Tales from the Trailing Edge

Replacing a Totally Messed Up Windows Install when You Need to Keep Your Work Files

Gregg Eshelman - 2002.09.25

What to do when your Windows 9x install is FUBAR but you have files you want to save, so totally wiping the drive is not an option.

While cleaning up my email files, I tripped over this message sent to a desperate Mac user who was confronted with a PC that was acting anything but properly. Via ICQ, I had him try many different things, including reinstalling Windows 98 over itself, but none worked, and we decided that a Windows directoryectomy was needed, followed by reinstalling.

(Edited a bit to make things clearer. Applies to any version of Win9x.)

Step by step. Read all the way through (more than once) before starting!

Okay, things didn't go well, and Windows 98 is puking at boot with IOS and CONFIGMG errors. Bad news - Windows is very, very sick, and killing the patient is the best therapy.

You're probably getting the boot menu, so use the down arrow key to select Safe Mode Command Prompt. If that crashes, you'll need a boot floppy. You did make one, right? If you aren't getting the boot menu, hit F8 immediately after the message "Starting Windows 98" appears.

So now you have a command prompt that should look like this.


If it doesn't, type CD\ where ever you are and hit enter.

Now we get to explore a bit. Enter the following.


If your PC came from a big name like HP, Dell, Gateway or any other OEM that is usually where the Windows install files are. If you get an error then you're gonna need the Windows CD or locate the install files where ever they may be on the drive. Lets assume the above worked.

The following copies essential programs to the root directory.



again to get back to


and enter


then enter


again to get back to the install files. Now enter

COPY *.* C:\win98

When that is done enter



copy deltree.exe c:\


copy attrib.exe c:\

Now we'll have fun with some dangerous software!

Now go back to the root with


enter this

attrib system.1st -s -h -r


del system.1st

Sytem.1st is a copy of the SYSTEM.DAT half of the registry. Its settings are how your basic hardware was when you first installed Windows. It doesn't include anything from after the first reboot during installation. It is saved here as a worst case backup, but in this case you want it dead and gone - or you won't get Windows reinstalled in working order. If you've changed a bunch of your hardware, this file is completely useless.

Now we kill Windows! (Yay!)

C:\>deltree c:\windows

Sit back and watch hundreds of files eat it! Anytime it asks you a question, press Y.

Done? Next step.


Reinstall Windows. (Plenty of how-to's out there on the Net for this.)

As far as Windows is concerned, the drive is "clean," and it will create a new SYSTEM.1ST for your current hardware. Keep in mind that if you change a bunch of hardware, this file is useless for a last ditch recovery effort.

A bunch of your apps won't work until they get reinstalled, but all you wanted to save was your MP3 collection anyway, right?

Oh, yeah, do a DIR setup.exe in the win98 directory to make sure you actually have a setup.exe to run before you toast Windows! :)LEPC

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