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7/2/2003
10:34 PM
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: The Perfect Rescue Tool, Part II

Fred Langa wraps up the explanation of how to make a custom, bootable CD containing the right tools to fix just about any system trouble.

Imagine: You hit the power switch on your Windows or Linux PC and the system starts to boot, but stalls. The power's on, the hard drive is spinning, but nothing's happening. A reboot doesn't help.

Panic time? Not at all. Instead, you insert a single custom CD--one you made yourself--into your drive and boot from that. That one CD contains not only the necessary files to get your PC started, but also contains everything you need to diagnose and repair almost any kind of system trouble. In fact, it's packed with an entire software toolkit--potentially as much as about 500 floppies' worth of software--all in one place, right at your fingertips. What's more, the CD isn't some kind of cookie-cutter, lowest-common-denominator tool, but one that suits your specific preferences and needs; one that's customized for your unique combination of hardware, software, and skill level.

Your Own Boot-CD Toolkit
There are three major steps to the process of creating your own custom boot-CD toolkit. In Part One of this article "The Perfect Rescue Tool", we discussed easy ways to gather the files you need to boot any version of Windows--95, 98, ME, NT, 2K, or XP. We also discussed many ways to obtain whatever diagnostic and repair software is appropriate for your system and skill level.

In this column, we'll go over the third and last step: burning everything onto a CD and making it bootable. We'll use a burning method that helps ensure the CD can work properly on almost any PC--even first-generation "boot from CD" PCs.

We'll show you how to burn the CDs using the current versions of the two most-popular CD-burning tools, Nero Burning ROM 5 and Roxio Easy CD & DVD Creator 6. To help cover all the bases, we'll show you the process of using Nero on XP Professional and Roxio on Win98. But other tools, other versions, and other Windows will use similar commands and techniques: Even if the steps we show you don't precisely match the setup you have, they'll serve as a close general template.

The Key Concept
In all cases, for maximum compatibility and simplicity of setup, the key idea is this: Set up the CD to boot in "floppy emulation" mode. This way not only works well even on older PCs, but also lets you use the boot floppy you created in Part One of this article exactly as-is, with no further modification.

Of course, standard floppies only hold 1.44 Mbytes, so you might think that emulating a floppy will severely limit what can fit on the CD. But it won't. Although the root or boot folder/directory in a CD set up for "floppy emulation" must contain no more than a floppy's worth of files, you can still use the full capacity of the CD by placing additional files in subfolders/subdirectories off the CD's root folder.

We'll go over this in more detail later, but here's how it works in brief: When you first boot from a CD in floppy emulation mode, the CD will initially show up as your A: drive (or whatever your floppy drive normally shows up as). The contents of your boot CD's root folder will be in the A:\ folder. No other files will be visible in the A: drive; you won't yet have access to the rest of the files on your CD.

To access the rest of the CD, you need to access the CD as a true CD, and not as a pseudo-floppy: You simply switch to the appropriate drive letter used by the CD; "D:" or "E:" or whatever. This takes you out of floppy emulation mode. You'll then be in normal CD-access mode, and will have access to the full contents of the CD.

This two-step process--accessing the CD either as a limited pseudo-floppy or as a real CD--seems clumsy but it's worth doing because it ensures wide compatibility with a huge range of PCs, including older models that may have trouble with more direct CD-access methods.

As with so many tech subjects, talking about it in the abstract can make it seem more complex than it really is. So let's walk through two real-life examples, from start to finish.

In both cases, we'll assume you've finished all the steps in Part One, and that you have a working boot floppy with all necessary files; and that you've collected whatever diagnostic/repair utilities you want, and have stored them somewhere on your hard drive.

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