Hasta la vista, Windows 7

October 30, 2009

Vista busy cursor For the second time in a matter of weeks I found myself unable to boot into Vista on my home desktop due to a file permissions problem. The tell-tale signs are becoming familiar. Boot-up starts as normal with the screen that has the pulsating green progress bar.

When that disappears we get a black screen and after a few seconds the mouse cursor appears in the centre. The disk continues to thrash for a few more seconds then settles, but we remain stuck looking at the mouse cursor on a black field. The black screen of death.

I believe the problem is that Windows has reached the point where it wants to write to the disk but is unable to because the file it is trying to access has been made read-only or otherwise had its permissions stripped away. You’d think that a booting OS would always have access rights but apparently not.

I wasted hours with Spinrite, thinking it must be due to a damaged sector. The only way out of this, short of a reinstall of the OS, is to boot up in a different OS, maybe on a different disk or from a CD, and then manually change the permissions on the files in the drive that won’t boot.

Ironically, it is the use of different OS’s on different disks on the PC that seems to be implicated in giving rise to the problem in the first place. Particularly if one of the OS’s is Windows 7, or at least the Release Candidate.

I have had two disks on my desktop for years. The larger one (250GB) is the Vista drive that came with the PC. I later added a 40GB drive salvaged from an older computer and for a long time had XP on it. I found I could switch between the two without problem. The BIOS allows you to choose which disk to boot from.

More recently, I used the 40GB disk to try out Windows 7 64-bit – first the Beta then the RC. All went well until my first “black screen of death” crisis. That sorry tale is recounted here. I blamed myself because I had meddled with the permissions on the Vista disk, but that was only to add permissions which seemed to have been “taken away” somehow without my intervention, making files inaccessible over the local network. I am starting to wonder whether Windows 7 was responsible in some way for messing with permissions on the Vista drive.

To my mind, an OS should not be making automatic file permission changes on other drives on the system. I’m not sure why but I suspect Windows 7 does this. The first black screen crisis was resolved when I booted in Windows 7 and could see that the Vista disk had been stripped of permissions. I added them back manually from within Windows 7 and was then able to boot back into Vista.

A second black screen crisis happened a couple of days ago. I had (as on the previous occasion) booted in Windows 7 to play around with a few 64-bit apps. I tried to uninstall an older 64-bit app but Windows 7 refused, claiming it could not locate the original MSI file. I then tried to return to Vista only to find I was back to my black screen of death. Worse, I could not get back into Windows 7 either. That would start to boot then spontaneously restart, causing a never ending loop.

I was forced to do a clean install of XP on the 40GB drive. I had no important data on that drive so it wasn’t an issue.  I could then see all the files on the Vista drive, so as a precaution copied around 200GB of data to my 1TB external drive. I did notice all the files came across with the read-only flag set, which seemed odd. As Vista continued to prove unbootable, even in safe mode, despite hours of Spinrite and other attempted solutions, I decided I would use XP as my main working system for the time being so I started installing apps and device drivers. I also wanted my data available on the network so turned on file sharing. I noticed that when I shared the Vista drive it took a very long time and gave me a message about writing permissions. That got me wondering. I tried booting in Vista and of course it came right up as if nothing had happened.

As I was coming to realise, it was a variant on the permissions problem which had stopped Vista from booting, and the act of sharing the drive had restored the required permissions.  It is though very worrying to think that Windows can so easily get itself locked into an unbootable state like this, with no easy way for the user to diagnose and no solution that does not involve fixing the unbootable disk via a second OS on another drive.

I am hugely relieved to be up and running again, but extremely suspicious of Windows 7 and whether it has tendencies to make unwelcome interventions in other drives on the system, potentially jamming up other OS’s which may be installed on them. Well, for now at least Windows 7 has gone. Hasta la vista.

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  1. I the same had problems, but all dares simply.

  2. I should mention that while installing XP I ran into the same maddening problem I first mentioned here. The bare XP install does not contain the LAN drivers the motherboard needs so I had no networking or Internet access. And of course I couldn’t fix this by downloading the drivers from the Internet. Worse, I still couldn’t boot up via the Vista disk to get to the Internet. Catch 22. I should really have saved the motherboard chipset drivers on the system or on a CD just in case, but of course I hadn’t and was caught out by both drives becoming unbootable at the same time.

    So I managed to find a USB key and downloaded the drivers onto one of my work laptops. But the latter have security software on them (Sanctuary Device Control) to prevent data being written to USB devices. Luckily my son was around and I was able to get the files I needed onto the USB key using his Mac.

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