SystemRescueCD is a free, Linux-based CDROM image for system recovery that boots into a minimal graphical interface and provides a host of useful tools culled from many sources.
In addition to the suite of dedicated recovery and repair utilities, the disk can get you to a basic desktop that includes network connectivity and a web browser. This is an important feature as, let's face it, most recovery work requires the odd visit to a search engine.
Although it can boot to a fairly useful desktop, it's not a lightweight general purpose distribution like Puppy Linux. In the same way, it's not a disk to hand to someone who doesn't know much about computers. You need a bit of expertise to use it, and it's a disk that, if misused, could easily wipe or corrupt a system.
Once you've booted to the desktop via an initial menu, the disk reveals itself to be a veritable Swiss Army knife of useful tools. There is some overlapping functionality in the form of multiple tools that do similar things, but this is probably to suit different user preferences and also to offer command line alternatives to some of the GUI tools.
Gparted is a graphical tool for creating, deleting and copying partitions. Partimage is a tool that backs up entire partitions to a file on another disk. It's about as a foolproof and complete a backup as you could make of a system partition, and if you've got the space, I'd recommend doing this before problems crop up. PhotoRec is a tool for the recovery of lost media such as photo, video and music data. It's designed to work with a variety of media such as memory cards and PDAs and phones. ClamAV is an anti-virus program that can scan Windows file systems.
In addition, there are some smaller applications that focus on recovery and repair work such as Grub, some archive management tools, text editors and most of the standard networking tools. There's a lot to explore as all-in-all the disk must contain about a hundred utilities.
At boot time, you can also boot into some of the floppy disk images that are included on the CDROM. This includes a variety of hardware testing utilities, some boot managers, and FreeDOS, an MS-DOS compatible operating system.
Although SystemRescueCD offers a desktop, it can be complicated to use and requires a some basic computer knowledge. However, it doesn't require much Linux specific knowledge to operate most of the tools, so I would be happy to recommend it to a Windows guru. Besides, people who don't understand the basics shouldn't be operating partition managers and file recovery utilities anyway.
I doubt that there are any typical system recovery scenarios that this disk wouldn't be able to cope with. Having said that, you might have to hit the docs before making use of some of the less common functions. My recommendation? Go burn it to a disk right now, as there's almost no excuse for not having it at the ready. Even if it sat in the back of a drawer until an emergency crops up, you'd be glad you had a copy. Beyond that, this disk, when properly used, could quickly turn you into the hero of your office or a figure of great admiration amongst your friends.
The SystemRescueCD website.
UK based freelance writer Michael Reed writes about technology, retro computing, geek culture and gender politics.