Rescue Your Data Using VistaPE

by Ronald Pacchiano

Want to get your geek on? It takes patience and persistence to set up this utility, but the reward is a powerful tool for recovering data from a corrupt Windows system.

The blue screen of death (BSOD) is no stranger to anyone who uses Windows, and it can be caused by a variety of reason including incompatible hardware driver, to a virus infection or corrupted system files. Sometimes the corruption is so bad that neither safe mode nor Microsoft’s System Restore can fix it.

Typically when the situation gets this bad, your only option is to completely reinstall Windows. The problem is that some systems (particularly with OEM systems) don’t come with a Vista DVD but rather a System Recovery disk that reformats your drive and restores your system to factory specs. While this solves the problem, it also eradicates your data.

In the old days you could use a boot disk to access the hard drive (HD) and backup your data before performing the recovery, but with Vista’s NTFS file system, this isn’t an option. A variety of other techniques let you preserve your data, but they’re time consuming and overly complicated. However, I found a free utility called VistaPE that can potentially make the whole process far easier.

VistaPE is a self-booting application that runs independently of your computer’s operating system. This lets you boot the crashed system and gain full access to the data stored on the NTFS drives. You can copy the data to a flash drive, transfer it to a network folder or even upload it to an online backup service. You can also configure VistaPE with additional utilities like virus scanners, web browsers and even office productivity tools.

In fact VistaPE’s capable of running almost any Windows program. It uses technology based on Microsoft’s WinPE application, but unlike WinPE, VistaPE implements a full graphical user interface that’s virtually identical to Windows Vista, which makes it easy to use. You can run VistaPE from either a CD or a USB Flash drive making it an indispensable troubleshooting tool.

The only drawback is that you don’t download it or purchase it like a typical utility. Instead it’s actually compiled using a set of scripts that run under the WinBuilder script engine. Compiling these scripts can be incredibly difficult and frustrating. In all likelihood, it will not work for you the first time out, and for some people it might not work at all. If you’re easily discouraged, this isn’t for you. However, if you like a geeky challenge and you follow the recommended steps, I’m confident that you’ll (eventually) generate a successful build of VistaPE of your own. Just be patient and don’t get discouraged.

We’re going to show you how to compile VistaPE and copy it to a bootable USB flash drive. To do this you will need the following items:

  • At least a 1GB USB Flash Drive (although the larger the better) formatted with either NTFS (recommended) or the FAT32 file system
  • An active Internet Connection
  •  A Windows Vista 32-bit installation DVD (recommended). If you don’t have an actual Vista Installation DVD you can use the Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK) instead. You’ll lose functionality, but it’s free and easily accessible. You can download it here.
  • Winbuilder076. You can download it here.
  • A computer running any version of Windows Vista with Service Pack 1 or later. You should have administration privileges on this computer and the HD should be formatted with the NTFS file system.

This next part is not absolutely necessary, it’s just a suggestion!

I recommend that you setup a system solely for the purpose of creating the VistaPE application. This could be either a real PC or a virtual one. The reason for this is simple. Since so many variables can cause this process to fail, using a clean installation of Windows Vista, free of antivirus software, Windows updates and other applications, will help to minimize the chances of something causing your build to fail.

The only additional piece of software you’ll need to install is Vista Service Pack 1 since it’s required for the build. Just to play it safe, I did not use Windows Update to acquire Service Pack 1. I downloaded the standalone version of SP1 instead. You can find it here.

Now that we have all of the components in place, let’s begin.

1.    Go to the location where you downloaded WinBuilder. The filename will be WINBUILDER076.ZIP. Unzip the file. You should now see a file called WINBUILDER.EXE. Create a folder on your C: drive called WINBUILDER and copy WINBUILDER.EXE into it.

2.    During the build of VistaPE, it makes use of the source files found on the Windows Vista Installation DVD. You could try accessing those files directly from the DVD, but I found that the process is more reliable when you’re accessing them from the HD. So create another folder on your C: drive called VISTADVD and copy the contents of the Windows Vista installation DVD there. NOTE - If you opted instead to use WAIK, you’ll need to burn the image file you downloaded earlier to a CD/DVD, and then install it. Later on you'll use the installed directory (usually C:Program FilesWindows AIK) as the Vista file location.

3.    Next, disable Vista’s User Account Control or UAC. Go into the “Control Panel” and select “User Accounts”. The very last option in this menu will be “Turn User Account Control on or off.” If you don’t disable the UAC, I guarantee that the build will fail. Next insert your formatted USB flash drive into your PC. Take note of its drive letter…you’ll need that later.

4.    Go to the C:WINBUILDER folder you made earlier and double-click WINBUILDER.EXE to launch the application. The first screen you come to will be the Download Center.

