It's an absolute nightmare: You're on your way to a client meeting, only to find out that your PC won't boot. Windows just died. Maybe the boot loader shows you an error message; maybe it gives you the Black or Blue Screen of Death. And you've got only one hour to fix things and get your PC up and running again.
"Try safe mode!" or "Do a startup repair!" -- these are the usual pieces of wisdom you think about when Windows fails to boot. In some cases, this just doesn't get the job done. This article will go a step further: We'll show you how to get your PC up and running in no time and how to be properly prepared for this worst case scenario, everywhere you go.
Prepare for the worst
I've experienced my ugly share of Windows boot problems over the years: I've seen my laptop working perfectly fine at home, only for it to inexplicably quit on me when I try to start it up on an airplane a mere two hours later. That's why, wherever I travel, I'm prepared for a total crash of my machine -- and you should be too.
Create a Windows image
Keep an up-to-date image of your entire machine on a portable USB disk drive, and take it everywhere you go. There are some great third-party tools out there, but I tend to use Windows' built-in solution, which is available only on Vista or Windows 7. It gets the job done and is built into the startup repair tools (more on which in a moment). You'll find it right under Control Panel -> System and Security -> Backup and Restore -> Create a system image. XP users don't have this option, but there are a number of applications that will do the trick.
To speed up you restore times, try offloading all your larger and personal files (music, photos, documents, virtual machines, etc.) to a separate partition, but still let Windows back up both partitions. By doing so, you'll keep the system image size much lower and reduce image restore times for your system partition immensely. In case of an emergency, you can the system image (Windows, your applications, your user account data) and get back to work faster. Your D: drive should still be there -- and even if that's messed up, you've still got an image you can mount. To do so, use the Diskmgmt.msc command to launch Disk Management, go to Action -> Attach VHD, and select the secondary partition from within the image folder \Windows Image Backup\PC_NAME\Backup Date -- it'll be the one with the higher string number in the file name.
Keep the Windows DVD or a recovery CD with you
If Windows detects boot problems, it usually automatically runs the Windows Recovery Environment (or WinRE -- we'll discuss this in more detail below) and presents you with options to restore an image or perform various repair commands. However, if your hard disk is really screwed up for whatever reason, it might even affect the hidden recovery partition that contains WinRE. If you're using Windows 7 or Vista, in such situations you can use the Windows DVD, or the recovery CD that Windows backup creates right after it's finished creating your image. You can burn such a recovery disc any time by going to Control Panel -> System and Security -> Backup and Restore -> Create a system repair disc. You can also put WinRE on a bootable thumb drive.
Restoring an image works in most cases, but it takes its time (even with the strategy mentioned above) and effectively destroys all data or settings created after you've set it up. It's a last resort.