We recently reviewed some free bootable antivirus discs that you can use to scan and remove malware from outside of Windows. Now we’ll review some general bootable rescue discs. These discs can help you repair, restore, or diagnose almost any computer problem. You can run virus scans, backup important files, restore the boot configuration, cleanup temporary files, manage drivers and services, and much more.

They boot into their own OS so you can use them even if you can’t get Windows to boot up.

Windows System Repair disc - One of the more basic but important rescue discs is provided by Microsoft. Starting with Windows Vista you can create a System Repair Disc. It lets you boot into the Windows Recovery Environment, giving you the System Recovery Options:

  • Startup Repair: Tries to automatically detect and fix startup and booting issues.
  • System Restore: Lets you undo registry, system, and program changes by restoring Windows to a previous point in time. System Restore must have been enabled and creating restore points prior to running the disc. Windows automatically does this by default so unless you've turned this feature off, it should work fine.
  • Windows Complete PC Restore: Lets you restore the entire computer to a previous backup image, which you must have done manually in Windows.
  • Windows Memory Diagnostic Tool: Runs automated tests on your RAM to see if there are permanent errors.
  • Command Prompt: Gives you the traditional Command Prompt. You might want to run things like Check Disk (chkdsk) to fix drive errors, System File Check (sfc) to fix modified or missing system files, or the BootRec program to edit the boot configuration.

You can usually access the System Recovery Options of Windows Vista or 7 without a System Repair Disc. You press the F8 key when booting and select Repair your computer from the Advanced Startup Options.

You can also access the System Recovery Options via the Windows Vista or 7 installation disc.

If you can’t access the System Recovery Options via the Advanced Startup Options or the Windows installation disc, you can use a System Repair Disc. You can create one via the Backup and Restore settings in the Control Panel. You can also download the disc images for Windows Vista and Windows 7 and burn them onto a CD or DVD.

Ultimate Boot CD for Windows (UBCD4Win) - The Ultimate Boot CD for Windows (UBCD4Win) includes over 160 tools, utilities, and programs. Most of them are available in a GUI that resembles Windows XP, or in the local Windows installation. The latest version of UBCD4Win is 3.50, released in April 2009.

Due to copyright restrictions, UBCD4Win isn’t downloadable as a simple disc image (ISO file) like others. You have to manually build the image and must have a Windows XP CD with at least Service Pack 1. They explain the entire process on their site.

After initially booting UBCD4Win, you can access some tools in the DOS-like environment or you can launch the main GUI. Once in the GUI, you’ll find some shortcuts on the desktop. But most of the tools are accessible via the Start Menu. You can review all the tools by referring to their list of tools and version history.

You can also browse through the local drives of the computer using My Computer just like when using Windows XP. You can drag and drop and copy and paste files between drives to quickly backup your important files. After you setup the network connection, which you’re prompted for when booting, you can also browse the Web with Internet Explorer.

You can also access most of the programs from the disc in the regular Windows environment. Just pop in the disc and a new start menu button will appear in the lower left corner, giving you access to most of the tools included with UBCD4Win. If AutoRun is disabled, you can manually open the menu at Programs\nu2menu\nu2menu.exe on the disc.

Hiren’s BootCD (HBCD) - Hiren’s BootCD (HBCD) includes over 300 tools, utilities, and programs. It offers two different GUIs (Mini XP and Linux), where you can access most of the tools, in addition to the local Windows installation. The latest version of Hiren’s BootCD is 13.2, released in April 2011.

Unlike UBCD4Win, HBCD can be downloaded as a simple disc image (ISO file) that you can easily burn to a disc. You don’t have to manually build the disc like with UBCD4Win.

Keep in mind, there’s a download website for HBCD that’s separate from the developer’s website. You’ll download a compressed zip file. Along with the disc image is a simple burner program (BurnCDCC.exe), in case you don’t already have one installed or aren’t using Windows 7 that has one built in.

Hiren’s BootCD can also run from a USB drive. Just remember the computer you want to use it on must support booting from USB, which most newer computers do. You may have to activate this feature in the BIOS setup.

When you boot from the disc you’ll first see the DOS boot menu. Like UBCD4Win, you can access some tools before loading the GUI. However, HBCD includes many more DOS programs than UBCD4Win.

When using the Mini XP GUI, you access most of the tools via the Program Launcher. You can see a full list of the programs on the developer’s website.

In Mini XP you can browse the local drives using My Computer, just like with UBCD4Win. You can also browse the Web with the Opera browser, which will try to automatically configure your network connection.

Like UBCD4Win, you can also access the Program Launcher for HBCD and the programs in the regular Windows environment. If AutoRun doesn’t automatically show the menu you can open manually at HBCD\Wintools\HBCDMenu.exe.

Eric Geier is the founder of NoWiresSecurity, which helps businesses easily protect their Wi-Fi networks with the Enterprise mode of WPA/WPA2 security. He is also a freelance tech writer. Become a Twitter follower or use the RSS Feed to keep up with his writings.