How to fix a Missing/Corrupt SYSTEM file in Windows XP without the Recovery CD

XP System Fix

This tutorial aims to teach you how to fix a corrupt or missing SYSTEM file in windows XP without the use of the recovery CD.

I spent 6 hours round a friend’s house yesterday and finally came up with a solution that worked. Today, I want to share what I’ve learnt to help other folks get round this fairly common issue without the grief I had to go through!

Disclaimer – I am not a computer repair technician. Just a computer geek sharing a solution that worked for me. Continue at your own risk, I take no responsibility whatsoever what happens. Always back up, and if you’re not sure, don’t proceed.

Ok, let’s get started.

[UPDATE] one of the readers suggested i highlight earlier on that this solution will only work if you have a restore point on your machine. I’m pretty certain the machine that i fixed never had a manual system restore made and therefore, in my opinion, it’s worth trying even if you can’t remember doing so manually. I cannot confirm 100% for XP, but i know later Windows OS’ take automatic restore points when significant system events such as the installation of a program or device driver occur. Given the number of restore points found on the machine i was working on, i can only assume that this is too the case for Windows XP.

Some readers have also mentioned that in some cases viruses may have delete these restore points, so i guess its a case of take a look and hope for the best! Please note though, if there are no restore points when you look the only option is to try and get hold of the CD.

Below is a break down of the key sections of this post. I’d recommend you read the whole thing to make sure you get the best understanding of what has happened and how to fix. But, if you just want the solution click below.

What is the SYSTEM file In XP and why has it stopped my machine working?

The SYSTEM file on your computer is one of a collection of files that stores registry information about your computers configuration and set up.

All XP machines have this file stored in the following location along with a number of other key config files such as SOFTWARE, SECURITY, SAM and DEFAULT.

C:\Windows\System32\config

If you’ve received the message below when trying to boot into windows then it’s more than likely that something has happened to corrupt the file or it’s missing from the System32 config folder.

Windows XP could not start because the following file is missing or corrupt: \WINDOWS\SYSTEM32\CONFIG\SYSTEM

Windows XP could not start because the following file is missing or corrupt: \WINDOWS\SYSTEM32\CONFIG\SYSTEMYou can attempt to repair this file by starting windows setup using the original setup CD-Rom. Select “r” at the first screen to start repair.

 

How did this happen?

There are many reasons why this could have happened. For example, you might have forced a hard shutdown at the wrong time – which is what happened in the scenario I was dealing with – consequently the file has become corrupted and Windows is no longer able to boot because of this.

As the screenshot and error message above describe, the default approach to resolve is is to use the recovery console in the Windows XP installation disc, but what if you haven’t got the Windows XP CD?…

I spent a long time searching for the answer to this without any luck. My solution aims to  provide you with a quick and relatively easy way to resolve the problem without the XP CD or Recovery Console.

Why do you need the recovery disc in the first place?

From my understanding, the XP disc allows you to boot into the recovery console and use the command line to copy an older/stable version of the SYSTEM file over the corrupt or missing version. Without the XP CD you’ll find yourself completely stuck though, as you have no way to access the DOS/command prompt and copy the back up into the system32/config folder.

Note – If you have the XP CD, i suggest reading Microsoft’s official solution on How to Recover a corrupted registry that prevents Windows XP from starting as this may be quicker and easier solution for you.

How to fix the SYSTEM file without the Windows XP Recovery Disc

To summarize, my solution aims to get round this problem by:

  1. Creating a bootable version of Linux on a USB stick (if you’ve never used or heard of Linux, don’t worry, it’s not as scary as it sounds! Linux is a safe place, trust! :)
  2. Boot into Linux to get access to the files on the hard disc (in this instance the Ubuntu Linux Distribution)
  3. Find the broken SYSTEM and SOFTWARE files
  4. Find the most recent working backups of the SYSTEM and SOFTWARE files
  5. Overwrite the corrupt files using the Linux Interface (no need to have to use DOS commands like with the recovery CD method!
  6. Reboot back into Windows XP using most recently known working version of the SYSTEM file.

In total, this process should take about 45 minutes depending on how fast you can download and mount the Linux distribution.

Before you start, you are going to need the following:

  • A PC that works!
  • An Internet connection
  • A USB stick at least 2GB in size
  • A copy of Unetbootin

Step one – Create a  USB Boot disk with Linux using Unetbootin

Go to unetbootin.sourceforge.net and download a copy of Unetbootin.

