Free Windows Repair and Recovery Tools

Category: Windows

A hard drive glitch, a virus, or other data catastrophe can delete or damage critical system files in any operating system. Learn about free repair and recovery tools that can fix damaged Windows installations without having to reformat and reinstall everything from scratch...

How to Fix Windows Problems for Free

Windows includes a number of free tools that can help you recover from a major system error. These tools include System Restore, Startup Repair, System Image Recovery, Windows Memory Diagnostic, and the good old Command Prompt. There are also some free third-party tools that can be very helpful wqhen trying to repair a damaged Windows system.

System Restore is the best place to start, when things don't seem to be working right, and you have an idea of when the problem first started. System Restore can "turn back the clock" and return your computer to a previous point in time when things were working. If you've accidentally made changes to system settings, or downloaded something that's causing problems; if your Windows registry is damaged, or you think a virus has snuck past your defenses; System Restore can usually fix things up.

Repairing Windows 7

Unlike some of the other repair tools I'll cover later in this article, System Restore is non-destructive. All of your documents, photos and other personal files will remain, while changes to system settings and software are rolled back. See my article System Restore for Windows 7 to more details on System Restore and how it works. If you're running Windows XP, see Time Travel with System Restore.

If you still have a virus or other malware after running System Restore, see Free Anti-Virus Programs.

More Windows Recovery Options

If your computer is really messed up and won't even start Windows normally, you might be tempted to wipe the slate clean, and re-install Windows from the startup CDROM. That's a drastic and time consuming solution, because it requires you to re-install all your software, and restore your personal files from a backup. Before going to all that trouble, try some of these tools first.

If you're running Windows XP, the Windows XP Recovery Console can help in situations where you're unable to start XP.
See Help, My Hard Drive Died! for more tips on repairing hard drives with reformatting. You'll find more tips in my Windows XP Repair article.

On Windows 7, you can access System Restore, Startup Repair, System Image Recovery, and other Windows 7 repair tools from your hard drive -- if they are pre-installed there. To open the System Recovery Options menu from your hard drive:

  • Restart your computer, after removing all media such as CD/DVD disks and USB drives
  • Press and hold the F8 key before the Windows logo appears
  • On the Advanced Boot Options screen, highlight "Repair your computer" using the arrow keys
  • Select a keyboard layout and then click Next
  • On the System Recovery Options menu, click a tool to open it

If your computer won't start up from the hard drive, or the System Recovery tools are not pre-installed, you can use the Windows 7 Setup/Install CD that came with your computer, or a System Repair Disc that you have created. (See my article Create Your Own Windows Recovery Disc.)

Startup Repair fixes certain problems, such as missing or damaged system files, that may be preventing Windows from starting. Startup Repair will scan your system for errors, and may ask you some questions during the repair process. Your computer may also restart several times during the process. If repairs are successful, you'll reboot normally into your Windows desktop.. If not, Startup Repair will display a list of the problems it found, along with instructions on how to get further support.

Startup Repair should be used only after trying System Restore, because it can wipe out many custom settings and drivers. You may have to reconfigure Windows to your taste and reinstall third-party software drivers, but at least you'll have a working system.

In order to use System Image Recovery, you need to have created a system image at some previous point in time. System image functions are accessed through Windows 7 Backup and Restore. See my related article on Windows 7 Backup and Restore. A system image is an exact copy of all the programs, settings, and data on a disk partition, so restoring a system image will overwrite all of your data. A system image restore is an all-or-nothing operation; you cannot select which files to restore, as you can with a backup utility.

If you're thinking System Image Recovery sounds a bit like System Restore, you're right. But there's one major difference. System Image Recovery takes your entire disk "snapshot" from a previous date and replaces EVERYTHING on your hard drive. System Restore leaves all your personal files intact, and only rolls back changes to system settings and recently installed software.

Windows Memory Diagnostic Tool tests your RAM memory for errors. It doesn't fix errors. If errors are found, you should replace RAM modules or contact your computer's manufacturer for further assistance.

The Command Prompt gives advanced users access to recovery-related and diagnostic commands. Some of these include bootcfg, which enables changes to the boot configuration; Chkdsk, which finds and can fix hard disk errors; IPconfig, which can debug Internet connection problems; and many more. Most users will want to avoid the command line, however.

Summing Up: Windows Repair Strategy

Of course it's always best to be proactive, and avoid problems in the first place. So make sure you've got anti-virus protection in place. My article on Free Anti-Virus Programs will point you to some of the best.

Generally speaking, you should try System Restore first. Often, a system problem is caused by a recent glitch or software change, so reverting to an earlier state when things worked properly is the safest course. Startup Repair should be your next resort if Windows 7 simply won't start. A System Image restoration is a more radical step that should be used with caution, and a handy backup copy of your personal files. Reformatting and reinstalling Windows should be considered only as a last resort.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome! Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Free Windows Repair and Recovery Tools"

Posted by:

06 Mar 2013

Txs v much Bob - I've been looking for such a summary for a while now, and, you've put most of what I wanted to know into one, tight bundle.
Many kind txs,

Posted by:

08 Mar 2013

If I have a virus on 03/07/2013 - and I System Restore back to 03/01/2013 and all is well....then if beyond 03/07/2013 I have another issue and I choose 03/07/2013 as a restore point - do I put the virus back on my computer?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Possibly... if the system restore point was taken after the virus infection, then YES. That's why it's good to have anti-malware protection, too.

Posted by:

Dr. K. A. Rasheed
16 Mar 2013

Those whi are afraid of experimenting with softwares please try the software 'SOLUTO;, and see what happens. It analyses your system and gives you advoses to tweak yoursystem using a very userfriendly interface

Posted by:

17 Mar 2013

If system restore fails to work, run it from safe mode. Always remember if you had a virus and your system restore had made a restore point, that virus was backed up as well. Run a scan first. Once you restore your computer to an earlier date you will reintroduce that virus

Posted by:

19 Mar 2013

I hope all of you appreciate the free knowledge that Bob provides....Its invaluable!...He has saved all of us less trips to the comp'r store and saved us alla ton of money!.........Thanx Bob

Posted by:

11 Sep 2013

One thing I've noticed about System Restore is often it will finish with an "restore unsuccessful" message. I've learned to start Windows anyway, because it usually is successful.

Posted by:

Maurice Lampl
30 Dec 2013

I have Dell Inspiron 1545 laptop that's gone haywire. It'll no longer key any letters. It's acting like CTRL button is depressed. Mouse clicks on browser tab and browser will not come on. If I finally get a browser going, I cannot make the favorites directory to come on screen... I'd insert the OS repair disc, but I'd click on "CD" and the directory will pop up.. No auto-run either. Cannot do anything with it, even to make repairs. I ran System Mechanic and Wise Fix to no avail. I think I'll just throw it away and get another.....

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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Free Windows Repair and Recovery Tools (Posted: 5 Mar 2013)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved