How-To Geek

Manually Restore System Files from Your Windows Installation Media

If you’ve ever had a missing or corrupt system file in Windows you sometimes end up in shady parts of the internet downloading files from who knows where. Why not restore the files directly from your installation disks?

It doesn’t matter if the missing files came from a virus, poorly programmed software, or a family member who didn’t know better. We have all found ourselves in the situation of needing a system file that we can’t find. Luckily if you still have your install disks you can manually restore the system files you need without doing a reinstall.

Note: Replacing system files can be very dangerous and may break your system even more than it already is. Only do this if you have already made a complete backup of your computer and are willing to do a full re-install if this doesn’t work.

Install 7-zip

7-zip is an insanely useful tool that no tech support should be without. It can open just about any compressed file including Windows disk image files. Download it from the link below if you don’t already have it installed.

Aquire the Installation Media

If you have an OS upgrade disk, retail copy of your operating system, or sometimes even system restore disks you should be able to get the files you need. All Windows Vista and 7 installations are stored as an install.wim file on the disk. Put in your installation media and browse to the sources directory to find it.

Note: If you have system restore disks from your computer manufacturer you may have to search for the file but it should still be there.

Open the install.wim file with 7-zip.

Identify the Image You Need

You may see more than just one folder which means your installation media can install more than one version of Windows. To know which folder you need, copy the xml files to your desktop and open them with notepad.

Look for a tag labeled EDITIONID to know which version of Windows corresponds to which folder.

If you are not sure which version of Windows you have installed you can sometimes tell by the sticker that came on your computer, or you can right click on computer and select properties to view your edition and architecture.

Extract the Files

You can match the folder inside of 7-zip with the .xml files and then browse the contents for the files you need.

Note: Most system files will be in the C:\Windows\system32 or C:\Windows\SysWOW64 so if you don’t know where to look, search there first.

Copy the files to your hard drive and replace them on your computer. If you cannot access the files because they are in use, try a live Linux disk and copy the files from there.

This is the safest way to getting the missing system files back to how they were when you did a fresh install. If you cannot find the files on the installation disk you can also try restoring the files from a Windows system image you created in a backup.

Download 7-zip

Justin Garrison is a Linux and HTPC enthusiast who loves to try new projects. He isn't scared of bricking a cell phone in the name of freedom.

  • Published 11/9/10

Comments (18)

  1. Roger Tilbury

    Few of us have installation disks as we bought a system with Windows pre-installed. We might have made an emergency restart CD – or we might not. We might have a partition to make an emergency recovery from. But what, we don’t have is Windows on a CD. Is there no way to get files out of what used to be .cab files? They appear to have disappeared or changed name in Windows 7

  2. James Beuerelin

    Sorry but I’m not sure what “a live Linux disk” is or how to use it. Most times I’ve needed to replace files they were in use so the option you stated above is very interesting to me.

  3. Paultx

    I know that using the SFC /scannow command (sometimes along with installation media) checks for corrupted or missing system files and replaces or recover them. Isn’t SFC the safest way?

  4. Nolan

    I would recommend extracting files from service packs over the installation media. How about a guide on that instead?

  5. MJ

    @James “a live Linux disk” is any disk from which you can install Ubuntu, from example. It allows you to load Ubuntu without installing it, and from there you can access your computer.

  6. Roger Tilbury

    But, MJ, why would a Windows user be expected to have a Linux/Ubuntu disk?

    Paultx – yes that can work but most of us don’t have the “installation media”

  7. Dan

    I need help when I try to open a program from the desk top windows media will open. It look like it effects the .exe files. And I have to go up to the upper left corner to x it out two or three times. Adn it changed half the icons on the desk top.

  8. kuhnkat

    Download the full install files from microsoft. Safest source!! Search for the links on the .net.

    Linux live cd’s are minimal installations that are burnt to a cd. You can boot your system from the CD and have a reasonable windows type interface available to browse you hard drive and drag and drop files. You will probably have network connectivity and one or more browser versions available along with other standard type tools and applications. You can also install Linux from a LiveCD.

