Don’t Attempt a System Recovery Until You Read This First!

First I Want To Rant a Little Bit

System RecoveryI touched on the precautions about using System Recovery in my last post about Removing Malware with System Restore about 2 weeks ago. Since then, in just the last couple of days, I checked-in 4 computers that had severe Windows damage because the customer resorted to trying a System Recovery to fix their computer without learning about any prerequisites or precautions first.

Non-Disclosure = PC Tech Frustration

OK, more ranting … I probably should have waited a couple days before writing this, but it truly bothers me to my core. As a repair guy, I often sense a new customer’s slight mistrust of repair people, and I get it. But sometimes repair people get a bad vibe from customers as well. With all 4 of these last customers, they only told me what the original symptoms were at first, and NOT one of them disclosed that they attempted a System Recovery. Somehow in their mind, the original symptoms stand, and none of their attempts to fix it counted, not even the System Recovery , even though I asked. Since it didn’t work, they thought nothing happened for better or worse, so why admit to it. Anyway, I based my repair quotes on what they told me. But the truth was that now I had double the work to perform, and felt I had a right to revise my quote. So when I called them, I very shrewdly asked them some more questions, and you would be surprised how many times they contradicted themselves, but they eventually admitted in a very minimizing way that they did. And besides, you can’t accidentally run a System Recovery. While it is easy to start, there are several prompts and warnings about what will happen before it actually runs. It could take 4, 5, 6 or more mouse clicks to actually run a System Recovery depending on which Recovery Manager software you use and the options you choose.

Now I get many customers that tell all, while others are such newbies that they really can’t articulate anything about the problem, but at least they were up front about it. I have no problem bending over backwards to help the helpless, but I sometimes get frustrated when I have to help the clueless, because they usually cost me wasted time & effort.

Anyway, I wasn’t trying to play gotcha, but knowing the time-line of events that led up to the failure can be valuable information, it matters. Its one thing if the computer just suddenly failed and they immediately left it to the professionals to repair. But its quite another thing when they try to fix it themselves, botch it up, and then bring it in for repair without disclosing what they had done. Most of the time, I can piece together what happened anyway, but not always, sometimes nothing makes sense.

As chaotic as a broken computer may seem to you, there is usually a measure of forensic orderliness to computer failures, but once an untrained person gets in the mix, the original problem mutates into an unnatural mess that usually ends up having to be reformatted and loaded from scratch. Unfortunately, there is much time and effort lost before the PC Tech finally abandons trying to repair your current operating system with all your programs, applications, customizations and data intact, and reformats the hard drive for a fresh Windows installation. This means more down time and possibly more fees. It also lowers the PC Technician’s opinion of the customer, if that matters. And it might if you have any follow-up favors to ask when you pick-up your computer.

There is no law about attempting to repair your computer yourself, and the major computer manufacturers like HP, Dell, Sony and Toshiba usually provide you with System Recovery DVDs, or built-in System Recovery partitions to do so. Its quite easy to do, but I would never blindly start a System Recovery with knowing about some prerequisites or precautions first. Sadly, about the only warning they give you is that  performing a System Recovery will reformat your hard drive which will wipe out all your data, and any programs and customizations you have setup since you first took the computer out of the box when it was new.

Prerequisites and Precautions

Before you decide to do a System Recovery, you should consider a less invasive method of repair such as a “Startup Repair” for computers that won’t boot to Windows, or a “System Restore” (which is quite different from a System Recovery) to revert back to a known good point in time when the computer worked normally, or at least better than it does now. But even then, I wouldn’t blindly attempt a System Restore either. Most computer problems are the result of infections, which could prevent you from running System Restore anyway.

Now I’m not saying “not” to attempt a System Restore just because you are infected. It can completely reverse an infection in some cases, such as running it immediately after the “first sign” of an infection and your hard drive is free from errors. But if you have been infected for some time, you probably don’t know how far you need to go back, and going back too far may not be successful and just might cause a whole new breed of problems. Its a case-by-case situation, so I can only offer “general” advice”.

One thing you will probably hear me reiterate though, is that if you experienced any bad shutdowns (power-outage, dead battery, thermal) and especially repeated, intentional bad shutdowns because the computer kept freezing, that you should check your drive for errors before running any utilities such as System Restore. If Windows is unstable, it may be due to the hard drive errors more so than the infection itself.

After taking care of any hard drive errors and Windows is still unstable, you probably have some damaged Windows files. At this point, you can either try running the Sytem File Checker (SFC)  or a System Restore. If you choose SFC, you may need your Windows Operating System disk. But if you choose System Restore, you need to think long and hard about when your computer was first infected, because you might be able to kill 2 birds with one stone. One to fix corrupted Windows system files, and the other to reverse some infections. But even if you still end up infected, a “stable-infected” System Restore point is ironically better than an “instable-clean” System restore point.

If your hard drive is error free, yet Windows is unstable and System Restore will “not” run, you can try running full antivirus and antispyware scans, as well as cleaning your temp files and registry with programs such as ESET Nod32, Malwarebytes, SUPERAntiSpyware, SpyBot and CCleaner, even some online virus scanners. Then if that doesn’t do the job for you, try running System Restore again, it might run now after some infections have been removed. Only know that some of the threats you already removed might come back. The good news is that System Restore might now work when it wouldn’t before, and that Windows will probably end up more functional and stable than before. You will just have to run the scans again to remove any infections that may have come back.