5.    Toward the bottom right of the screen you’ll see “Please select the projects you want to download.” The first choice, “updates.boot-land.net,” is already selected. Leave that. Right under that is “VISTAPE.NET/PROJECTS.” Select this one also. Once selected, you’ll see VistaPE v.12 (RC1) displayed on the top left side of the screen with a check mark next to it and a few other options selected underneath it. Above that you’ll see a drop down box which should say “Recommended.” It could also be set for Minimum, Complete or Beta. For our purposes we’ll go with the Recommended Configuration. Next, press the “Download” button at the bottom of the screen. This will start a download of about 41MB. After the download completes WinBuilder might close. If it does, just restart the program. The downloaded files will still be there, and you can move to the next step.

6.    Press the “Source” button at the top of the screen to go to the “Paths” screen. Here you need to tell the program where to find the Windows Vista Installation DVD files. In our example that was C:VISTADVD. If you opted to use WAIK, the location will be C:Program FilesWindows AIK. The other options, Target directory and ISO file can keep the default settings. Click the blue PLAY button at the top right to start compiling the VistaPE application. This part will take a little while to complete. Be patient and watch for errors. That way if it fails, you might be able to isolate the problem and correct it later.

7.    After the program finishes compiling it will take you back to the WinBuilder Path screen. Click on the “Script” button. In the left column expand the Finalize folder, and click on Create ISO/CD/USB. On the right side of the screen where it says “Please select the root directory of your USB device,” click on the folder and browse to your USB flash drive. With the drive selected, click the “Make USB Boot Device” button.

8.    At this point, the HP USB format tool should pop up. Select your USB drive from the list and click the Start button to format it. Remember to use either NTFS or FAT32 only. NOTE: you might get an error saying the HP format tool cannot be found. If the USB Flash drive is already formatted, don’t worry about it. Just click OK and move on to the next step.

9.    At this point a DOS window will show the files being transferred to your USB Flash drive. When finished, the GRUB4DOS utility should pop up. Use this to make your USB Flash drive bootable. Simply click the Disk button under “Device Name” and use the drop down to select your USB Flash drive. Verify that the size or volume label is correct. Once selected, just click “Install.” If it worked, you’ll see a DOS box with the message “The MBR/BS has been successfully installed. Press <ENTER> to continue…” Now click “Quit” to close the GRUB4DOS utility.

Congratulations! You have successfully created a bootable USB flash drive configured with VistaPE.

Before using VistaPE, remember to configure the USB device as the first bootable device in the system BIOS.  After that, just insert the USB Flash drive into the system and boot it up. Select VistaPE from the menu to load the program. Boot times for the VistaPE vary from system to system, ranging from about two to five minutes depending on your hardware.

You could also burn VistaPE to a CD. After the program was compiled in Step 5, it created an image file at C:WINBUILDERISOVISTAPE-CORE.ISO. Just burn this ISO file to a CD and then use it to boot your system and start VistaPE. The advantage of using the USB flash drive is that it gives you a convenient location for file transfers.

You’ll use CubicExplorer to transfer your files. This program functions very much like Windows Explorer and you access it from an icon on the VistaPE desktop. The recommended VistaPE configuration we used doesn’t include many extra applications. It does however include the Opera web browser, Total Commander FTP client and various disk management and decryption tools. You’ll find instructions online for how to add your own applications to the build.

The best resource for finding out the latest information about VistaPE or finding help to resolve issues that you discover during your builds can be found here.  Google/Web searches can also help at resolve problems that arise. Remember, in all likelihood you’re not the first person to experience a specific problem, so don’t be afraid to search for a solution or ask questions.

Troubleshooting Advice

If the build fails, try deleting all files in the C:WINBUILDER folder, except for WINBUILDER.EXE and start again. Problems with the downloaded scripts seem to be a big part of the problem. The most consistent problems I encountered were “FLTMGR.SYS not found” or “The archive was created with a different version of ZLBArchive” or my favorite, “Windows cannot find C:WINBUILDERPROJECTSTOOLSWIMUTILWIMUTIL.EXE”.

I can’t explain exactly why this happens, but my feeling is that some scripts seem to have been optimized or built using different versions of the WinBuilder application. If you’re not using the proper version when you try to compile it, the build will fail. So if you’re having problems, experiment with the various versions available. You’ll find then here.

The inconsistency in compiling this application can be extremely frustrating and make you just want to quit, but don’t give up. Do your research. Don’t be afraid to experiment and sooner or later you’ll get it. While this process can be problematic, it is also a an invaluable tool in recovering your data should Windows ever become corrupted and unbootable. To me that assurance is worth a bit of aggravation. Good luck!!

Ronald Pacchiano is a contributing writer for SmallBusinessComputing.com.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Jul 14th 2009
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