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Recovering Windows files from HDD

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Recovering Windows files from HDD

Old 15th Feb 2021, 16:30
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Recovering Windows files from HDD

Hello; can I ask for recommendations of companies or websites I could try in order to read files from the HDD in my ancient Windows 3.1 PC. The HDD works and is not broken, but I accidentally and unwittingly erased the Boot Head File, so the machine says it cannot find Windows, so I cannot see or extract my files.

Happy to buy the equipment and do the job myself, but just need some direction.


Thanks.
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Old 15th Feb 2021, 17:53
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You should be able to get an external USB enclosure or converter, remove the drive from the PC and fit it to the enclosure and plug it into a different system to read it. Alternatively, you can download something like Knoppix or a similar Linux distribution, put that on a USB drive and boot the PC from that so that you can get to your files using Linux. The question is what you want to do next? Do you want to get this system up and running again or do you just want to copy old files off this drive?
Make sure to get a USB converter that allows you to fit a drive with an IDE interface, as I'm sure that this drive predates the SATA interface. Google 'IDE to USB converter' for some suggestions.
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Old 15th Feb 2021, 21:35
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Another option is to find a recommended local 'computer shop' that has the kit and experience to recover the HDD data. As Jhieminga says, it depends on what your desired end state is. I would not recommend using the professional data recovery companies for the situation you have described - they are more useful for the seriously-deleted HDDs!
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Old 15th Feb 2021, 21:36
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Jhieminga's suggestion of putting the HDD into an external caddy that will convert the IDE / PATA interface to USB so that you can read the data and save it elsewhere is likely to be the simplest way forward. The HDD will be formatted as FAT16, so there shouldn't be any problem with security / file permissions, unlike NTFS.

I assume that the old PC still has a floppy disk drive - do you still have a the appropriate floppy disks, and are they still readable? That system is DOS 5 / 6.X under the hood, and it's pretty easy to boot from a floppy system disk and recreate the boot files - io.sys, MSDOS.sys, autoexec.bat and config.sys, although the first 2 have to be restored using the sys command to make the disk bootable again, as they can't simply be copied over like the second 2. If you are tempted to repair the HDD, ensure that you have copied over all the data BEFORE doing anything else! Here's a helpful article on the DOS / Win 3.x boot process: https://jdebp.uk/FGA/dos-windows-boot-process.html

Wow, blast from the past there! More than a 1/4 of a century since I had to do anything like that.
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Old 15th Feb 2021, 22:47
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A pal called me one day years ago and said his girlfriend had filled her Visa operated laptop to the point it wouldn't even run Ccleaner. It was one of those lovely units with Altec Lancing sound etc., etc. She had raised it 4" above a solid table and dropped it, in the hope it would spur it into action and release the zillions of photos she'd taken a year to take. No backups. None.

It happened I'd got a Vista restore disc for one of my Vaios but I didn't dare risk it.. She had trained all over the UK photographing cathedrals with her new Nikon, so an even bigger investment. I downloaded the latest Ubuntu and put the ISO on a stick. I worked perfectly but it took me two days to copy all the folders onto my hard disc and DVD's for her. I then tried my backup Vista. To my astonishment it restored Windows perfectly.

She gave me the computer which has been running ever since on W7.
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Old 15th Feb 2021, 23:26
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Unless the 3.1 is a 'retro' in which case he would not need our advice he isn't going to have a USB. Even a CD if present is most unlikely to be a boot device. So taking the HDD out would be required. Easy enough on most mopdels even without exactly the right tools unless you are completely ham fisted. Getting it back together however... While my advice to retainXP and now Windows 7 if they are good enough for your needs and you avoid the risks was perfectly serious not just to wind up Mixture, Windows 3.1 is a bit more of a head scratcher.

The non destructive alternative as said is floppy's - if his drive still works and if he has somewhere else to create them which may be the biggest show stopper. One of the several universal MS-DOS disks (eg Bart's) would probably do the trick just to get files off. Maybe a PPruner with time to spare would create and mail you one - or even a selection that could get your files off .
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Old 16th Feb 2021, 04:14
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Try Google Repair Windows 3.1
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Old 16th Feb 2021, 08:52
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Thank you very much for the replies so far. Some useful information to get me started - I will certainly look into those

Ironically, my mis-step with the BIOS came about because I was trying to prepare a second HDD to back up the first one, in case of HDD failure !

