Using System Restore on a Non-Bootable PC

If you’ve ever had problems in Windows you’ve likely found out that the System Restore feature is both a lifesaver and a friend. It allows you to roll back your system to an earlier configuration before the problem occurred and gets you back up and running in minutes. Whether you’ve installed a bad driver, or been infected by a virus, System Restore is usually the fastest, most effective solution for getting your PC back on its feet. But what happens if a problem prevents you from booting into Windows at all? Today I’m going to let you in on a way to run System Restore on a PC that won’t even boot into Windows!

For this demonstration, I got to have a little fun breaking my PC.  I dived into the registry and made some changes that would render the system unbootable, and then deleted some key system files.  The result: a dreaded Blue Screen of Death and a completely useless Windows installation.

You may notice that this blue screen doesn’t look like the traditional one.  The layout of this error appears different because it occurs very early on in the boot process.  In any case, the PC will not boot into Windows.  With this particular error, booting into any form of Safe Mode is also impossible.

When errors like these occur, you should first try to boot using the Last Known Good Configuration.  This is often the quickest way to get your PC back to a running state.  While the computer is booting, repeatedly tap the F8 key until the Advanced Boot Menu appears.  From this screen, you can choose to boot using the Last Known Good Configuration option. 

When that fails, most PC technicians will simply perform a Repair install of Windows.  I disagree with this course of action.  It’s both time consuming and comes at the risk of data loss.  What kind of solution is that?  If only they knew what I’m about to show you today!

Microsoft Windows ships with the System Restore utility which is a recovery tool that can restore your computer to an earlier time based on a system snapshot.  By default, snapshots are created whenever software and driver updates are applied, and sometimes when software is installed.  You can also manually create a Restore Point before making major system changes. 

Restoring a system to an earlier time using System Restore is faster than a repair install, less prone to data loss, and returns your PC to a state you recognize—complete with all of your files and settings.  Unfortunately, System Restore is a Windows component, which means that you must boot into Windows to use it.  This is where most technicians stop.  But today, I’m going to let you in a way to run System Restore on a non-bootable PC.

{mospagebreak title=Overview of MSDaRT}

You’re going to need a copy of the Microsoft Diagnostics and Recovery Toolset, a core component of the Desktop Optimization Pack.  MS DaRT is a suite of tools designed to make PCs less expensive to manage, repair, and recover.  The toolset is distributed as a bootable CD and contains several useful tools, including:

  • Service & Driver Manager
  • Disk Management
  • System Info
  • Search
  • Computer Management
  • Disk Wipe
  • Hotfix Uninstall
  • Crash Analyzer
  • Disk Commander
  • System Restore

Many of these tools are found in Windows.  The MS DaRT makes these tools available offline for use on non-bootable PCs.  For a more complete overview, you can read the datasheet (direct PDF), or visit the MS DaRT web site.  Another good overview can be found on The Windows Experience Blog.

In this article we’ll be focusing on the System Restore utility which is found on the DaRT bootable CD.  The CD is built around ERD Commander (now owned by Microsoft) which is a well-known bootable environment that has an Explorer-like feel.  This makes the tool both intuitive and familiar to anyone who has worked with Microsoft Windows.

The down side is that the tool is not free.  The MS DaRT is only available for purchase as part of the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack that is for Volume License customers enrolled in the Software Assurance program.  If your organization qualifies, you can find purchasing information on the Microsoft web site.  For the rest of us, the DaRT was released as a 30-day trial a while back and that trial download can still be found here.

{mospagebreak title=Booting with ERD Commander}

Once you’ve installed the Diagnostic and Recovery Toolset on your machine, you will find the ERD Commander ISO.  You can burn this to a CD using any CD burning software that you wish.  I prefer to use Alex Feinman’s ISO Recorder for its ease-of-use and quick integration into Windows.

With the ERD Commander CD in your CD-ROM drive, start your computer and boot to the CD.  You may need to change your BIOS settings to add the CD drive as a boot option.  Here are a few screenshots of my PC booting into ERD Commander.

Once the CD boots, ERD Commander will begin initializing its environment by registering network components and starting the various networking services.  You are then presented with an opportunity to choose which Windows installation you wish to repair.

Select the installation you wish to repair in the list and click the Ok button.  ERD Commander will continue booting and display the desktop that you see below.

{mospagebreak title=Running System Restore}

The ERD Commander presents you with an Explorer-like interface that resembles the Windows Desktop.  You’ll notice the familiar Start button, task bar, and Start menu.  The System Restore utility is located in the System Tools program group.

After launching the System Restore utility, a wizard appears that informs you that you can restore your PC to a previously-created Restore Point.  Click the Next button to continue using the System Restore Wizard.

On the next screen of the wizard you are given an opportunity to choose what you would like to do.  Choose the Roll back to an existing restore point created by Windows option and click the Next button.

Next, you’ll need to choose a Restore Point for System Restore to roll back to.  Choose the newest restore point that was created before your PC stopped booting properly and click the Next button.  On the next screen you’ll be given an opportunity to confirm your restore point selection.  This screen will show you the changes that will be made to your PC.  Click the Next button to confirm your restore point selection and continue, or click the Back button to choose a different restore point.  If you choose to continue, you’ll be presented with one final warning message before the system rollback operation starts.

{mospagebreak title=Performing a System Restore rollback}

Once you’ve chosen a System Restore Point and begun the rollback operation, you will not be able to cancel the operation before the process completes.  System Restore will restore your PC using the selected restore point to roll back any changes made to your PC since the restore point was created.  This can include adding program updates, virus infections, file deletions, registry changes, and more.

Once System Restore has completed the rollback operation, you’ll be presented with a final prompt in the Wizard indicating that the process has completed.  Click Finish to close the Wizard.  You can now reboot your machine into your original Windows installation.  You may need to remove the ERD Commander CD from your CD-ROM drive.  You should now see your own working copy of Windows along with all of your desktop and program settings.

It should be noted that the offline version of the System Restore utility does not perform a complete system restore rollback.  Once your are able to boot into Windows again, you should run the System Restore utility within Windows to perform a more complete rollback operation.

There you have it.  You now have a method of using Microsoft’s System Restore utility even if the damaged PC is completely unable to boot into Windows.  Depending upon the size of your rollback operation, the entire process should only take around 10-15 minutes in my experience.  You can’t even perform a repair install of Windows in that amount of time, which makes this the easiest, fastest, and most complete repair option available to you.  Until next time…

[gp-comments width="770" linklove="off" ]