Fixing a Windows 7 Laptop

A friend of the family had a laptop that would crash during the boot process.  It appears that a file loaded and run during booting must be corrupted.

The laptop came with Windows pre-installed.  He did not have a physical disc or a readable recovery disc.  The built-in Repair feature announces without elaboration that it can’t help.

This uses a SSD, which may have been “fixed” simply by scanning it, as bad sectors are mapped out automatically.  My own recovery discs refused to perform the repair.

So, with his permission, I re-install Windows after deleting the entire partition and resetting the partition table.  I have all the files copied off in case there is anything needed.

This ought to be simple, but being Windows, there is a synthetic problem: licensing.

First, I need his “Number”.  It’s not on a sticker on the bottom of the machine.  It’s from Dell, so I don’t know why it wasn’t noted there.  I peruse the old disk data to find the information, and most of what I find on obtaining this obfuscated information is reposted from the same original article that refers to a range of bytes in a registry key, but in my case those bytes are all zeros!

What I finally found that did work is this page.  I suppose the details have changed with SP1, or is different for a volume-installed original like Dell used.  In any case, I got a number that looks like the right kind of thing.

Second, I no longer keep a “Universal” MSDN subscription, and my own Windows is the Ultimate edition.  His was Professional.  All versions are on the DVD, if only you can select it!  Deleting one little text file turns it back into a Universal installer, prompting me which version to install.  But it’s on a DVD, and a boot DVD at that.  (Making a boot flash drive would be the same issue, with additional chance of incompatibility, plus I wanted to give him a copy to keep anyway.)

I found an excellent tutorial on re-burning the Windows install DVD so that it still boots and works correctly.  It used free software for Windows, which was OK.  I did the saving and poking around on the bad disk under Linux in case it was caused by viruses, but I switched to Windows for burning the DVD.  I was able to make a DVD with his personal info on the label, to keep for future use.

Now, the installer did not work!

After copying files and rebooting the first time, it complains that it can’t configure “this hardware”.  I look up the error text in Google and find some documentation about Intel drivers, or newer Advanced Format disks.  It’s addressed in SP1, but this installer is plain. Slipstreaming service packs onto a new install disc is something I have not done in a while…

Following up on some things, I discover the BIOS is set for “RAID mode”.  I was looking for a compatibility mode setting for Advanced Format drives or somesuch, and saw that it was simply set to a useless setting.  The laptop only has one disk, so what’s the purpose of RAID mode, in a pre-built product?  I suppose it may have features beyond the baseline ASPI mode other than doing RAID things?  Anyway, this might explain why the Repair feature would not work either.  It probably is like the (pre-SP1) installer, and doesn’t know about the drive with the controller set in this mode.

Eventually, it installs and proceeds.  However, it doesn’t like the product ID code I gave it.  I’m hoping it’s just not expecting that Dell manufactured version to be installed in the normal way (or not with the regular product disc), but with the number in hand he can “activate” Windows after explaining that he had to replace the hard drive.  If other credentials are needed, I have the old registry hives.  It continued just fine without an ID, and I expect it will work for some period of time like 30 days.

Next, the Dell laptop drivers!  What a pain.  Without even a network driver, I try to get stuff from another computer via their web site.  The first thing I downloaded was a big CAB file that (1) didn’t seem to extract sensibly, having multiple files of the same name and (2) no instructions.  I found the right network card driver as a EXE installer and copied it over on a flash drive.

So the rest should be automatic right?  Wrong.  Windows Update doesn’t know about the Dell drivers.  The Dell site complains that the web browser is both IE and old, and suggests Firefox, Chrome, or a newer version of IE.  Well, I want drivers first, so that’s too bad.  It does have a hardware detect, but the automatic download and install everything is broken.  For something like downloading essential drivers, they ought to have an austere web page that works without the latest browser technology to display pretty pop-up menus or try to sell additional products or entertain you with videos while you are busy being annoyed.

Now another big complaint:  they are pushing an “app” that keeps drivers up to date, but only after downloading and installing do you find out it’s a commercial program that costs money to make work.  To do what Windows Update is supposed to be doing.

The list of possibly useful files on Dell’s page, once given the model number, is awkward and brittle but does allow downloading things one by one.  I got the video driver installed before returning the laptop.


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