Rescuing Your Documents with Linux

Ubuntu logo

Sometimes catastrophe rains down on our PCs.  We turn them on and . . . nothing happens.  Could be any number of factors: virus; aging hardware; broken software update.  And, of course, sometimes things just go bad.  Sad thing is, we're never ready for these events when they happen.  Our files aren't backed up to any external media, and, with our PCs not running properly, we don’t have any easy way of retrieving them.  Sure, you could take the computer to a repair shop or run the factory recovery discs that may have come with the machine, but you run a very real chance either way, especially the latter way, of losing your files.  So, I'm going to tell you how you how you might be able to salvage your files, if not your computer, for free using Linux.

Linux is a free, open source, community-developed operating system.  Unlike Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS, Linux is not controlled by any one company. and in fact there are dozens, maybe hundreds of different versions that are worked on by large software companies, small groups, and even individuals.  Believe it or not, Linux even powers all Android phones and tablets, not to mention most eReaders.  This variety can be daunting to the uninitiated, but fear not since most desktop variants of Linux look and act much the same.  Some of the most popular out there are Ubuntu, Mint, and Fedora, to name a very few.  My personal favorite is Ubuntu, as it is frequently updated and definitely one of the easiest to use.  

So, for this process, you will need the following:

  • Your broken PC;
  • POSSIBLY a working computer if you can wrangle one;
  • A Linux CD or flash drive with your choice of distribution;  for this article we'll be using Ubuntu;
  • An external hard drive which can usually be had for as low as $50 from online retailers like and  Or, if you're only rescuing a small number of files, a flash drive will work fine, but if you're running Ubuntu off of a flash drive, you'll need a second one to rescue the files to.  

How do you get all this?  Well, we'll assume you still have your computer, so that's out of the way.  But it's broken, so getting Ubuntu could be tricky.  If you've got a spare computer or a friend with a computer, visit and click the Start Download button.  What you’re downloading is a disc image of Ubuntu or ISO file; it is essentially a single-file package of all the data that will be written to your CD or flash drive.  Save the file to someplace you can easily retrieve it, like your desktop or documents folder.  

If you’re in the “my computer is busted and I don’t have access to another one” camp,  you can order an official Ubuntu CD from their Web site for around $6. Or, just visit me at the Headquarters Library, and I'll make you an up-to-date Ubuntu CD for just 25 cents, the price of one of our blank CDs.

Now you need to make your Ubuntu CD or Flash Drive.  CDs are definitely cheaper, but much, much slower to load.  Flash drives, while pricier, are still relatively cheap (you can buy a 4GB flash drive from any branch of the library for $8 or get one from your favorite big box retailer), and they are many times faster than CDs.  

If you’ve got access to a Windows 7 PC equipped with a CD-R or DVD-R drive, simply insert a blank disc and then double-click the downloaded Ubuntu file.  You should be asked if you want to burn the ISO Disc Image to a disc.  If you do not see this option or you’re running an earlier version of Windows (Vista or XP), you’ll need to get some additional software.  I recommend Ashampoo Burning Studio 6 ( - go to this site, click the green Download and use for free button.  Save the installer to someplace you’ll be able to easily access it, such as your desktop or documents folder, then run it after it has downloaded.  

After installation, run Ashampoo and select the option that reads Create/Burn Disc Images:

From that menu, choose the option that reads Burn a CD/DVD/Blu-ray Disc from a Disc Image.

On the next screen, choose (1) Browse, navigate to where you’ve saved the Ubuntu disc image, (2) select it and press (3) OK, then press (4) Next.  

Finally, make certain you’ve inserted a blank CD-R(W) disc into your drive and click the Write CD button.  

You will have to wait approximately 5-10 minutes for the CD to be burned depending on the speed of your PC; when it is finished, the CD will eject and you can click the OK button to close the program.  Your new Ubuntu CD is ready to use:

As I said previously, CDs are far cheaper but a Flash drive loaded with Ubuntu will load faster probably than Windows would on the hard drive!  So if you’ve got a spare flash drive of at least 4GB I highly recommend it.  Just be aware: whatever files are currently on that flash drive will be erased in this process, so back them up somewhere if you need to.  

In order to install Ubuntu on a flash drive, you’ll need to download the Universal USB Installer from  My thanks, by the way, to the designers of this program - it has been one of the most useful pieces of software I’ve ever encountered.  Download this program and run it.  After you’ve dismissed the license agreement, select the version of Ubuntu you’ve downloaded.  For this article, I downloaded 12.04 Desktop; any future versions you might download in the months after this article is published will probably also read Desktop no matter their higher numbers:

Next click the Browse button, navigate to and select the Ubuntu disc image, and click Open.   

Finally, make sure your sacrificial flash drive is inserted and select it from the list in Step 3.  Mine happens to be mapped to drive letter G, but yours could be D, E, F, or Z for all I know, so pay attention.  If you somehow choose your C:\ drive you’re going to have a very, very bad day so DO NOT, under any circumstance, check the box labeled Show all Drives.  

