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Microsoft Windows™: 30 years, and not one bit wiser

By Jewe | January 14, 2015

I have had somewhat of an odyssey with my Windows 7 system recently, and now I need to vent.

I never was an enthusiast when it came to upgrading to new OS versions. I like to stick to things that I know, and keep my desktop as I have configured it. Having used Windows XP for a long time, I felt it was time to finally upgrade when Windows 7 came out. I never regretted that decision. My system has run stable from day one, even though I had to go through several changes in computer hardware.

So you could say, I was pretty happy with my OS, until recently anyway. That all changed a few days ago, when I discovered one big flaw in the system’s design, or more precisely in its way to handle boot problems.

Microsoft has undoubtedly invested a lot of effort and thought into providing better repair options for broken Windows installations. To be fair, I think for ordinary people who aren’t tech-geeks, the chances of repairing a broken installation have become better due to this.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, in their attempt to make this process easier, they have also introduced a HUGE FLAW that threatens to render your system unrecoverable — with the only option left being to wipe the disk and make a clean install.

The culprit: Windows file and registry virtualization

Recently I installed a new application. It doesn’t really matter which one, as it has nothing to do with the problem, it was just the catalyst.

Anyway, the application allows some extra options to be set if you manipulate it’s registry keys (it’s an old 32-bit app). So I launched up Regedit and looked for the application. But it’s keys were nowhere to be found. I had to search the entire registry until I finally found them: Windows 7’s new file and registry virtualization had moved them to some obscure place in the registry.

This virtualization, that doesn’t even notify users when it relocates files and registry keys, is one area, where I think Microsoft’s developers got too far ahead of themselves. Needless to say, this mechanism will cause applications to fail if they want to read or write other application’s registry keys. So any GUI application that acts as a front-end to set parameters for a service or command-line program will fail, if said program or service has been silently virtualized by Windows 7.

But actually that’s not the issue here. It was just the reason my whole system went downhill. Not knowing about this feature, I did some research on the Internet, and finally found out how users can deactivate it. I strongly recommend NOT doing this, unless you have just set up a new, clean system!

Turns out, if you disable virtualization, Windows 7 is not smart enough to move all virtualized registry keys and files to the location where they belong and are expected. No, programs that had been virtualized will now simply fail. Thanks for this option Microsoft!

This all wouldn’t have been that bad, if my NVIDIA graphics driver software (which is, by the way, WHQL-certified) hadn’t been virtualized by Windows 7 for whatever reason.

Shortly afterwards, I started an application and got an instant black screen reboot.

Endless reboot limbo

During all this, I remained relatively calm. I mean, I have been using Windows in one or the other incarnation for as long as it exists, so I’m not easily shaken. Being prompted with the boot menu, I figured I’d try rebooting Windows normally first, see if I can fix the problem without “Safe Mode”.

But alas, that wasn’t possible. As soon as Windows tried to initialize my graphics card, black screen reboot.

At this point I should have known that the reason for the reboots were my recent changes to the ‘virtualization’ setting. I should have started Windows in Safe Mode and switched that back on and everything would have been OK again. But unfortunately, that didn’t occur to me until much later.

After several unsuccessful boot attempts I finally gave up and wanted to enter Safe Mode — only to get the surprise of my life: No Safe Mode option.

Oh, so now you want Safe Mode?

As I said earlier, Microsoft has added a lot of repair options to Windows to make this process easier for ordinary people. But that’s not all they did. They also remove options now to force ordinary people to pick the option they deem most useful.

If your system is unable to start repeatedly, Windows 7 will eventually no longer offer the choices “Safe Mode”, “Safe Mode with Network” and “Last known good configuration”. Instead, all you get is “Startup repair (recommended)” and “Boot Windows normally”.

This is a fundamental and fatal design flaw that effectively renders your system unrecoverable after a few unsuccessful boot attempts.

Needless to say “Startup repair (recommended)” is completely useless. Behind the smart sounding name hides just a simple tool chain that checks your boot sector, the key files Windows needs to boot, and then runs “chkdsk” on your system disk. There is no way in hell this program detects any driver problems or allows you to turn on a previously turned off system setting that has rendered your system inoperable.

Even when you boot up the Windows RE (Repair Environment) from the Windows 7-DVD, you will be presented with the same useless options: “Startup Repair (recommended)”, “System Restore”, “System Image Recovery”, “Memory Diagnostic” and “Command Prompt”.

I’m somewhat at a loss trying to explain why Microsoft’s developers thought that, “it’s probably best not to offer Safe Mode anymore, after so many failed boots”. And why it still makes sense to offer “Boot Windows normally”.

My guess is that they wanted to force users to pick the “Startup repair (recommended)” option, to make sure the system is generally fit to boot. However, even when you go through with that option, you will not get the options for “Safe Mode” and “Last known good configuration” back. From the point these were removed onwards, they will be gone indefinitely, and you will be forced to wipe your system.

Still room for improvement

Well, it’s been only 30 years of Windows development so far, so I guess one cannot expect Windows developers to learn from past experiences. Making system repair more user friendly was a good thing to try. Even if it yields opposite results.

If you ever run into boot problems with Windows 7, be sure to boot into “Safe Mode” as soon as you can. Don’t experiment, don’t fool around. Because the option may be gone if you reboot unsuccessfully too often.

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