Once, you are done though, you should disable and then re-enable System Restore to remove all the old restore points so you can start off with a clean slate. But before you decide which option you want to use, you should at least know what the differences are between them.  Below is a brief definition of some repair/restore/recovery options:

  • Startup Repair: Fixes certain problems, such as missing or damaged system files that might prevent Windows from starting correctly
  • System Restore: A built-in Windows utility that can restore your computer’s “System Files” to a previous point in time if you have restore points available. It does not affect your personal data.
  • System Image Recovery: You need to manually create a System Image beforehand to use this option. A system image is a customized backup of the Windows partition that consists of programs and user data, like documents, pictures, and music as of the data of the backup. It will wipe out any new programs, customizations and data created since the image was created.
  • System Recovery: Similar to a System Image but it only contains the original factory setup and no personal customizations or data. It will wipe out all of your programs, customizations and data that you added since the computer was new out of the box.

As I mentioned above, one common problem that might prevent the above techniques from working are errors on the hard drive from bad shutdowns. But the bad shutdowns were usually necessary because of an infection (or whatever) that caused the computer to freeze, after which all you could do was to shutdown the computer.  Just know that when the computer freezes, it won’t respond to anything other than to turn it off. Yes, that means the computer will not respond to the mouse and keyboard, so please don’t go out and buy a new mouse and keyboard yet. Don’t laugh, people do it.

Anyway, sometimes even just one bad shutdown can result in a bad hard drive and lost data. Bad shutdowns are very stressful for hard drives and can cause premature failure, so don’t keep trying to use the computer if it keeps freezing. The first time it freezes, you have to shutdown, but hopefully it was just a fluke that it froze in the first place. But if it freezes a 2nd time, you have to get it looked at. Many times, the errors are correctable with a built-in utility called “Check Disk”. A full Check Disk can be run by typing “chkdsk /r c:” at a command prompt. This can take over an hour and sometimes several hours in severe cases. But if you start to see “Unreadable File Segments” or the test stops progressing at a certain % point, you should replace the hard drive.

When you have errors on the hard drive, System Recovery might not even run, or worse, it might start, partially reformat your drive, and never complete, leaving your computer worse off than it already was. Another reason for a System Recovery failure might be that the Recovery partition got infected, although I don’t see this too often.

Getting Back to Normal

Before I reinstall an operating system either from scratch or with a System Recovery, I will back-up all the data, which includes the Desktop, Favorites, Documents, Music, Pictures, Video, Email, Contacts, Passwords, Product Keys, and Drivers. I will even poke around to inventory what programs and peripherals were installed so that I might be able to reinstall them afterwards if I have the CDs or a download is available. Its about the best you can do to replicate the system how it was before. But you can be sure that the customer will have some follow-up work to do after they get home to get their system back to their desired setup.

So before you ever consider starting a System Recovery by pressing that F10,F11 or F12 key at bootup, first consider:

  1. Checking for infections
  2. Checking Hard Drive for errors (chkdsk /r)
  3. Performing a System Restore or some other less invasive method first
  4. Performing a Startup Repair
  5. Backing-up your data
  6. Performing a System Image Recovery

But even if you ran a System Recovery and all went very smooth and the computer was working fine again, but then you realize it wiped out your data (as if you didn’t pay attention), you could probably get back about 80-90% of your data if you stopped using the computer immediately after the recovery and brought it to a PC Tech for a Data Recovery.

Economy Causes Computer Failures to Get More Difficult

I’m sure you sensed my frustration in all this, how computers owners can be their own worst enemy, and sometimes mine. It just bothers me how the economy has driven many people to put off repairs until the problem gets critical, or they try and fix it themselves to save money and make it worse. Especially when most of their problems were caused by their own preventable negligence, bad habits, and inexperience. This has caused a surge in some of the most difficult problems I have seen. And because of the economy, it is difficult to raise fees to compensate for the extra time it takes to repair some of these more difficult problems. It used to be that reinstalling Windows was always a last resort, and now it is almost becoming the first resort. What is next, doing our own dental work? That will really hurt!

Anyway, I write because I care, and I hope my real world experience may help somebody to become computer-wise, to avoid all the preventable mistakes that sooooo many people make on a regular basis with their computers. For the most part, its no longer acceptable to claim being computer illiterate as to why your computer is in such bad shape. The cold and hard truth is not your lack of knowledge, its your attachment to your wallet. You don’t have to learn a thing if you don’t want to if you were just willing to pay someone else to take care of it for you. What you are willing to do for your life to see a doctor you are not willing to do for your computer, and I get it that. But even Doctors will tell you how many problems are preventable with a little knowledge and discipline.

If you are young, you were born into this wired world and have an edge with technology, but even if you are much older, then all I can tell you is that computers have increasingly become a common gadget in our country for some 2 decades now. You can go through all 12 grades of school again, with time to spare to become a Medical Doctor in that time. So lay off forwarding some Joke emails, Facebook or YouTube a bit, and devote some of your computer time to computer education. I take that back, YouTube actually has a wealth of information you can learn from for free. I use it myself. But now I hope you truly get why I said “Don’t Attempt a System Recovery Until You Read This First!”

I’ll bet everyone has ranted about something in their occupation before, and I’m no different. Anyway, this is the end of my rant … for now.

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