The heroic story of the recovery of a crashed laptop with a corrupted hard drive

A close friend of mine contacted me about a week ago regarding a problem with his laptop. He has an HP tablet PC, and he had inadvertently allowed the laptop to run the battery down completely. When he tried to turn it back on, he was greeted with a message of doom:

NTLDR is Missing
Press any key to restart

Needless to say, it was painfully clear we had a serious problem on our hands.

I decided it was time to whip-out my little-used but full-of-potential System Rescue CD, which is a specialized Linux distribution that primarily features disk- & system recovery-based tools. I thought that I’d be able to repair the master boot sector and/or whatever other problem ailed his computer. Sadly, though, the nature of the problem had little to do with the problem this utility could fix, so I searched elsewhere. Meanwhile, though, I popped his laptop’s hard drive into my external, USB-powered disk enclosure and lo-and-behold, the drive itself was readable. So, I quickly (well, as quick as 18GB of data can be transferred over a USB 2.0 interface on to a Dell laptop) transferred over the contents of his profile to my laptop so I could back them up later to DVD-Rs (I actually ended up backing-up his files right onto my old 30GB laptop hard drive which was originally housed inside the enclosure).

As his tablet PC didn’t have its own optical drive, and we couldn’t boot the Windows installation CD from his external USB CD-rewriter unit, we moved the hard drive to another one of his laptops, where it also failed to boot (no surprise here). However, we did boot off of the Windows installation CD and attempted to enter the Recovery console (this is option “R” once the installation CD has fully booted-up and loaded all default device drivers from the CD). So, after entering the console, as normal, it prompts for the Administrator password. I pass it over to my friend, and he can’t remember it. “Guess!” I barked at him…to no avail, however. His younger-yet-more-technically-savvy brother also did not know his password (they even tried typing their names, which didn’t make much sense to me…). I was at a roadblock at this point, so I left, telling them it was late and I was going to go ahead and make the backups of his data, read up, and find out more for another visit shortly thereafter.

After attempting to get ahold of me several times in the following days, I finally agreed to stop by again and give it another shot. I got lazy with the backups, and just copied them to the external hard drive itself (mentioned above), and I didn’t really ready up on anything, so when I arrived, I tried go through the routine again. I figured that since we couldn’t get past the admin-password authentication issue for the recovery console, the only route was to format the disk. However, before I actually did so, I read the license key information on the bottom of the laptop, and saw that it wasn’t a regular Windows installation, but rather, Windows XP Tablet edition. And, of course, it came installed on the laptop, but without any separate disk which we could use. To make it even worse, my friend mentioned in passing that there used to be a sticker on the bottom of the laptop. I asked him what was on it. He calmly told me, “The administrator password.” It was already 10PM, and I had work the next day, but after verbally abusing him for some time, I resumed working. Realizing that a tablet PC without its special brand of Windows was all but useless, I temporarily ruled-out the option of wiping the whole system clean.

I thought that part of the problem of the boot may have been the MBR, so if I could format that, I’d be great. Thinking that I could do it through the System Rescue CD, and seeing as how it was possible the hard disk couldn’t be read properly on the second laptop because of the hardware differences, I discovered that the System Rescue CD could fit on a USB flash memory drive. I asked if he had one, and he responded in the affirmative and fetched it. Setting it up couldn’t be easier. And lo-and-behold, it booted! However, I was mistaken in that I couldn’t find how to fix an NTFS-formatted hard drive’s MBR, so this was, yet again, another dead end.

Finally, as the most helpful site (appropriately-named, too, I might add) indicated that I may just need to copy files from the Windows CD to the hard disk, I realized I needed to somehow get past this guardian that is the recovery console administrator password authentication. Searching for how to reset the windows password, I discovered yet another Linux-based system recovery tool that does just that. This page gave me the link to this utility, which was a very basic Linux distro that does just one thing – reset or clear the passwords on a Windows system, allowing you back into the recovery console (or back into the system, if you were previously locked-out). It actually does more than that, and I’ll explain that as I get closer to it later on.

Now, it may seem like all of this is happening rather quickly because I’m just typing this and you’re just reading it (well, I guess I’m reading it too, as I type it…), but this sequence of steps all occurred over at least 6 hours spread across two different days. Getting back to the fix, the password editor CD was very straight-forward to use, but because it is all text-based and each screen really is full of a lot of information, it took some getting used to. Additionally, it would sometimes mount the drive as read-only because the volume was “dirty” and required chkdsk /f to be run before changes could be made to it. This was made more complex by the fact that changes that it made would make the volume dirty, thus necessitating a run of chkdsk /f. And, since chkdsk /f needs to be run from a Windows installation, I was constantly removing the drive from the second laptop, putting it in my external enclosure, running chkdsk /f on my own laptop on the drive, THEN putting it back into the laptop to see if it would allow me into the recovery console, as I had to reset the password of the admin account. Sometimes I didn’t see that it had thrown a warning telling me that the volume was dirty, and therefore mounted as read-only, which meant I would have to back and run chkdsk /f – all the while unscrewing and rescrewing the drive in and out of laptops and enclosures. Finally, there was another option that I could pursue – the password editor CD also had an option where you could set the drive to simply skip the Administrator password authentication. Since I couldn’t get it to reset the password, for whatever reason, I tried this, just to see if it work. And it DID! Alhamdulillaah! I was in! (yes, the three of us did cheer)

Now that I was finally in the recovery console, I could finally follow these instructions. I ran both fixmbr as well as fixboot, and I copied the NTLDR & files from the installation CD. The moment of truth was upon us. I rebooted the laptop, and there was no error message anymore! But there was also nothing. It was still in the wrong laptop. (sigh!)

I moved it to the original tablet PC, and it DID boot into Windows! There was a message about the boot.ini being invalid (a battle to fight another day), but it still continued to boot, which is what we wanted. Once inside, my friend saw his old login username! He typed in his password, and….it didn’t accept it. He assured me (sarcastic eye-roll) that he remembered his password, and that something must have changed. So, I took the drive out one-more time, put it in the second laptop (remember, this one has a CD/DVD drive to boot from!), and booted the password editor utility. This time, though, instead of changing the administrator password, we blanked it. What was even stranger was that a username for my friend was not even found. However, with the admin password blanked, we booted back up in safe mode on the original tablet PC, and logged-in without a hitch as the administrator. We promptly changed the password to my friend’s personal account, rebooted, and he was finally in!

Alhamdulillaah, it was a long, tense, and stressful ordeal, but we were able to get through it. By the way, from reading this, it probably would seem like my friend is a moron, and that would be the furthest thing from the truth. This issue was definitely not easy to solve (were you reading at all?!?!), and if it weren’t for some experiencing in Linux and working on borked systems, I wouldn’t have been able to do it as well. The computer did have a major problem, and the fact that we go it back up-and-running without any serious data corruption is amazing, to say the least. And, of course, I’d like to thank Google for providing much assistance. I wish I could have linked all the pages the helped me along the way, but there’s just too many.

So, that’s my heroic story. If you’re a publisher with a million-dollar book and/or movie deal, please send your proposal to…wait, nevermind. I’m holding on to this one! Thanks for reading! If you had a similar problem, I hope the few links I scattered about will, at the very least, guide you to an acceptable solution, in shaa Allaah!

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