Death by corrupt master file table

When your boss calls in a frenzy because her computer won’t boot, and Dell support hasn’t been able to help, you know you’re either going to save the day or lose points on your semiannual evaluation.

For me it’ll probably turn out to be neither. The boss’s Dimension 2400 (which is a very nice computer, by the way), lost all contact with reality when the master file table was corrupted.

It’s kind of sad, really. She lost a huge manuscript she was editing, pictures, music, letters — everything. She’s computer-savvy, but the idea of a periodic backup wasn’t something she thought of. It was just her home computer, so she didn’t think it would require the redundancy we have at work. Live and learn, I guess.

Of course, it wasn’t necessarily XP’s fault. She said the error started with a black screen and a “missing file” message on boot. She called Dell and the technician suggested she try a couple things, and the error message was pruned down to just a cursor. It might be that there was a chance to save it while there was an error message, but who knows?

There was very little to be done at that point. I tried some Windows utilities and the Norton recovery boot disk. I even mounted (or tried to mount) the drive under DSL and the Dapper live CD, but there’s nothing to be found when the MFT is garbled.

I even conferred with the head of our IT staff, who more or less reinforced what I was afraid of. I could do a low-level copy with dd and output to an ISO, he said, but what would that leave you? Without a proper file index, the results would still be garbage. Short of professional data recovery services (at something like $499 a pop), it’s effectively a blank disk, he said.

The best part of the hour-long experiment was the Microsoft help page for the chkdsk.exe error.

Error Message:

Corrupt master file table. CHKDSK aborted.


Chkdsk could not interpret the master file table or its mirror on the NTFS volume.

User Action:

Reformat the NTFS volume. Then restore the data from a backup.

(Granted, that’s for Win2k, but the same message and solution applies to XP Home.) You know you’re screwed when Microsoft’s answer is “reinstall.”

So at least she gets a fresh installation of XP. And a small reassurance that the problem wasn’t hardware-related. Now she just has to wait out the daylong downloads for updating from SP1 to current. Download, reboot. Download, reboot. Download, reboot. … 🙄


3 thoughts on “Death by corrupt master file table

  1. diskdrive

    Formatted or not, your boss has other options. Corrupt MFT only means she (and apparently your IT guy) can’t see the files she is looking for. I can recover your files for about $120+ shipping, do it all day long every day.

    Let me know if I can help,

    -Don at


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