The software is free, safe and will do all the hard work of downloading Linux and mounting it onto a USB hustle free. FYI – In this example i am using Ubuntu

MAKE 100% SURE THAT THE DRIVE YOU MOUNT THE LINUX DISTRIBUTION ON IS THE USB DRIVE. OTHERWISE YOU’LL END UP WRITING OVER SOMETHING YOU REALLY DON’T WANT TO!!!

unetbootin

Step two – Boot into Linux off the USB

Now Shut down your machine and then turn it back on whilst pressing the function key that allows you to choose your boot options – on my machine this is F12. If your not sure, you should see the this in the POST startup screen when you first power up the machine.

Select USB device in boot device menu

Select USB device in boot device menu

Note, on some systems you may need to go into your BIOS and select the option of booting into a USB device. Here’s a screenshot of where this is on my machine – yours might be slightly different…

When the option prompt appears, Select the USB Device option and press enter. If all goes to plan the machine will then proceed to boot into Linux.

When Ubuntu is loaded you may get a message that says ‘Try Ubuntu’ and another for ‘Install Ubuntu”. Just click the “Try Ubuntu” button and then it will complete loading to the desktop environment.

Click 'Try Ubuntu'

Click ‘Try Ubuntu’

Step three – locating the System32/config folder

Navigate to Windows/System32/Config folder

Navigate to Windows/System32/Config folder

Use the built-in file browser to navigate to the location of WINDOWS on the hard drive. Follow the screenshot below to help find this. You will essentially be looking for what would have been in the following location in WINDOWS:

C:\WINDOWS\system32\config\

Once you find the config folder you will see copies of all the files including the all important SYSTEM file.

open a new window

open a new window

Next we need to open a new window and find a copy of the the most recent backups of these system files which is stored in a folder called “System Volume Information“ which is normally hidden in Windows. As we’re using Linux you won’t need to worry about this though, you will find this folder in what would have been the following in windows

C:\System Volume Information

System Volume Information

System Volume Information

Once in the System Volume Information folder you will see another folder called: a_restore{hexidecimal-characters}. Go in there and you should be presented with a number of different folders with the the following naming convention ”RP123“. It is these folders where Windows should have saved back ups of the system files.

rp-folders

To find the most recent one, navigate to the folder with the highest value (e.g.  RP295) and go in to that and find the “snapshot” folder.

By now you should have two windows open; one with the corrupt SYSTEM file in it and one with the most current RP snapshot files.

 

The Snapshot Folder should contain all the most recently saved WINDOWS system files

The Snapshot Folder should contain all the most recently saved WINDOWS system files

Step four – Copy last know SYSTEM file into C:\WINDOWS\system32\config\

You’ll notice that the files IN THE RP “snapshot” folder  are files called _REGISTRY_MACHINE_SYSTEM and
_REGISTRY_MACHINE_SOFTWARE etc, these are the ones you want to use. Take a copy of each of these two files (right-click > copy) and then paste them into the other window where the C:\WINDOWS\system32\config\ folder is.

Step five – backup old SYSTEM and SOFTWARE files and replace

Backup old system files and then Rename the others to SYSTEM and SOFTWARE

Backup old system files and then Rename the others to SYSTEM and SOFTWARE

Rename the original SYSTEM  and SOFTWARE files to something like SYSTEM.OLD and SOFTWARE.OLD so that you have a copy of the originals.

Once you’ve done this, rename the _REGISTRY_MACHINE_SYSTEM and
_REGISTRY_MACHINE_SOFTWARE files you just copied from the snapshot folder to “SYSTEM” and “SOFTWARE”.

Step Six – Shut down, Reboot and keep your fingers crossed!

If all goes well you should see the Windows XP Loading Screen

If all goes well you should see the Windows XP Loading Screen

Time to close the windows you have open and shut down Linux (in Ubuntu this is the the button in the top right-hand corner of the screen).

Remove the flash drive and then power up the system again.
If all goes to plan, you’ve just fixed your computer Without needing the Windows XP CD! :)

I REALLY hope this solution has worked for you. If it has, then please please don’t forget to show your appreciation by Tweeting, Liking, leaving a comment, sharing or linking to this page. It will help others find this content. Thanks.

If you run into any issues, leave a comment and I’ll try my best to help you out!

Tom :)

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