Help! Data recovery from an unbootable computer: what can I do?

So, your computer turns on, you can hear it start up, but your operating system (Windows, Mac OS X , Linux) doesn't start up with it. Certainly, this isn't the best way to start your day. But don't panic. Although your computer is unbootable, which means the operating system (OS) won't load (boot), you should be able to recover your data. In the best case scenario, you may even be able to restore your operating system and return to business as usual. Even if that's not possible, you should be able to recover your data as long as your hardware has not suffered physical damage. Here are four ways to recover data from an unbootable computer.

Method 1: Use a Live CD

An operating system is the key to accessing data. And since yours isn't working, you'll need to find another one to use. If your CD drive is in working order, then a Live CD can be a simple do-it-yourself data recovery method. A Live CD gives you the tools to run a separate operating system from your CD drive without booting into your main system disk. You can download the software for a Live CD from the Internet and then burn it onto a disc. I recommend Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a free distribution of Linux that is equally as user-friendly as Windows.  Plus, it comes with a few useful disk utilities pre-installed. You'll want to use the "try before you install" option that allows you to run the OS from the CD instead of installing it on your computer. Once you boot up your computer with the CD, you'll be able to use your computer like you normally would. You can now save your files to another device for access later, perform a backup of your whole system to another device, and perform other necessary tasks.

Method 2: Use a Data Recovery Program with a Startup Version

Similar to using a Live CD, this method allows you to access your data without booting your operating system. Some data recovery programs can be burned onto a CD drive or imaged onto a USB flash drive and then booted, even if your system disk is corrupted. The software effectively bypasses your OS and walks you step by step through the process of recovering your data.

Note, however, that these programs aren't the same as a full-fledged operating system. These tools are designed solely for data recovery. While you can preview some multimedia file types, most of what you can do from a portable app involves imaging the disk and saving recovered files to another disk.

Method 3: Remove the drive and attach it to a machine that works

This method is tricky, but effective. If you can remove your hard drive from your computer easily, then I'd recommend this method. However, many netbooks and laptops are not easy to take apart. It's not worth risking damaging your hard drive or computer in the removal process. But for most desktop PCs, it's a simple matter of opening the case, carefully removing the SATA/IDE cable, removing the screws fastening the hard drive to the bay and sliding it out. Once you've removed your hard drive, you'll need to attach it to a machine that runs. You can do this by inserting it into an open hard drive bay in another PC or by placing it in a USB or FireWire hard drive enclosure and using it like an external hard drive. If your data can be seen and accessed, you should now be able to recover data from the drive using data recovery software. If you can't access your data, you could be dealing with a hardware issue.

Method 4: Network Data Recovery

This option allows you to access your data from another computer without going through the process of removing your hard drive. You'll need to use a startup disk with a remote recovery agent that can communicate with another computer over a local area network or the Internet. You can now run data recovery software to pull data from your unbootable machine to the working hard drive.

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