It may appear automatically within the Linux file explorer. If not, run the Disks utility again, and it should appear in the left-hand list. Click on it, and underneath the image of the partition(s) on the drive, click on the mount option.
The drive will become visible in File Manager.
Navigating within the Linux File Manager is almost exactly like Windows File Explorer. Right-click for interesting options, like Copy/Paste or “Open New Window”, drag and drop to move files, double-click on folders to open them, and so on.
You can now explore your Windows drive for the files you want to recover. Drag and drop or copy and paste them to the external drive.
The hardware option: extract the disk
A second approach is to physically remove the hard disk and connect it to a different, working machine to extract its contents. Naturally, this all needs to be done carefully to avoid damaging the drive or the equipment around it.
Perhaps most convenient is to place the drive into an external USB enclosure, so it can be connected to and accessed from any machine with a USB port.
Once the disk is accessible, you should be able to access all the files you need.
A scenario for possible failure
I need to point out one scenario for which there is often no solution: the encrypted hard drive. Hard drives are encrypted specifically to prevent others from doing the very things we’ve done above.
A BitLocker-encrypted drive may be accessible if connected to another Windows machine, if you have the recovery key created when the drive was encrypted.
A VeraCrypt-encrypted drive may be accessible if connected to another machine that has VeraCrypt installed, and you know the password to mount it.
Regardless, whole-disk encryption can present additional hurdles beyond simple system failure that may or may not be insurmountable.
Please learn from this
The lesson to learn is simply this: there’d be no risk of data loss if your data had been backed up.
I harp on backups a lot, but it really is the one thing you can do that can save you from almost any failure.
If your data exists in only one place — for example, if it’s only on your computer’s hard drive — then it’s not backed up. You risk losing everything permanently.
Sometimes we can recover data using one of the approaches above, but you can’t count on that. A hard disk failure — and they definitely can and do fail, often without warning — can render all the information on your hard disk unrecoverable by any means.