    LiveCD’s are also great to boot on other people’s PC’s when you don’t want to have to worry about leaving any sensitive information or don’t know if someone has dropped malware on it that can steal your information.

    Careful, you might decide you like the idea of a stable, FREE OS with lots of FREE apps.

    Ubuntu, Anti-X, Fedora, and others have LiveCD’s that can be downloaded as an ISO file and burnt.

    You will also find information on creating a persistent bootable image for rewritables, thumbdrives, or other external portable media. This will alllow you to run as if booted from the local hard drive with your changes saved when you shut down.

  9. kuhnkat

    Oh yes, for those who did not get media with their systems, you should have a restore partition on your hard drive with software installed to CREATE media.

    DO IT NOW!!!

  10. Hatryst

    I never knew i was so easy… ;)

  11. Hatryst

    I mean, i never knew it was so easy. But you get the idea !

  12. Roger Tilbury

    Yes, Kuhnkat, we’ve all done that (I hope) but that media created is designed to restore your PC to its factory condition. It doesn’t give you a windows installation disk – or you might use it to make bootleg copies. This maybe different in UK/Europe where i am from what you get in the USA. I have a partition like that on my HP – which i used to restore it to factory settings – but my Acer only allows me to burn a rescue disk.

  13. Roberto Roberts

    I have no systems disk from my PC manufacturer, Dell as the ones supplied never worked and Dell refused to replace them. (Technically, they never got back to me when I asked, which amounts to the same thing.)

    I cannot create them from the Dell partition, as this partition requires Dell support to get into and Dell stopped providing such support when my warranty expired and they would not renew it.

    Since I have Win XP, I have no image file to locate system files in either.

    I don’t think my position is that unusual, so could you please write an article for when none of the options covered or linked above are available?

    Example: I am missing the Help Files for my version of Office and the Help Installer rejects the disks I do have because they don’t match my PC.

  14. jwchips

    @Roberto Windows XP has the annoying setback of multiple types of installation media. A VLK disc will nto work with a Retail key, and an OEM key will not work on a Retail disc. With this in mind I would try to get the right disc for your build, and extract the file from there. (I would expect you to have an OEM build on your PC). This is simply because sometimes using the wrong disc causes activation issues, and we are after a fuss-free solution!

    I stongly suggest you should download a CLEAN (no keys/custom apps/tweaks/themes included) XP SP3 disc (OEM Home/Pro depending on what you are using) from a torrent site* and grab the files from that. You could even open the .iso with 7zip without burning it to dic!

    Alternatively a great poster above stated you could download SP3 from the Microsoft site and try to grab the files out of that (I think .msi’s can still be opened by 7zip, I would be very surprised if they couldn’t!).

    Lastly concerning your example, those files would be stored on an Office disc, not Windows.

    * Downloading a clean Windows disc IS NOT ILLEGAL. It is installing Windows with a key that you have not purchased that is naughty. Downloading a disc without a key or crack is just giving you the tools you need to fix your computer, the same tools the company who sold it to you never seem to give.

  15. Frank rizo

    You can copy out the files you need from the service pack directory. C:\windows\ service pack files \i386


  16. Bee-am

    The 7zip software rocks – I have actually used it to restore missing .dll files…

    >> Frank Rizo: I think its possible, as long as you have the source and destination addresses!

  17. batsdude

    No offense intended guys, as this site is usually excellent for solving life’s little bytes. But manufacturers, and microsoft really have a good racket going by not enclosing the windows disks. I cannot believe how long they’ve gotten away with it to be honest. Every single article I’ve ever read on the problem has said the same thing about using the non existent disks. Consumers really need to get hip and start demanding what they’re paying for.

  18. Henfracar

    What you should do in your case is to use one of the free imaging software, Easeus/Paragon comes to mind, to create an image back-up of your system; best done as soon as you receive the machine; thus you can always go back to factory specs.
    Later on as service packs/patches are installed you should create new images so you have a choice of images to restore to if your system crashes.

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