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Windows XP, the Blue Screen of Death and Activation Hell

Blue Screen of Death

My home computer running Windows XP has been getting less and less stable recently. Generally it's been fairly stable (for Windows), requiring a reboot about once a week to keep it working. However in the last couple of weeks it really went badly down hill, categorised by windows explorer crashing, and the computer rebooting itself. Before windows XP these reboots would have manifested in the famous Blue Screen of Death, but Windows XP is now set to automatically reboot when this happens. I'm not sure why the operating system became unstable, one thing that seams to coincide with it becoming unstable was a windows update, that failed. It didn't give any information why it failed, but that one of the updates it tried to install didn't install.

When sending the error reports it first complained about my HP CD Writer, which I thought was odd because I don't and never have had a HP CD Writer in that computer. Later it just said that there was a problem with an unknown driver and I should use the windows CD to perform a Repair. As it had reached the stage where some applications were crashing within only a few minutes of being started, and the operating system would reboot itself about half a dozen times in one day, I thought I should give it a go.

I performed a backup beforehand. With over 300GB of disk space it is not feasible to perform a full backup to DVDs, so I copied data from my C drive (where windows was installed), onto some of my other partitions - fortunately I'd taken the opportunity to repartition my drives to separate most of my data some time ago. This was done whilst installing Linux in a dual-boot configuration. I then dug out my original windows CD (still in it's original shrink wrap, as it was preinstalled on the computer), and performed a repair.

The repair took the best part of an hour during which it requested my Nvidia driver disk (no problem I'd been povided that with my PC), but then it asked for an SP1 CD. Now I didn't actually have a SP1 CD as I'd download the service pack from the Internet. The file was probably on my hard disk somewhere, but using the browse button it would have been very hard to find, so I cancelled the CD request to leave installing the service pack until later.

Now the real problems with product activation occurred. Firstly windows hung when trying to run in normal mode. But refused to boot into safe mode because it hadn't been activated. Which is a bit worrying, what is the point in having a safe mode to allow you to fix problems if you can't handle product activation within safe mode. Fortunately I rebooted again and this time it started in normal mode, though the boot up time was really long.

The next problem is that I couldn't use Internet based product activation. Windows wouldn't allow me to login before it was activated, but I couldn't configure my Internet access until after I'd logged on. So I therefore had to use phone activation. First I tried the automated activation, where I had to enter 45 digits through the phone to get an activation code. This didn't work, but it didn't say why not. So after hanging up I tried again thinking that I may have misentered the code, but it still didn't work, so after being put on a hold queue I got to speak to a person. The gentleman I spoke to sounded Indian (presumably the call centre is located in India or another offshore location), and just seamed to be wanting to get me off the phone whether I'd succeeded in activating windows or not. Firstly he asked for the first few digits of the code which I guess indicated it was an OEM install and hadn't been activated using the individual ID number. I then had to click on a button for a new code, which required me to enter the code supplied by the computer supplier (Simply). This was in the form of a sticker which was placed at the back of the computer and was very difficult to read. It took several attempts misreading 8 as a B, a G as a 6, and a V as a Y. After my first attempt the operator was obviously trying to get me off the phone as he just kept asking me to take down some alternative phone numbers. It's only that I kept insisting that it was most likely due to me misreading the code (upside down, leaning over the PC in poor light), and that I refused to take the phone numbers off him. I eventually entered the code correctly and then had to shout at the operator to get him to actually listen to the fact that it had now accepted my code and I was now in a position to try activation again, the operator was still asking me to get a pen and paper to take down the alternative phone numbers. Eventually I gave him the next 45 digits and he told me a similar number and at last the product was activated. What a performance to have to go through to the the software I had purchased activated!

Of course then Norton Firewall and anti-virus also needed activating which left me vulnerable for a short time while configuring my network before I could perform the activation.

So then I reinstalled my wireless network, I was going to use windows update to reinstall the patches / service packs but my Internet Explorer icons had disappeared. I ran iexplore.exe from the run prompt and find the windows update page. However when I tried to use the update I just got the message that windows update needed to update itself (I'm sure there's some irony in there somewhere), which failed. So unable to use windows update I tried to download SP2 manually. Searching for SP2 the only entry I found was for Windows XP Service Pack 2 for IT Professionals and Developers. I recognised this as being the same as would be provided by Windows Update, though not everyone would.

After installing SP2 and rebooting I then got a message to say that some system files had been replaced and that I needed to insert the original CD to restore them. I'm assuming it was SP2 that replaced these files, after all that's it's purpose, but I followed the instructions. After a few minutes the operating system crashed again, but this time I actually got a Blue Screen of Death whilst it dumped the contents of memory to disk (remember that normally on XP you don't ever see this). It certainly didn't fill me with much confidence and quite rightly so as after it had finished dumping the memory it tried to reboot and failed. It appears that the dump (or something to do with the crash) had corrupted the C drive and that it couldn't even be read as far as the boot screen. My Linux setup still worked and I was able to login to Linux and read the C drive, however there was certainly something wrong as in Windows the program files directory and various others were replaced by error messages.

This time I decided to do a reinstall rather than attempt a repair.

Firstly after booting with the install CD the installer attempted a repair of drive C and then forced a reboot. This time rebooting on the hard drive didn't even get as far as the boot loader erroring with a NTLDR error. Now when trying to install it ignored drive C saying that it had to be installed on drive D. So once again I sat through and install of the operating system along with the banner "Your computer will be faster and more reliable".

There was an error message again during the install that f:\System Volume Information was corrupt, but that was a data drive that had obviously also become corrupted by the crash. After booting up I then got the message that the "Microsoft Out of the Box Experience" had crashed. I created another user to act as system administrator, and then tried to logout and login again only for the operating system to crash once again. Finally after another reboot I was able to login and install my wireless adapter after which I get "Windows Explorer has encountered a problem", and the Wireless adapter didn't work. I then remembered the Nvidia drivers and installed them, followed by a whole load of "found new hardware" messages after the next boot. I have since had a yet another crash of Windows Explorer, but it looks as though it may be usable this time.

I haven't started reinstalling the applications yet, but so far it's been a very painful experience. Most users will get a PC with windows preinstalled and it will run for a while, but when things start to go wrong as you can see it's far from simple to put them right. I've been using windows since version 3.0 and have a good idea of how to fix problems, so if I suffer this many problems what chance does your average user have?

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