My old 486 PC tower has a 3" floppy drive and a CD drive. Nothing else, no USB. I do still have the Windows floppys but have not tried them to see if they are still viable. On start-up, the machine first looks in the floppy drive, then the CD drive.

I would like to get the machine running again - it cannot connect to the internet, so is safe from any hacking or spyware etc. Another thing I would like to recover are the back-up files for my Psion, which contained a lot of contacts and other data I would like to recover.

I am thinking of building Windows on another HDD fitted into the spare slot and wiring in the PC, and then possibly internally move the files I need from the old HDD with no boot file over to the new HDD?

I did take my PC to a guy who really knows what he is doing, but unfortunately he is also very unreliable. He takes on too much work and then leaves things stacked up in his workshop, forgotten about until you demand they be returned, (unfixed). I could Google it of course, but I want actual advice from people who know, rather than me spending ages going down rabbit holes and watching Youtube clips from people who don't know what they are doing.

Once I have sorted the leaking plumbing in the house we have just moved into, and a hundred other DIY jobs; I hope to get started with my PC.

Last edited by Uplinker; 16th Feb 2021 at 09:05.
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Old 16th Feb 2021, 09:24
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Forget all I said about USB....

What you could try... dig up your floppys and try to boot from them. If that works, get out of the setup (hit the F3 key) and from the command prompt (make sure you're at the root of the floppy) try:
  • SYS C:
  • copy CONFIG.SYS C:
  • copy AUTOEXEC.BAT C:
  • FDISK /MBR
The first command adds the needed system files to your drive, you then copy the two startup files to the C: drive and the FDISK command should sort out the master boot record for your C: drive.

I'm digging deep in my memory for this and have looked up some stuff online so cannot guarantee anything. Removing the drive and using this in an external caddy is still the safest way to get to your data if you ask me, but if you're up for an experiment and willing to take the risk, have a go!

Edit: You used to be able to install Windows 3.1 over an existing installation, keeping your files intact, but if you can't boot from the drive, that option will not be there I think.

Last edited by Jhieminga; 16th Feb 2021 at 09:36.
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Old 16th Feb 2021, 10:35
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Thanks jhieminga, I appreciate your time. I want to try all this now instead of doing the plumbing, but needs must !


I will try booting from the floppys.


I also have a more modern, (but old) HP Windows machine, running Windows 10. If the floppys fail, by putting the old HDD in a USB caddy; can I just ask the HP to find and retrieve files by file name, say, "3xxlims.pub" or "abcdefgh.doc" or is it more complex than that?
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Old 16th Feb 2021, 11:16
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If you put the drive in a USB caddy you will see it as a regular external drive, it's just like plugging in a USB thumbdrive. You can then see the entire folder structure of that drive and as it was way before the time of user profiles, the folder structure is most likely pretty simple. Filenames were restricted to eight characters with an extension so it may take a while to figure out what everything is. I would simply start by copying the entire drive, every file and folder on it, to a single folder on your existing W10 system (retaining the folder structure of course) and do the searching in there. That way the Win3.1 drive will be unaffected and you can still go back and try to get it running on the old system. You can indeed use the regular search functions within Windows to find all doc files, or browse the folders to find a Psion one, things like that.

Edit: forgot to add that it's the first Windows 3.1 floppy that should be bootable. If you have a DOS 6.22 floppy, same thing applies.
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Old 16th Feb 2021, 14:52
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Fantastic. That sounds pretty straightforward - all I wanted was to recover my files. I can rebuild the system at some other time. I wonder what the hell my "expert" was doing for months. Obviously not an expert at all.


Well, plumbing or no plumbing, I am going to try this soon, and if it works I will buy you a drink !


Going to order an HDD caddy now
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Old 16th Feb 2021, 16:36
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If you get the HDD caddy I'd suggest you make an image backup of the disk before you do anything else.
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Old 16th Feb 2021, 18:16
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Ironically, my mis-step with the BIOS came about because I was trying to prepare a second HDD to back up the first one, in case of HDD failure !
If you were trying to configure a 2nd HDD in the BIOS, it wouldn't have affected the boot sector / MBR on the existing HDD. Are you sure you haven't just removed / disabled the existing HDD from the BIOS settings? If you changed the CHS settings in the BIOS, so that the drive isn't recognised, then you need to identify what they should be and reset them - the HDD should give some clues, and you can often look up online information, although I'd be surprised if a disk that old has any reference material online. You may be able to work out CHS settings (if that's the problem) from first principles, given the size of the disk. If you are lucky, there might be an Auto option for the disk config in the BIOS, but it might be a bit old for that.

