on Feb 19, 2012
The setup for this story: A few months ago, I got a virus. Not bad, nothing dangerous. When it was over I was pretty sure I had it all, but “pretty sure” wasn’t good enough. I needed to be able to trust this machine again, so I re-installed Windows. I put the new install on the D: drive and left the C: drive alone. This was also an experiment: How much stuff from C: will I miss or need in the long run? (The answer: Almost nothing. The only thing I ever bothered to recover from C: was my Minecraft saves. All of my programming, writing, and video projects are either saved on other drives or online.) And so our story begins…
It’s Thursday night. I’m looking at my C: drive and thinking that it’s probably about time to format that sucker and reclaim the wasted space. I mean, it’s been moths and I’ve never needed any of it. I boot of the D: drive now, so it should be safe to just nuke C: and use it for… I dunno. I don’t even have a plan for it. I’ve got a pretty good system where I keep the operating system on one drive, my work on another, and games on a third drive. I don’t have a plan for C:, but I might as well clean up that old mess, right?
I right-click on C: and hit “format”…
C: is a tiny little thing – only 250Gb or so. Despite this, the progress bar takes forty minutes. When it’s done, Windows gives me this stupid, non-informative dialog to the effect of “The specified operation cannot be performed” or somesuch. I look, and C: is untouched. Not a single file deleted. So what was the computer doing for the last two-thirds of an hour?
So, I decide to do a manual format. I just start throwing stuff into the recycle bin. Sooner or later I’m probably going to get an error telling me that I can’t delete such-and-such a file. I know how Windows is. Still, if I can rip away everything until I’m just left with a few forbidden files, I can reboot into DOS and kill those with the terminal. In fact, my wife Heather could burn me an Ubuntu Live CD here, and I could kill the files from a nice GUI environment.
I’m actually surprised at how much Windows will let me kill. I blow away all of the hidden and system files in the root directory without so much as a raised eyebrow from the operating system. It finally chokes on some file with an unprintable name. That’s either a leftover from the virus, or (more likely) just a corrupted file. I reboot to finish the job.
I forget to boot into Ubuntu, but it doesn’t matter. The Windows boot fails. Now, keep in mind that my operating system is on D:, and not the recently cleansed C:, but it’s stopped working anyway. It says it can’t find NTLDR, which means that…
I am an idiot.
Okay, I could fault Microsoft for some stupidity here. Windows has this obnoxious habit of locking and protecting all kinds of files it doesn’t want or need, even though it let me kill NTLDR without so much as a warning. But it doesn’t matter, because I should have known better. In fact, I did know better. Or at least, I used to.
I totally forgot that even when a computer boots from D:, it boots from C:, at least a little bit. NTLDR (“NT Loader”, a leftover from the days of Windows NT I’m sure) is a small little file that gets loaded at startup and sends the computer over to D: to look for the operating system. At some point in the past I understood this, but I forgot all about it until just now when I blew it away. Idiot!
Sigh. How could I forget such a thing?
Okay. No big deal. I just need to re-install Windows. I’ve got the Windows XP disk right here. In fact, I have a lot of them from long-retired computers. I can take my pick. (And please, do not hassle me because XP is “so old”. SOMEDAY I’ll get a new computer, and it will come with Windows 7, and that will be when I make the switch. That’s the most cost-effective method of doing things. I am not the sort of person to drop $100 just because there’s a new operating system with shinier toolbars out there. I am having a hard time imagining ANYTHING that windows 7 could offer that would be worth $100 to me.)
I get out the binder where we keep the XP disks and I grab one off the top. Looks like XP Home. Whatever. I’ve used both XP Professional and XP Home and I can’t remember any significant differences.
This installer sits there for two minutes, then fails with some sort of moronic non-informative “Can’t continue installation” error. Fine. I’ve got plenty of arrows left in my quiver here. I have another XP Home disk in the pile, and it might be a newer service pack. I try it.
The installer sits there for two minutes and then reboots. No explanation. I actually mistake this for progress. I see the machine reboot and I assume it’s just moving on to the next phase of installation, like Windows operating systems tend to do. I make a couple of trips through this meaningless reboot before I’m sure this is a waste of time.
