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How to repair a broken user profile in Windows XP (and in Vista or 7 with a few changes!)

I was recently called by a client who thought her computer had lost all of her pictures, email and contacts, She had logged in and was presented with an unfamiliar desktop, without her normal background and very few files and shortcuts visible.

This can be quite scary, as it appears that your data has disappeared, and the first thought is that you won’t be able to get it back.

I was able to tell this lady that it was probable that her user profile had been broken in some way, and that she needn’t worry, we just needed to fix the profile. This turned out to be correct, and all her data was restored in a little over two hours (with most of that time being spent waiting while her files were copied to a new location rather than doing anything complicated).

The steps required to do this are available in many places on the Internet, but I thought I’d reproduce them here, and explain things as simply as possible as I go along.

What is actually happening?

Windows tries to load your user environment, but for some reason fails, so it logs you into a temporary user instead, as if that might be useful. Instead, it confuses and worries you.

Think of the environment you see when you log into Windows as the index page of a book. What it shows you is not the actual content, just a list to tell you what’s available and where it is. What’s happening when your profile gets broken (I won’t go into the reasons why it might happen here) is like the index page being torn out, and a blank one being put in it’s place. Your information is still in the book, but you just don’t know where it is. You see exactly what you would see if you created a new user, and then logged in as that user rather than your normal one.

How do I fix it?

(Button text, menu items and other text that will appear on screen exactly as written are denoted in bold.)

The way round this is to create a new user profile and copy all of your data to it. When you log in with this new user, all your data will be visible to you again. There may be one or two things to tidy up after this, but we’ll get to that.

So, enough bad analogies, what steps do I need to follow?

NB – If you have imaging software such as Acronis True Image Home, it’s always a good idea to take an image before you start to try any sort of recovery. If you don’t, and you still want to try to get things back rather than bringing it to an expert, be aware that bad things CAN happen.

Before we start to get your data back, some things need to be prepared. You will need two administrator accounts other than the one you’re trying to repair. One will be the new user you’re going to be using from now on, and the other is just temporary. We’ll assume you don’t have suitable accounts already, and work from scratch.

Note: For this process to work, you need to have at least as much space free on your hard drive as is used by your profile. If you don’t, then when the steps say to click Copy, you instead need to click Cut. This is a slightly more risky procedure.

  • Click Start in the bottom right hand corner of the screen and then click on Control Panel;
  • Click on User Accounts;
  • Choose Create a new account;
  • Type a name for the account. This will be the account you use from now on, so choose something relevant to you, but not the same as the old account we’re trying to fix. For the purpose of this guide I’ll call mine NewUser;
  • Click Next, and on the next screen make sure Computer Administrator is selected;
  • Click Create Account.
User Accounts Window - HolmPC Computer Repair and Support Dorking

Figure 1 – User Accounts Window

Repeat the steps above to create another administrator account, but call this one TempUser.

At this point you should see your accounts at the bottom of the window as in the picture to the left, Figure 1. I’d expect you to see your broken one, your two new ones, and “Guest” (plus any for other users who use the computer).

Now we need to copy your files across to the new user, so you need to log out. Click the Start button and then click Log Off, and click Log Off again.

You’ll be taken back to the log in screen which will list the new users you just created.

The folder that we want to copy files to will not be created until you’ve logged in as NewUser, so do that now, and then log off again. Now log in as TempUser. You shouldn’t need a password as we didn’t set one up.

Next we need to copy your files across.

  • Open Windows Explorer. The easiest way to do this is click Start and then click My Computer;
  • On the Tools menu, click Folder Options, and then go to the View tab.
Folder Options Dialog - HolmPC Computer Repair and Support Dorking

Figure 2 – Folder Options Dialog

We need to make sure that all your files are copied across, including the hidden and operating system ones. The dialog you’re looking at should look like Figure 2.

  • Make sure there isn’t a tick next to Hide protected operating system files (you’ll probably have to scroll down in the window to see this). If there is a tick in there click it to clear the box. A warning will come up, and you need to click Yes on it;
  • Make sure that Show hidden files and folders has the green dot in the circle next to it. If it doesn’t, click the circle so the green dot appears in it, and disappears from Do not show hidden files and folders;
  • Click OK to close the Folder Options dialog;
  • Click the Folders button in the bar near the top of the Windows Explorer window. This will cause a folder tree to appear in the left side of the window;
  • Under My Computer, click the plus sign to the left of the drive that says (C:) next to it. This will normally be called “Local Disk”;
  • Click the + next to Documents and Settings . This will open up a list of folders under Documents and Settings which will include folders with the names of your users.

This is the only bit that might be a bit tricky. We want to select all except a few of the files in this folder and copy them across to the new user.

User Files Selected - HolmPC Computer Support and Repair Dorking

Figure 3 – Correct User Files Selected

  • Scroll down to the bottom of the right hand pane in Windows Explorer. You should see three files there with names that start “ntuser”;
  • On the Edit menu, click Select All. This will highlight all the files and folders on the right hand pane;
  • While holding down the Ctrl key on the keyboard, click each of these three “ntuser” files. They should become deselected, while all the other files remain selected, as in Figure 3;
  • On the Edit menu, click Copy  (You can also copy by pressing the Ctrl and C keys on the keyboard together);
  • Back in the folder list on the left, click on the name of the new user you created, in my case NewUser;
  • On the Edit menu, click Paste (You can also paste by pressing Ctrl and V together on the keyboard).

This will paste all the files and folders from your broken profile into the new one. If you are asked during this process if you want to overwrite existing files or folders, always say Yes or Yes To All. This copy may take some time, depending on the size and number of files you have stored.

When the copy has finished, you should log off and then log back on as your new user, and all your files and setting should be back!

Depending on what went wrong with your profile in the first place, some files may have been corrupted, and this process will not get them back. This was the case with my client, and so i had to do the following after restoring the profile…

  • Set the desktop background to be the picture that was previously being used (Right click on your photo of choice and click Set as Desktop Background);
  • Restore email settings and address book. The instructions to do this depend on which mail client is being used, so are not included in this article. Requests for instructions for particular mail clients could lead to a posting on the subject…

When you are sure you have all your files back and are happy that you don’t need to do any more repair work, you can delete the TempUser and the old broken user accounts by going into Control Panel and then User Accounts. You have the option of also removing the files associated with these users when you do this, and this will recover the disk space used by the process.

There are other ways to get your profile back, such as using System Restore, but this is the best in my opinion. The root cause might still remain in the Restore Point you revert to, and the problem may come back.

All instructions are followed at the user’s risk, and HolmPC takes no responsibility for any loss or damage caused as a result. Always back up your data as thoroughly as possible before attempting to follow any instructions found on the Internet, and if in doubt, take the computer to an expert. If you feel there is any inaccuracy or confusion in this article, please let me know and I’ll do my best to put it right.

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