Restoring Windows

I had to spend way too much time last night recovering from a stupid mistake made nearly three years ago. A quick flashback: three years ago, my home computer died (mass suicide by the capacitors on the motherboard) and I bought a Dell Inspiron to replace it. As I noted in that post, I popped in an HDD taken from the dead PC into the new Dell and installed Ubuntu on it.

I made one critical error at that point: I installed Grub, the boot loader, on the Win 7 disk instead of the Linux disk. Looking back, I can’t even recall if the Ubuntu installer gave me a choice in that regard, but I should’ve been more diligent.

Fast forward to this week: the Ubuntu running disk started giving SMART errors (not the other SMART) warning me of impending death. Luckily, the disk is still under warranty even under the hard disk cartel’s industry-wide reduced warranty period of three years instead of five years.

So in preparation of returning the disk for replacement, I spent some time configuring & preparing for use the long-neglected Windows 7 installation. Windows 7, BTW, is much nicer than I expected; but let’s leave that train of thought for another day. The final step in the process was to pull out the Linux disk and restore the Dell to its pure Windows existence.

That’s when the three year old mistake came back to bite me:

error: no such partition
grub rescue>

Essentially, the Windows 7 boot loader on the Win 7 disk was gone and replaced by Grub which now couldn’t find its second stage loader which was installed on the failing hard disk. In simpler terms, I needed both disks in the PC to boot Windows.

Restoring the Win 7 boot loader ranges from trivial to tricky depending on which side of the retail Windows license holder or OEM Windows license holder line you fall. It is trivial because all you need is a Win 7 CD with which you boot the computer, go into the rescue console and type out a sum total of two commands. It is tricky because Dell, like most other PC manufacturers, subscribes to the logic that it is too expensive to ship a 5$ Windows 7 installation CD with a 1000$ computer.

Microsoft thankfully seems to care about their end users more than Dell and as a work-around to the cheapo behaviour of their OEMs, have added a feature to Windows 7 that allows you to create a rescue or recovery CD from any Win 7 installation. As luck would have it, I still have a few dozen shiny coasters left over from the pre-flashdrive era. I fetched one from storage, popped it into the CD/DVD burner and had a rescue CD ready in a couple of minutes.

But Dell had another card up its sleeves. While the computer seemed to boot from the CD, it eventually errored out throwing the number 0X4001100200001012 in my face. A bit of Googling revealed that this error code seems to appear only on rescue CDs created from Win 7 computers sold by Dell.

Thankfully, some kind souls on the Internet have provided instructions on how to create a USB boot disk using the Win 7 rescue CD. Following those instructions, I was finally able to boot into the recovery environment using a flashdrive and restore the boot loader.

Once Windows was booting properly, I kicked off a full disk erase process using the zeroing feature in Seagate’s Seatools utility and went to bed. This morning, I pulled out the dying disk and went down to the Seagate distributor’s office to return the disk and initiate a warranty replacement.

TL;DR: be careful where you install Grub!