If you get the HDD caddy I'd suggest you make an image backup of the disk before you do anything else.
If the OP follows the advice to put the old HDD in a USB caddy and copy the data from it before doing anything else, why would it be necessary to create an image of the disk? If a file copy is successful, then what benefit would a block copy be? If the data can't be copied off as files, and other tools / options need to be used to try to extract data, then yes, a block copy to a blank disk will allow multiple data retrieval attempts. But since a file copy doesn't involve writing to the original disk, it's a zero risk first approach.
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Old 16th Feb 2021, 22:14
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Here's what happened, (don't laugh)

The PC clock battery had gone flat, so the PC did not know the date etc. I replaced the clock IC, (with internal battery) and went into the DOS to reset the date and time.

While I was there I was looking at the HDD settings in the BIOS and was trying to see how the hard disk was configured so I could configure a second HDD to be a back-up. I didn't know enough about the BIOS or what I was doing, so I backed out, but unfortunately when the message came up "save settings and exit" or "ignore changes and exit" , I accidentally, stupidly clicked the wrong one !!!!!! Aaaaaaargh !!!!

The PC was still fine and worked, but after I had shut it down and next switched it on, it said it couldn't find Windows, only DOS came up. My computer expert told me I had erased the Boot Head File, but I don't know.

I have to get my PC out of the loft and see what HDD it has - the caddys I have found so far accept SATA HDDs, and the connector looks different to the one I remember on my HDD.
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Old 16th Feb 2021, 22:36
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You need something like this:
IDE - USB adapter IDE - USB adapter
that will provide power to your IDE PATA drive as well as the ide interface to output to USB that you can connect to another PC. Other similar devices are available, this is not a recommendation, just an indication!

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Old 17th Feb 2021, 00:47
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SVGA

With an LED monitor (flicker no longer a problem) and SVGA.EXE (I'm using an AGP Radeon), Windows 3.x becomes quite useable again:
Windows 3.1 | 3.11 | WFWG | Resources | Downloads
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Old 17th Feb 2021, 07:38
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Thank you Saab, yes, that's it !, my HDD is an IDE type - I do remember the large 4 pin power connector.

OK, well I will order one of those and get the machine down from the loft.

Yes, I found Windows 3.1 to be all I needed for creating documents, diagrams - using Microsoft Publisher, and spreadsheets. No connection to the internet, (only a fax modem), so no security issues with sensitive data, and no problems with hackers or malware. (and no stupid paper clip assistant !). I can listen to a CD while doing my accounts or whatever - old school, but most civilised.
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Old 17th Feb 2021, 22:38
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Cable select pitfall

With luck your C: drive is jumpered as Master on a standard IDE cable. My only major data loss was when adding a second HDD to an ICL 486 IDE Cable Select (CS) system. I had failed to appreciate the niceties of CS and it went belly-up. And sometimes the Master drive could be at the end of the cable, at other times in the centre. I worked on an HP Pavilion P4 recently whose BIOS/hardware seemed to insist on Cable Select (a correctly jumpered and cabled Master/Slave setup was not recognised). [Some may remember Laplink and serial crossover cables as a means of data transfer on old machines.]
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Old 18th Feb 2021, 11:01
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I'm trying to think what you could have done in the BIOS that messed up your drive. The BIOS settings only exist in there, so it should not have affected your drive at all. Nothing should have been deleted because of it. The main issue that could have happened is that you changed the drive settings. On those BIOSses you needed to set the Cylinders, Heads and Sectors for the drive you were using manually and if you changed something here, the drive will not be recognised anymore. If you're lucky, the BIOS will have an 'auto-detect' option in that section and you can click on that to find the needed numbers. If that option is not there, you will need to get the drive out of the computer (but you will be doing that anyway to copy files) and look on the drive itself for those numbers. Fill those in and that should get it up and running again. Saab Dastard mentioned this in an earlier post too.

The other option is that you changed the boot order for your system. You mentioned that it looks at the floppy, then the CD drive, perhaps you've told it not to look at the harddrive anymore. Check the Boot section of the BIOS to see if the harddrive is still mentioned as a boot option. It is useful to have another drive as a first boot option for use in emergencies, but have the harddrive set as second or third boot option.

Anyway, find an IDE to USB converter and copy your files first, that is the important bit. I am betting on the drive being fine though and that you'll only need to get the BIOS straightened out again.
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