Having figured out last night how to rescue files from a corrupt Windows computer, I thought I’d share it in the event anyone else faces a similar situation.

The situation is this: Your Windows computer will not boot and it has files you need desperately.

This happened to my wife’s Acer netbook, running Windows XP. It became infected with a stubborn virus. In attempting to repair it, a Windows system file, “services.exe,” was deleted. With that file gone, Windows would not boot — not even in safe mode and not even trying the “last known good configuration” option.

To the rescue came Ubuntu, a free, open source, Linux operating system. Ubuntu lets you create a bootable USB stick. (You can also create a bootable CD, but the netbook has no CD drive.) You do not even need to install Ubuntu on the computer; you can run the OS right from the USB stick.

To do this is ridiculously easy. (Of course, you’ll need a second computer to create the bootable stick.) From the Ubuntu main web page, go to the download page. It walks you step-by-step through the process of creating the bootable CD (and it is only a couple steps). The only thing you need in advance is a stick with at least 2 GB of space.

Once you’ve prepared the USB stick, stick it in the corrupted computer and start it up. Depending on how your computer is set up, you will probably need to first change the boot order. How you do this depends on your model of computer, so you should check the manual. With the Acer, you simply hit “F12” after turning on the power and a menu appears letting you change the boot order. Select the USB stick and you’re good to go. (You can also go into the BIOS, which you do on the Acer by hitting “F2.”)

Ubuntu loads quickly and is extremely easy to use. In fact, once you try it, you may wonder why you’re using Windows in the first place. It even comes preinstalled with a full LibreOffice suite (compatible with Microsoft Office), the Firefox browser and other essential applications.

Most importantly, it gives you full access to your files, so you can easily get access to key files or entire folders. For my wife’s netbook, I connected a USB external drive and simply dragged her must-have files there.

While I was in there, I reinstalled the Windows system file that had been deleted. The whole process took less than an hour.

As for the infected Acer, my wife’s decided to just wipe it clean and reinstall Windows — safe to do now that she has recovered all her files.

Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.