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Power corrupts. Windows registry corrupts absolutely

September 22, 2013

XP’s polite way of telling you, your computer’s hooped, your hard drive may be toast, in which case your files are history, and your computer never really liked you anyways!

Two days ago, I went from hero over breakfast to zero by dinnertime. After restoring the Wi-Fi in Henry’s HP Pavilion dv6000 over breakfast, I later proved unequal to the task of pulling Jezi’s Acer emachine back from the brink of Windows Registry Hell. I did, at least, show her all her files were intact, accessible, and therefore recoverable.

I stopped in at the Broadway and Granville McDonald’s about 9:00 p.m. So did Jezi. She came over to me; calmly put down her backpack, aka “The Beast;” unpacked her Netbook; gently placed it beside my food tray, and only then, kind of lost it. Her voice quavered as she explained how her little emachine had been fine the night before — now it wouldn’t boot up. What had happened? Were her files all gone? Could I repair it? I felt like a veterinarian faced with a distraught pet owner pleading with me to save her cat — “She was fine last night doctor, but this morning she wouldn’t boot up or anything” — okay, more like a vet in a Philip K. Dick story.

Jezi fired up the sick little Netbook, which promptly threw up the following black screen message:

Windows could not start because the following file is missing or corrupt :

You can attempt to repair this file by starting windows setup using the original setup CD-Rom.
Select “r” at the first screen to start repair.

Black screen of death? Save the files first, then the children

While Jezi went to ply her trade as a street conversationalist, which pays better than binning. I first tried, unsuccessfully to boot the emachine in Safe Mode, or Safe Mode with Command Line. Turning to the Web told me it was fundamentally corruption in the Windows registry — a database of settings and states — the missing file in question was one of five registry hive files. Unfortunately, the file could be “missing or corrupt” because the hard drive itself was unreadable; to check this, I booted the machine using a 32-bit Live Ubuntu 12.10 on a USB stick [making a Ubuntu boot stick in Windows]; the wireless didn’t work, but I could see her hard drive, open text files, look at JPEGs. I could see the video files, but Ubuntu’s crappy default video player, Totem, balked at playing them.

That her hard drive wasn’t toast was good news; her files could be backed up. I could’ve stopped there. I didn’t have enough storage capacity or time to back up the contents of her hard drive, which was the proper first step. And replacing the missing registry file, or reinstalling XP, required a fresh copy of Windows XP, which I didn’t have with me.

To actually try repairing the corruption, means deleting the five registry hive files off the affected computer and replacing them with clean copies:

delete c:\windows\system32\config\system
delete c:\windows\system32\config\software
delete c:\windows\system32\config\sam
delete c:\windows\system32\config\security
delete c:\windows\system32\config\default

This generally means, as the black screen error message succinctly states, using a Windows XP installer disk. There are more than a few solutions to Windows problems which require the user to pull out their Windows installer disks, despite the fact that Windows users don’t usually get install disks anymore, they get so-called restore partitions on their computers. If they have a Netbook, like Jezi’s, they have no CD/DVD drive anyways. There are ways around these problems: Disk images of Windows XP can be found, and made bootable on a flash drive, or a person could use a CD with an external CD-rom drive that connects via USB — I have one of those.

Simple solution, Devilish details

However, he more I read, the more I questioned whether it was worth the effort. Microsoft’s own page on the subject: How to recover from a corrupted registry that prevents Windows XP from starting, is a good place to start. Just scroll down past the preamble, and warnings to “Part One.” One warning, however, is interesting:

“Do not use the procedure that is described in this article if your computer has an OEM-installed operating system. The system hive on OEM installations creates passwords and user accounts that did not exist previously. If you use the procedure that is described in this article, you may not be able to log back into the recovery console to restore the original registry hives.”

Microsoft appears to be saying NOT to use the procedure if your computer came with Windows XP pre-installed. This makes the repair procedure suitable for only about 500 people on Earth. The procedure itself becomes fairly involved, and, all things considered, it seems easier to  back up the files, which should be the first step in any event, and reinstall an operating system.

The particulars of repairing this Registry problem are also laid out on this well-written Help2Go page, in the form of five options. Actually fixing the problem requires getting into the Recovery Console, either via F8 at startup (didn’t work on the emachine) or by booting from an XP installer CD. It will recognize the existing Windows system on the computer and ask what you want to do. Choosing the “r” option takes you to the Recovery Console. This page doesn’t really explain the repair part (see the above Microsoft link for that), but it’s useful for the other options, which are about checking the integrity of your hard drive, and rescuing your files.

What about BartPE?

Theoretically, you should be able to use BartPE to get, and replace the registry hive files. BartPE is a cut-down version of Windows XP which closely mirrors Microsoft’s own WindowsPE. but is not a Microsoft product. BartPE can be made from an XP install disk [instructions and downloads here]. premade versions can be downloaded from various other places also — Google it. BartPE is designed to be able to boot from a CD, a floppy, or USB stick. Basic BartPE is basic by design. When you build it, you can learn how to include modules, to add features, such as USB support, or specific applications. I found this YouTube video explaining how to fix the registry corruption using BartPE, or any live CD, but my old BartPE stick, didn’t look, or have all the options the YouTube one had, and I frankly lost interest.

Jezi said she was more interested in trying to get a newer laptop — the emachine is hammered — and she was just thrilled all her files appeared recoverable. After we back up the files, I may take a crack at the orthodox repair method, or see if Ubuntu 12.04 “sees” the wireless.

From → Windows

  1. ~xtian permalink

    You’re a better man than me taking on a job like that. Kudos. I’ve never ventured into the deep interior of Windows country because it’s just plain scary. My idea of a repair generally involves file recovery, a napalm drop and a complete reinstall.


    • Funny you should mention napalm. I left out an original bit that had me trying repeatedly trying to boot it in different modes, while “hoping it would spontaneously catch fire and same me bother.”


      • ~xtian permalink

        HEH. The napalm was a half intended reference to “Heart Of Darkness” (as in the deep darks of the Windows registry) and “Apocalypse Now” (cue “Ride Of The Valkyries” as U.S. Cavalry helicopters drop a payload of Ubuntu Live install media).

        The last Windows machine I had to do a full restore on fortunately was a Vista one so it had a set of disks. For more recent gear… hell I have no idea. Straight onto Google.


      • I’ll call your “Apocalypse Now” napalm/Ubuntu reference and raise you a “It became necessary to destroy the town/Windows XP to save it.”


      • ~xtian permalink

        HAHAHA *high five*


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