Introduction

(Last updated 2005-2006. The BartPE Windows XP bootable CD can still be useful, however, if you can get your hands on a Windows XP machine; I will not host a completed ISO.)

Description and Uses

A “live” boot CD is one that boots from your optical drive and contains a full operating system. These boot CDs do not actually require a working hard drive: They work entirely off the optical drive, system memory (RAM disk), and video card. Well, of course, you need a working monitor and basic keyboard input at least. Despite not requiring a hard disk to “operate,” live CDs can access hard drives, which is what makes them particularly useful. These days, boot DVDs are also common, but I will use “CD” for more universality.

In terms of user experience, live CDs can have very modern user interfaces that look and behave very much like current operating systems. Of course, due to the CD/RAM nature, live boot CDs have higher requirements than the simple DOS boot CD I host in another subsection. For the pretty user interface and RAMdisk to work, live boot CDs require quite a bit more RAM than a DOS disc—often 128MB minimum at default, and much more if it’s a live DVD.

Nearly all live CDs, however, are Linux-based—but this fact does not necessarily mean one must be well-versed in Linux to use the live CD, especially if the Linux live CD has a simple GUI.

Purpose

There are two primary reasons to use a bootable live CD: for data (or system) rescue and to “try out” an operating system without actually reformatting and installing it. A secondary purpose is giving the user access to their preferred and customized operating system and software on an otherwise disfavored operating system (e.g. using Linux software on a Windows PC or vice versa).

The best critical use for bootable live CDs is undoubtedly data rescue. If a virus renders the Windows operating system unusable, for example, a live CD can be used to read the otherwise inaccessible hard drive contents. Most current live CDs also support USB and networking, which in turn are useful to save the data elsewhere. In both corporate and personal settings, I’ve always found, the data is more important than the nuts and bolts of the computer.

Besides data rescue, a system may also be rescued from a live CD. In the above example, many current live CDs are bundled with antivirus and other malware tools and can scan and manipulate the hard drive contents. Such tools are limited to software problems, of course, and cannot fix something like faulty RAM.

Appropriate Audience

Live CDs have evolved a great deal in the past half decade; while the earliest lacked eye-pleasing user interfaces and were either too customizable or too hard-coded, there are many to choose from now—perhaps too many, for average users.

In my opinion, users who wish to use live CDs in a rescue capacity should understand the basics of bootstrap media and how system memory, hard drive, and other component parts interact, particularly if the disc does not boot the system for some reason. Users who intend to use live CDs only for OS “trial” purposes need only know how to change media boot order in the CMOS, if at all.

For the most basic live CDs, where everything is already packaged and “ready to go,” users must know how to burn images (ISOs or IMG or other) to disc. This is generally a straightforward and well-documented process. For other packages, the user needs to customize plugins or settings and compile (especially Linux-based CD distributions) before burning to CD.

Security Issues

While the beneficial function I intend to highlight is data rescue for one’s own computer, there is no denying that live CD use also effectively trounces the built-in Windows/NTFS protections such as user logons, NTFS folder/file permissions, and so forth. The fact that the BartPE and some other CD-ROMs can so easily access NTFS partitions (relevant particularly in business settings) and read data should make people hesitate. In terms of personal and corporate computers, the security issue is twofold:

  1. Physical access to the computer must be secured, perhaps even disabling any removable media on the computer.
  2. Bootable media must be secured via the BIOS/CMOS settings (i.e. disable or reorder bootable optical drive capability and secure the CMOS with a password).

Obviously, one can sometimes get around a CMOS password, but I suppose you might argue that once you give someone physical access to your computer, it’s all over anyway. A more full-proof way to render these devices useless is to use full-disk encryption, which I may discuss in a separate QND article.

That said, here’s my obligatory disclaimer: I take no responsibility for actions derived from the information on these pages that fall outside the intended use for personal emergency PC access.

Comparison

There are a few reasons why one might want an emergency “rescue” boot CD for a Windows system: in the chance that Windows fails to boot, to gain access to data and copy them elsewhere; to run utilities outside of the operating system or that require another environment; to connect to the network and run an antivirus on a nonbooting system; inaccessibility of an installation OS CD-ROM for the Recovery Console (Windows XP/2000) or repair install, etc.