In Step 4, you’ll have the option to create persistent file storage for this flash drive.  This will allow you to save settings like your wallpaper, desktop setup, dock icons, language settings, time zone and more persistently each time you plug in the flash drive, so you can take it from one PC to another, and it will maintain those settings for you.  I recommend a persistent storage file of at least 1024MB (1 gigabyte/GB), but if your flash drive has more to spare, you can go as high as 4GB. This is definitely worth the extra time it takes during the creation of your Ubuntu flash drive:

Click the Create button.  You’ll get a final warning like the one below.  Again, make sure that you’re using the right drive letter, and let me reiterate that all data on this flash drive will be erased when you begin:

Click Yes.  When you first begin, the USB Installer will start by unpacking and copying all the files from the disc image file onto your flash drive:

Once it has finished, it will then create the persistent file system on the flash drive that allows the drive to maintain its settings from one use to the next.  Have patience, especially with an older computer -- this can take a while and the progress bar will not move while the process is being finished.  It took 25 minutes for my computer to write a 4GB persistent file, so don’t worry if nothing looks to be happening. It really is:

When the process is complete, click the Close button.  

You’ve now created either your Ubuntu CD or flash drive.  Now, onto using them.  First though, we’ll need to change your computer’s boot order.  Most computers are configured to boot straight from the hard drive; some will check the CD drive and in some rare instances for USB drives, but usually they’ll skip past them and look only to boot from the main hard drive.  You’ll need to fix this in your computer’s BIOS, the hardware settings for the whole computer.  When you first power your PC on, you’ll usually be presented with a manufacturer logo and at the bottom of the screen you’ll see some text that reads “Enter settings - Press F10.”  It could say something slightly different like “Setup” and use a different function key.  In my experience manufacturers use F2, F10, or F12.  You MUST press that key before the manufacturer logo disappears, or you’ll need to restart the computer, either by turning it off and on again or by using ctrl-alt-del.  Here’s a tip: do a Google search for your specific PC model, including the number, and add the words “bios boot order” - you may be able to save yourself the grief of reading the next paragraph.  Go do that now, really -- that next paragraph is BORING and CONFUSING -- unlike the rest of this thrilling work.

Be very careful in these settings. As I said they control the setup for your entire computer, and you could cause undue damage.  PAY CLOSE ATTENTION AND READ EVERYTHING YOU SEE.  Before you do anything, look at the top of the screen; there should be headings for different sections of settings.  Now look at the bottom of the screen. There should be control directions.  Use these control directions to navigate to a section of your BIOS that reads “Boot Order” or “Boot Sequence.” Enter into those settings and look at the different devices that can be booted from.  Again, look at the bottom of the screen for the control directions and move your desired device, either CD/Optical Drive or USB to the very top of the list.  Make sure your CD or flash drive is inserted, then look at the bottom of the screen again for the control that will allow you to save your changes and exit.  I’m sorry I can’t provide screenshots for all this as I’m unaware of how to do so in the BIOS and even if I could, every computer model has different BIOS screens so it wouldn’t do much good anyway.  Take comfort though -- if your computer is so far gone that you’re attempting these steps, I wouldn’t worry a great deal about the BIOS at this point.  

Now, restart your PC with the CD or flash drive plugged in.  The computer SHOULD boot from them and give you a list of options.  Choose the option to boot from the CD or flash drive WITHOUT installing.  If you install Ubuntu, you will destroy all your existing files which is the opposite of what we’re attempting, so just run it from the device.  

Once booted into Ubuntu, your home screen will look like this:

Ubuntu desktop

At this time, you’ll want to attach the external hard drive or second flash drive that you plan to copy your files to.  When your PC detects the device is plugged in, it will automatically open a file explorer window that look like this:

Click on the icon labeled OS as shown above to reveal all of your computer’s hard drive files:

Windows 7 and Vista users should look for a folder labeled Users; XP users should look for a folder labeled Documents and Settings.  Right-click on this folder, and choose Copy, then click on the device icon in the upper-left corner of your window for your external hard drive or second flash drive.  In this case mine is labeled 1TB External. Once back in your external storage device, right click anywhere on the window and choose Paste; Ubuntu will begin the process of copying all your personal files.  Be patient.  This may take a while, especially if you have a large number of pictures, videos, and/or audio files.  Once the copying is finished, you may need to go back to the OS drive to copy and paste any additional folders you created that were not stored in the standard area.  DO NOT BOTHER copying your Program Files or your Windows folder.  That won’t do you any good.  

So, that’s it.  You can now safely take your PC to a repair shop or run the recovery discs for a factory-fresh install of Windows secure in the knowledge that your personal files are backed-up.  And keep your Linux flash drive or CD.  They do come in handy, believe me.  This is not a guaranteed process and can be difficult for first-timers, but I hope that it will help some of you when the time comes that your PC dies and you’re not ready.  That time comes for us all!