Ok, I’ve got an XP Professional disc here. Let’s try that:
Once again, the installer runs for two minutes. (What is it with these two minute waits? I can boot Ubuntu into a GUI environment in less time. From a DVD. WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN A QUASI-DOS WINDOW FOR TWO MINUTES?!?!) Then it blue screens with an error saying I need to update my drivers. Dude, I’m installing XP from a DVD to a blank hard drive. Where would you suggest I put new drivers? And while we’re at it: DRIVERS FOR WHAT?!??! How can I get new drivers for anything when you don’t even tell me what KIND of device you’re talking about? Just… what?
Maybe there’s something left on the C: drive that’s making these installers puke? I don’t see how. In fact, I think they die before They get to the step of looking around the computer, but just for the sake of completeness I should wipe the C: clean with a proper format. Heather burns me an Ubuntu 11.0 CD. It boots up just fine, except the mouse cursor is invisible. I actually think it’s locked up at first, but after waving the mouse around I can see I’m highlighting stuff on the screen. I fumble around using the keyboard and manage to find the format & partitioning tools. However, it’s not letting me relate the hard drives to the labels. It’s calling each hard drive something like “/sda1”, “/sda2” and so on. I’m PRETTY sure that C: should simply be the first one listed, but I’m not in a gambling mood.
(I don’t know it yet, but I just dodged a bullet. Ubuntu wasn’t listing my first HD, which would have been “/sda0”. So I would have been nuking one of the good drives.)
Heather then burns me an Ubuntu 10.4 CD. I reboot with that and it seems to behave itself. I have a mouse cursor and it lists the hard drives properly. I kill the C: drive with a good formatting. Then I pull out my last XP Professional disc. This one looks like Service Pack 3. This had better work…
This installation gets further than the other ones. I move through the first few steps by pushing keys (this is still a quasi-DOS window, no mouse cursor) and I can see it loading a crapload of stuff. Stuff like “Human interface layer”. Finally I get to a prompt telling me to hit ENTER to begin the install, for real. I do, butit seems to have locked up. I press keys, and nothing happens. I try a few more times, but I don’t get anywhere.
Heather jumps online and does a search. She discovers that the computer is not actually locked up. It’s just given up using my USB keyboard.
There are no words to describe how stupid this is. The installer spends two minutes loading “Human Interface Layer”, “USB interface controllers”, and “Keyboard something-or-other”. The keyboard works just fine for the first few steps, and then the installer refuses any more contact with the USB keyboard.
By some miracle, we still have a PS/2 keyboard lying around. I plug it in, press ENTER, and unplug it again.
Once Windows XP is up and running I discover the usual: It needs drivers. The graphics, network, and sound systems are all missing. Heather downloads the drivers, burns them to a CD, and I install them.
Okay then. This was a miserable experience. That was three hours I could have spent some other way. However, I do enjoy having a nice, clean operating system. XP gets a little slow to start after 5 months or so. I’ve never figured out why.
You know, maybe I’m tempting fate here, but I want to install Ubuntu. I want to set up a dual-boot and try it out, just because.
The install takes less than 15 minutes. Maybe less than five. I dunno. I kick it off, go to get some tea, and when I come back it’s all booted up and ready to go. The network and sound systems work without me needing to look for any drivers at all. It’s kind of magical.
I can’t migrate entirely to Ubuntu. Too much of my work is Windows-based, and gaming in Linux is about as popular as bobsledding in Egypt. But Ubuntu is shockingly fast and responsive. (You know how Windows need to “think” for about five seconds before it will delete even the most trivial file? You know how it takes Windows a minute to boot, and then ANOTHER minute to stop thrashing around so you can use the machine? Ubuntu does not have these issues.)
Still this has been a very educational and idiotic evening.
UPDATE: Amazing. Even though I VERY EXPLICITLY said not to give me a hard time about using win XP, and about a dozen people have done so anyway. I’m going to make this as clear as I can: If you want me to run Windows 7 so bad, the donate button is on the right. Otherwise, you have nothing to say to me on the matter.
UPDATE II: Okay. Cancel that. Someone did, so now I’m getting Windows 7. Man, I should have screwed up my operating system ages ago! Thank you to the generous benefactor. If we’re very lucky, we won’t have another post like this in a few days.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.