Dec 3, 2009

BSODIf things go wrong in Windows 7 and the OS fails to boot, don’t fret. There’s a good chance you can repair the PC with only a couple of clicks, using the built-in Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE). This article teaches you how it works.

The “My PC won’t boot up, come fix it!” call is one any system administrator or IT pro probably dreads more than anything. Boot-up errors are the most vicious kinds of problems. Windows may be damaged by a virus, a buggy device driver might call memory addresses that it’s not supposed to, or the Windows registry could be damaged beyond repair. There are too many variables and possibilities that cause Windows 7 not to start.

In some cases, the user can select the classic “Last known good” entry, which tries to restore the conditions of the last successful boot up. If that doesn’t help or if the entire boot loader was damaged, the solutions of the past were painful. With previous Windows versions, either the network admin would restore Windows by using the recovery console (which was too complex and success rates were abysmal) or perform a repair installation. However, the repair installation cost way too much time; the admin needed to make sure that all former settings were still in place or needed to manually reinstall some applications affected by the repair process. It wasn’t pretty.

Fortunately, that problem is gone.  Microsoft integrated Windows Recovery Environment, a small operating system based on the Windows 7-kernel, right into Windows 7.  In this article, I show you WinRE’s potential and how you can easily use it to rescue your system, even when other repair measures fail.

What is Windows Recovery Environment?

Three years ago, Microsoft developed Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE) and put it onto the Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 DVDs. This time around, it’s built right into the operating system in Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2, so there is no need to go hunt down the operating system disc anymore.

WinRE provides a useful startup repair wizard designed to repair the most common boot-up problems. It also includes recovery tools such as the System Restore and the System Image Recovery toolset.

Starting WinRE

There are three methods to access the WinRE toolset.

Method 1:  Use the integrated WinRE partition. During the initial Windows 7 installation, the setup wizard creates a 100MB  partition that includes the entire Windows Recovery Environment. This partition is hidden by default, to prevent any virus (or curious users) from making any changes to WinRE. If Windows 7 fails to start, the boot loader should automatically offer to start WinRE from the hard disk, suggesting that you select “Launch Startup Repair (recommended).”

WinRE-01

Tip: If you don’t see this screen, even after Windows 7 failed to boot, press F8 right before the Windows boot logo appears on screen.

If this hidden WinRE partition has been damaged or the boot loader was wiped, you need to use the Windows 7 Recovery Disc or the Windows 7 Setup DVD (see options below). This is also the case if the disk is somehow corrupt and if the master boot record (MBR) has false information.

Method 2: Use the Windows 7 Setup DVD. To access WinRE, insert the Windows 7 DVD and wait for the setup to load. But instead of clicking “Install now,” choose the tiny “Repair your computer” entry.

WinRE-03

Method 3: Use a Windows 7 Recovery Disk. Before trouble strikes, you could (and maybe should) burn a bootable Windows 7 Recovery Disk just in case the WinRE partition is damaged or you misplaced the Setup DVD. And it’s that simple: Go to “Control Panel” and hit  “System and Security.” Click on “Backup and Restore” and select “Create a system repair disk” on the left side. Follow the wizard to burn the bootable recovery CD.

WinRE-02

Note: If you’re burning this CD on a x86 (32-bit) system, the repair wizards won’t work on a x64 (64-bit) version of Windows — and vice versa. So admins should burn two disks from both versions of Windows 7.  To start WinRE, just boot the PC with the recovery CD inserted and wait for the recovery environment to start.

In any case: When WinRE starts, select “Use recovery tools that can help fix problems starting Windows…” and select your Windows installation.

WinRE-04

Repair Windows 7 in No Time

You’ve booted into Windows Recovery Environment? Good! Here are five tools and commands to fix even the most evil startup problems:

1. Startup Repair: This is the all-around tool for fixing the most common causes for an unbootable computer. This wizard repairs a corrupt registry, replaces missing or damaged system or driver files, repairs the entire boot loader and boot configuration data (BCD), and fixes hard disk errors. It even can roll back service packs and updates that caused the system to fail. For a complete list of fixes, head over to this Microsoft Technet article.

WinRE-05

Tip: Most admins want to find out what actually caused the bootup problem. As the Startup Repair tool remains relatively quiet about what it actually did, you’ll find a detailed log under “Windows\System32\LogFiles\Srt\SrtTrail.txt.”

2. System Restore: Windows Startup Repair tries to use the latest system restore point automatically to get your system going again. However, if that did not help, an older restore point might do the trick. Click “System Restore” and select one of the earlier system restore points.

3. System Image Recovery: If you created an image using the built-in imaging tool of Windows 7, here’s your chance to save even a totally crashed Windows installation. Beware: This option restores the original hard disk condition at the moment the image was created, so your users might lose data they’ve created since then. If the hard disk has not been corrupted, you might use the command line to copy files over to a network share or a secondary hard disk before you run System Image Recovery.

Tip: Microsoft included in Windows 7 a tool to create a system image of your entire Windows 7 installation (including the boot files, all Windows system files, applications, and personal data). To create such an image, boot up Windows 7 and open Control Panel -> System and Security -> Backup and restore. Choose  “Create a system image” and follow the wizard. You will have the option to save a drive image to an external USB hard disk, burn it onto (probably many) DVDs, or save it to a network location. Whatever path you choose, you can restore the image quite easily using WinRE.

4. Windows Memory Diagnostic: This option is quite obvious. If the wizard detects faulty memory, replace the bad module as quickly as possible to get Windows 7 going again.

WinRE-06

5. Command Prompt: If nothing else works, you can use  the old-school command line interpreter for the Windows Recovery Environment. Find the most useful commands below:

Command Details
chkdsk Checkdisk detects and repairs any structural errors of your hard disk. Our tip: Use the chkdsk c: /f /r /b switch for a full repair of all defect clusters.
diskpart Diskpart is a command-line tool for (re)partitioning your hard disk. Type diskpart /? for all possible switches.
robocopy To save your data (e.g. before you restore an entire image), use the robocopy command.
wbadmin Windows Backup Admin can restore a system restore point, in case the above mentioned wizard fails to start – which we hear quite a lot. Simply type in wba start recovery.
convert This tool lets you convert any FAT32 partition to NTFS.
wpeutil With the help of this little tool you can change various options of the current WinRE session. For a full list, type in wpeutil /?. Tip: To restore an image from a network (if you didn’t get a connection), try the wpeutil InitializeNetwork command.

Bottom line

Fixing startup problems with Windows 7 is quite a breeze. In most cases, it’s only a matter of a couple of minutes (thanks to Startup Repair) to fix around 80% of boot-up errors. For anything that’s a bit more serious, the system image wizard lets you restore even Windows systems that seemingly are beyond repair. The good thing is: This time around, the image feature is not only limited to Windows 7 Enterprise and Ultimate but even available in the low-end netbook version, Windows 7 Starter, and the consumer Home Premium edition.

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