A boot disc is very useful because it can be used to perform troubleshooting tasks on an unbootable computer. Most of the time software that belongs in the category of data recovery, antivirus and hard drive backup/restore provides the option to create a boot disc which is sometimes known as rescue disc. Although these software can run from Windows, they are actually most efficient when run offline from a bootable disc.
An example scenario is you’ve accidentally deleted an important file. You can of course install a free data recovery software such as Recuva and attempt to recover the deleted file. However installing it on the computer will face a potential risk of the installed program overwriting the deleted file. To increase the chance of recovering the file, immediately shut down the computer, boot it up with a bootable WinPE disc and run Recuva from the Windows PE environment.
A boot disc is normally based on either Linux or Windows PE. Linux is commonly being used because the operating system and most third party tools are free, the generated boot disc is more compact in size and can run on slower computers. As for Windows PE, it has the best hardware support and most users would be familiar with it such as the hard drive naming convention (C:\) in Windows compared to Linux (/dev/sda). However, Windows PE may have a higher system requirement because the latest Windows PE 5.1 already need at least 512MB just for the base and adding more drivers, packages, or apps will obviously require more memory.
Here we have a list of free boot discs based on Windows PE that come with a collection of useful tools which we think that every computer technician or even a normal user should have to hand.
1. Paragon Rescue Kit 14 Free Edition
Paragon Software is well known for their hard drive management software. Other than shareware, one of the freeware applications they offer is the Paragon Rescue Kit 14. It comes with a bunch of useful tools such as backup/restore to virtual disk, postmortem backup/restore, boot corrector to fix MBR/boot.ini/BCD/EFI boot parameters, undelete partition to restore partition that has been accidentally deleted, and file transfer. Unfortunately the registry editor and password cleaner to reset the local Windows user account is only available in Linux but not in Windows PE.
Paragon Rescue Kit 14 does not require Windows Automated Installation Kit nor Windows Assessment and Deployment Kit to build the recovery media if you’re creating from a Windows 7 or newer operating system. The builder will simply use the WIM image of the current operating system. However do take note that you will need to install WAIK or ADK if you want the builder to create the ISO image file.
During the building process, you have the option to enable the advanced mode that allows to add storage and network device drivers, network configuration such as detecting the network interface automatically, and mounting a network share automatically after boot. You will also need to provide the product key and serial number which can be obtained for free at their official website.
2. Lazesoft Recovery Suite Home Edition
Lazesoft Recovery Suite Home Edition is free for non-commercial use only. It is able to create a Windows PE boot disc containing a few modules to help in recovering a crashed Windows by repairing boot errors, recover files after accidental deletion, cloning and creating disk image, recovering Windows serial number and resetting user account password.
Building a Windows PE with Lazesoft is as easy as clicking on the “Burn CD/USB Disk” button. You can choose to build a specific WinPE version ranging from Windows 7 to 8.1 for both 32-bit and 64-bit by clicking the Options button. The builder will automatically download the necessary components to build the WinPE if your computer does not have the files.
The Windows File Manager button found on the Lazesoft Recovery Suite Home Edition disc is not really a fully featured file manager like Windows Explorer where you have two tree view panes to easily manage files. You can however launch a third party file manager from the Windows Recovery button, go to the RepairTools tab and click on Lazesoft File Manager.
3. AOMEI PE Builder
AOMEI Technology, the company that is well known for their PC backup software called Backupper, released a freeware program called PE Builder late last year to help users easily build a WinPE-based bootable media with just a few clicks. AOMEI PE Builder is able to build a Windows PE by using the Windows Recovery Environment that is found on newer version of the Windows operating system such as 7 and 8, so there is no need to download and install WAIK or ADK.
The Windows PE built by AOMEI PE Builder looks more like a normal Windows desktop because it comes with Windows desktop and Explorer which is not found in the Windows PE built by Paragon Rescue Kit or Lazesoft Recovery Suite. Other than that, AOMEI Backupper, AOMEI Partition Assistant and Windows Recovery Environment is included by default. You can also embed 3rd party portable tools such as 7-Zip, Everything, IrfanView, Notepad++, Q-Dir, Recuva, SumatraPDF, FileZilla, PENetwork, QTWeb, BOOTICE, NTPWEdit and OSFMount to the Windows PE by ticking the checkboxes. Custom drivers and files can also be added.
Do take note that the current version 1.4 and all older versions might not build a working Windows PE and this is caused by some compatibility issues with the recent Windows updates released by Microsoft. If you urgently need to build a working Windows PE using AOMEI PE Builder, you can do it from a Windows 7 computer with the 2 Windows updates KB3022345 and KB3045999 uninstalled. This workaround only works in Windows 7 but not in Windows 8.1. AOMEI is aware of this issue and is currently working on a newer version to fix this problem.
4. Gandalf’s Windows 8.1 PE
If you’re looking for a pre-built Windows 8.1 PE, look no further and just use Gandalf’s Windows 8.1 PE because it is packed with useful programs. It has a desktop, explorer, start menu replacement with StartIsBack, compression tools, image viewer, hard drive tools, video player, OpenOffice, remote access tools (Ammyy Admin, Remote Desktop, TeamViewer), anti malware such as ClamWin and MalwareBytes, and many more!
Gandalf’s Windows 8.1 PE is 1.8GB in size and in an ISO image format. You can burn it to a DVD or install it to a USB flash drive using Rufus. Both X86 and X64 versions of the 8.1 PE are available to download. All the tools embedded to Gandalf’s Windows 8.1 PE are either free or trial versions which means it’s free from pirated programs.
5. WinBuilder 2015
WinBuilder 2015 is the new and completely rewritten tool of WinBuilder 082 which has not been updated since 2011. The old WinBuilder 082 comes in a nice graphical user interface with buttons and graphs while the latest WinBuilder 2015 runs in a simple window that accepts commands, similar to a command prompt. This new version of WinBuilder runs on Java which means it can also run on operating system other than Windows such as Linux and Mac OSX.
The old WinBuilder 082 is supposedly easy enough to use involving only two steps but may be difficult to troubleshoot the problem if there are errors during the Windows PE building process. The new WinBuilder is even easier by typing a single command “AUTO” into the window, and the whole process of building a Windows PE bootable disc is fully automated including the downloading of the Windows ISO image file.
Currently there are 18 portable software tools that can be added to the Windows PE automatically through WinBuilder 2015 by typing the command “install appname” in the program. The plugins available to install can be listed by typing “install list” in the program window. For example, to install Recuva, simply type “install recuva” in the window. Do note that there is no need to type the complete plugin name because the program accepts partial filenames.
Additional Notes: You can build a WinPE 5.1 which is based on Windows 8.1 using the old WinBuilder 082 through Win8.1SE. You will need to download the Windows 8.1 enterprise evaluation ISO, extract it to your hard drive or mount the ISO to a drive letter, point the source directory to the extracted/mounted Windows 8.1 files, and click the Play button. Optionally, you can also change the configuration settings by enabling/disabling the scripts found at left hand navigation tree.