Sunday, August 23, 2009

Seeking reader assistance -- XP gurus

OK, I am finally at my wit's end (Louise might disagree with the "finally" part of that statement), and I need to make a plea for help. The following is arcane, technical, and probably of little interest to anyone who is not a computer jockey, so if that's not you, feel free to skip this post.

Let me start by saying that I am a fair XP jockey myself -- it's what I do for the Red Cross, and back in the dark ages, before Microsoft moved out of command-line operating systems, systems programming and timesharing monitor internals were my lingua franca. I also have a degree in Computer Engineering, which means I ought to be able to figure this stuff out on my own, but there comes a time when one is so far out of the loop that it just pays to ask someone more current for help.

The problem started a few days ago, when I went to "wake up" the laptop after it had been idle for a while. I have my power settings such that the screen goes dark after a while, and my screensaver set to prompt for a password. So when I moved the mouse, the screen backlight came on, but the screen remained black, with no background and no password box. This is on a Gateway MX6930 laptop with XP MCE at SP3.

I power cycled the machine, and since then it will not boot. On one attempt, I got a BSOD for a Session 3 Initialization Failure, however, mostly it gets past the splash screen, brings the background up, and displays a dialog box saying that Windows is starting up. It then just sits there.

Booting into Safe Mode, with or without command prompt, yields the same result. It gets as far as a black background, release level across the top, "Safe Mode" in the four corners, and a mouse cursor, which I can move around the screen. The shell never seems to come up, and the system does not respond to Ctrl-Alt-Del.

I know the hardware is fine, because I am using it right now. I upgraded the disk drive a few months ago, and I set aside the one I removed (still fully loaded with the OS and all my files from back then) as a backup. Putting it back into the machine, everything works fine, and all hardware diagnostics are normal.

Nor does there seem to be a problem with the subject hard drive itself -- it mounts fine using a USB adapter, and CHKDSK finds no problems with it. I can look at all the files, and Windows seems to be intact.

I have no Windows install disk -- only a destructive "recovery CD." However, using instructions found on the Internet (just like making a bomb) and the "bootable diskette image" available for download from Microsoft, I was able to construct a bootable CD to launch the Recovery Console. That, too, runs normally, and none of the tools thereon can find any problem.

Unfortunately, one thing the stand-alone Recovery Console can not do is run the System File Checker -- for that, Windows needs to be running. So I am stuck here. I either have a corrupt system file someplace, or a bad start-up setting either in the registry or in a configuration file. If I could just figure out exactly where that is, I can access the disk to repair it, either in Recovery Console, or by mounting the drive from a working system.

If this sounds familiar to you, and you have some suggestions for where I should be looking, I am all ears. If I had a clue, then I could start comparing what's on the disk to one of the three other working configurations we have here on board. Alternatively, if you know of a way to get SFC to check the files, either from the stand-alone Recovery Console or by mounting the drive on another working system, let me know.

My last resort (because it will be a huge amount of time and work) will be to try to create a complete XP installation CD from one of the running installations, in much the same way I created the Recovery Console CD, then slipstream SP2 and the required SATA drivers onto it, and launch it to do a "repair installation" of XP. That will then require me to reinstall SP3, but I am also nervous about what else might break once I have completed a repair install -- Microsoft says all applications and settings will remain intact, but I distrust them in this regard.

Post your suggestions here in the comments, or you can email me directly. Thanks for any and all assistance.

Photo by ebbandflo_pomomama


  1. try booting with "enable vga mode" vs safemode, this will overide the vga.sys settings

    other option is to edit boot.ini file and add the switch /sos instead of xp splash screen, you should see the drivers as they are loaded and may be able to detect the one causing issue

    multi(0)disk(0)rdisk(0)partition(1)\WINDOWS="Microsoft Windows XP Professional" /fastdetect /basevideo /sos

  2. Sean, my copy of Windows XP (in my case SP2, on a VMWare virtual machine running inside my MacBook Pro under Mac OS X) crashed hard in April of this year. Here's some links from my notes on how I fixed it:

    "How to recover from a corrupted registry that prevents Windows XP from starting"

    I also had to refer to this note:
    "How to gain access to the System Volume Information folder"

    Following the instructions involved falling back to a System Restore Point, then moving forward to the pre-crash state. In the process my Windows activation was invalidated twice, and I had to call the nice folks at MS to get new Confirmation IDs to activate Windows. It might have been smarter to hold off on Windows activation until I was through with the recovery.

    The following entries from my notes are to do with the VMWare virtual machine, so may well not apply. But for completeness:

    "How to boot from Windows CD in Corrupted Fusion Session"

    I had to edit my .vmx file (VM config) to set bios.bootDelay to 8000 (ms). Also had to add floppy image of VMware's SCSI drivers, and had to fully shut down the VM to do this (suspend wasn't enough).

    Good luck walking through the Valley of the Shadow of the Blue Screen of Death.

  3. simply starting the computer without the battery will default the bios

  4. Drive problems can exist that chkdsk will not reveal. I've had very similar sounding problems that were drive related. An app that has saved my bacon more than once is at SpinRite is the app. Create the bootable cd and run it in data recovery mode. In some cases it can take a long time to complete.

  5. Sounds Like a Boot sector issue on the drive itself...On a few rare installs of XP you can boot to the command prompt and use the "Fixboot" command...if that fails find the file "ntldr" on your recovery cd and copy it in replacement of the one currently on the drive. You SHOULD find the file nestled somewhere in the C:\I386 theory... There is also an additional file with a a .com ending however i can't rember it for the life of me!


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