Currently, I have tested/used a number of boot CDs. Two are based on Bart’s bootable cd pages (DOS and Windows), while one is a Linux-based solution. The other three are DOS-based but with minimal menus. I’ve only used Bart’s DOS boot CD regularly because it’s free-form and easier to build in my opinion, and because mine already has PowerQuest Drive Image and Partition Magic on it. Right now I’m getting more into the full graphical user interface (GUI) or “live” boot CDs, with BartPE as a choice rescue boot CD for Windows systems. Here is a quick rundown of some of the boot CDs I’ve made and used:

DOS Boot CD Kit (download kit, instructions; OLD, not supported)
Advantages Disadvantages
* Very small (but not floppy-sized anymore); easily fits on a credit-card sized CD-ROM
* Easily customized with other DOS-based applications – use to replace various boot-floppies
* Fast execution
* Very basic hardware compatibility requirements compared to “live” cds – should run off any machine with bootable optical drive
* Very basic resource requirements (CPU, memory)
* Using freeware utilities, can be used on any machine
* Using the kit, no cd-burning software is required besides the Windows XP/2K OS
* Requires some DOS knowledge – no GUI, memory issues
* Requires manual editing of drivers, not all drivers work in DOS (*USB generic driver enabled in dl)
* Few true 16-bit apps today (true DOS environment)
* No native NTFS support, no native long-filename support (*driver and apps provided in dl)
* No networking support (generally).
BartPE Boot CD (plugins)
Advantages Disadvantages
* Full native NTFS/FAT read-write
* Uses (many) normal Windows applications, looks/behaves like Windows
* Can be customized using plugin architecture
* Hardware detection is automatic – at same time, initialization is slow
* Might be able to fit on mini-cd (disabling some elements from kit)
* Native support for external media, other ports** (USB flash and mouse detected on boot-up with plugin;
external USB and Firewire drives may require other drivers – but hotswapping doesn’t appear supported)
* Requires your own Windows installation CD-ROM (or slipstreamed i386 directory for the latest BartPE engines), and most retail systems don’t include that anymore
* Requires only certain Windows installation CD-ROMs (XP+SP1+, 2003)
* Because of the above, licensing issue certainly limits its use to your own computer
* Creating plugins can be a hassle unless plugin for an application is already made and packaged
* Requires certain system specs – (e.g. recommended 96MB min system memory, 128MB is most decent; 64 might be possible)
* Will not work on certain machines (unknown – possible BIOS or chipset issues; e.g. HP Vectra)
* Cannot start more than ~6 processes, including the nu2menu shell – i.e., you can’t have more than a certain number of applications and background processes running at once.
Knoppix Boot CD ISOs (Distro: LinuxDefender, no local download)
Advantages Disadvantages
* Full, slick GUI (KDE), sexier than BartPE 😛
* Automatic hardware detection, initialization a bit faster than BartPE
* Since a distro of Linux – 100% free (GNU, open source, or freeware, etc.)
* Linuxdefender’s version comes with their free antivirus.
* Able to read Windows-based partitions (requires running NTFS utility for NTFS drives)
* Good for nondestructive experimentation with basic Linux OS
* Available as a ready-to-burn ISO file
* USB and PCMCIA automatically detected (probably firewire too); hotswapping unknown
* NTFS read-write appears limited – copy/paste only preexisting files (*newest Knoppix build may have better NTFS support)
* Interface not necessarily entirely intuitive for Windows users – single click only, but pretty darn close
* Excess of other Linux utilities that Windows users don’t know/need
* ISO is pretty large (500MB); must wait for mini-cd ISOs based on next point
* Typical Windows users can’t customize Knoppix/Linux builds at all
* Requires certain system specs for full execution – e.g. 128-256+MB recommended RAM
Winternal’s Erd Commander 200x (no download)
Advantages Disadvantages
* NTFS/FAT compatibility
* Bundled Windows-specific utilities, e.g. security, passord reset for admin purposes
* Windows interface, fully supported
* Ready-made (retail)
* $$$$ in admin pak
* (Winternal’s software is listed only for completism; I won’t discuss it here)

My general conclusions: Having tried these three boot CD options, I’m keeping BartPE for full NTFS file backup purposes and some Windows utilities, and the DOS boot CD for my Drive Image and Partition Magic applications (and emergency NTFS access – since I’m more likely to carry around my mini-CD anyway). The DOS disc just seems easier to build and execute in my opinion, despite its quite arcane interface. Still, a working BartPE is pretty darn useful. Knoppix is a nice boot CD option I’m keeping for experimentation purposes. Even if it’s not a perfect rescue boot CD option for Windows users, it certainly has a sexy GUI that may just win the GUI-dependent over to Linux solutions.