Fixing Windows: NTLDR missing, install CD won't boot

I ran across a bizarre Windows issue today on a friend's laptop. It appears to be relatively common, but the answers seem to be elusive, or all over the map. Not only was there an "NTLDR Missing" error, but in trying to access the Recovery Console, the Windows XP Install CD was halting as a blank screen right after "Setup is inspecting your computer's hardware..."

The short answer:
The partition table or boot sector is corrupt and it's messing with Setup when it scans your hard drive and causing the lock up before the installer starts. You are going to have to delete the partition and re-install Windows from scratch. I hope you have backups! Of course, if you prefer, now's a good time to try some other Operating Systems. ;)

The long answer:
Normally, "NTLDR Missing" errors are easy to fix with the recovery console of the Windows install CD or with 3rd party tools like FixNTLDR, UBCD or BartPE (builds a live-CD from your Windows install CD)

The first things to try are replacing the core boot files from the pristine versions on the XP CD (as per the Microsoft KB article) -- ntdetect.com, ntldr, and verify that the syntax of boot.ini is valid. Also, running fdisk /mbr can fix certain boot problems. These should be non-damaging to the data on your drive. You should try to fix it before you go blowing away the partition table.

In my case, none of the third party tools were working, and all the Windows XP CDs I have failed to boot past the "Setup is inspecting..." screen on this machine. The screen went dark and the CD stopped spinning, the system hung and refused to boot. No boot means no recovery console. I tried using the Windows 7 CD, too. It would boot but couldn't find a valid windows partition to repair.

My next step was to boot into Backtrack 4 Final from USB, and try to replace the files as one would from the Windows Recovery Console. I was able to write to the hard drive, and get the files off the OEM Restore CD just fine. Boot.ini was also intact. Still, the system wouldn't boot from the hard drive or the XP install CD.

As mentioned above, it was time to blow away the partition table and start over. Fortunately, my friend had good backups on an external hard drive. I opted to use BackTrack 4 Final to perform the partition-ectomy. Several boot CDs can do this, too. YMMV.

Deleting the partition with BackTrack is simple. Once you have booted backtrack, execute "cfdisk /dev/hda" - This assumes you have only one hard drive in the machine, and that there's only Windows XP installed.

Select the partition using the up/down arrow keys and navigate with the left/right arrow keys to the "Delete" menu option. You may be wondering what I'm doing with a scant 2GB hard drive. This is actually a Windows XP Virtual machine, used for lab testing.

Then, use the arrow keys to navigate to the "Write" option.

Quit cfdisk, then reboot with your Windows CD to start the installation process.

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