Sometimes at Ars Technica, a staffer has to call in “sick” for reasons other than illness, emergency, or hangover. Those are all poor working states, but I would argue that one is even worse: a computer meltdown.
Everyone on staff has suffered at least one of these (or its awful cousin, the ISP outage) and been left distracted or set back to some extent. But when the crash in question happens to the thing you’re supposed to test? That’s a problem.
And when it happens because you used official Microsoft downloads? Oh, that’s an Ars article.
1809: The sign of the Windows Update beast
TL;DR: Everything on my end is fine, after some headaches. There’s not enough here to declare that Microsoft has failed its every customer. But, seeing as this is a holiday weekend, I thought I’d use the slow-news opportunity to tell a slightly overlong tale of Windows woe. Methinks you’ll empathize.
The trouble began when I returned from a mid-November trip and offered a sing-song “honey I’m hooo-oome” to my sweet, sweet baby: the Ars PC-gaming testing machine.
Some context: I’ve been a happy owner of a Falcon NW “Tiki” build for years, which I upgraded earlier this year because I’d anticipated the launch of new, consumer-grade GPUs. I wanted any new GPUs to be met by a beefier power supply, faster RAM, and a liquid-cooled i7 processor. This system upgrade certainly helped me review Nvidia’s new RTX line of GPUs in September (with some exceptions, which I’ll get to later).
Part of the upgrade process was a system wipe and fresh Windows 10 install, which I was happy to do—always a good excuse to back up files and clear some Windows garbage. That was in April, and while I’ve faced some UWP app-license headaches since, the system has otherwise been fine.
Thus, I was excited upon my return to see a major update queued for download: Battlefield V and its fancy-pants, RTX-minded “ray-tracing” update. (BFV has had a weirdly staggered launch, with some customers playing a full two weeks ahead of standard-edition owners, but we got in as early as possible with hopes of testing this RTX update and informing our audience of PC gamers.)
I got all of my PC-patching ducks in a row. New Nvidia drivers? Check. BFV and Origin client updates? Check. Windows Update, “check for updates?” Check. I was ready to trace some rays—and thus see what Nvidia’s newfangled, super-sexy reflection pipeline would offer in an actual game, as opposed to pre-cooked demos.
Yet BFV‘s menus still had no mention of ray tracing, and jumping into a game showed no difference. Huh?
I was ready to poke the ray-tracing bear.
A quick peek at EA’s announcements confirmed what was still missing: a jump to the latest Windows 10 build number. I was running 1803, but EA locked this update to Windows 10 build 1809. Hmm. That’s a requirement I hadn’t seen before.
I quintuple-clicked Windows Update’s “check again” button in the hope of forcing an upgrade, but I was out of luck. Windows’ default, staggered approach to official updates had left me out of the approved pool. Oftentimes, that’s a good thing. I am glad to not have been part of the recent “official” wave that wiped users’ My Documents folders, for example.
But this device is a testing rig, which means it’s mostly free of valuable files. In the case of a full data wipe, I’d be more upset about having to re-download zillions of games’ gigs (especially with a #%*$ ing Comcast monthly data cap) than losing crucial data. Thus, I was ready to poke the ray-tracing bear.
“Undoing changes,” “undoing changes,” “undoing changes… ”
My first force-an-upgrade step came from the Windows Update Assistant, an officially advertised Microsoft download that confirms your system’s specs and build version, then answers whether or not your PC is ready for the next Windows 10 build before beginning the download-and-install process. My PC quickly received the all-clear from this app. After a 10-minute data-download phase, the installer offered an expected “first of many restarts” notice.
Before going any further, I should note that I ran into one bit of Windows weirdness ahead of the upgrade process. In clearing out a few more gigs on my install drive, a paltry 256GB SSD, I tried to clear out prior Windows installs by digging through temp files via Windows 10’s settings panels. There, I saw an option to recover 6GB of data that was devoted to “previous Windows install files.” But doing this did two things: first, it left a “cleaning files… ” message on my screen for over half an hour, and second, when the file cleaning was completed, the option to delete that data disappeared—but I had only recovered 1GB of data.
What happened to the other ~5GB? I couldn’t tell. I no longer had a Windows.old folder lingering in my C: drive. And a dig through usual-suspect dumping grounds of “hidden” files turned nothing up.
“Undoing changes made to your computer,” insta-reboot. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Back to the Windows Update Assistant. When I told this upgrade tool to proceed, its first timing indicator got up to 80 percent before rebooting my system. Then, the restarted, low-resolution screens showed a meter that reached 17 percent before a sudden reboot. Another screen briefly flashed: “Undoing changes made to your computer.” Reboot, and back to the prior Windows build, working as if I’d done nothing. I tried again, only to see the exact same percentage markers. Eighty percent, 17 percent, “undoing changes made to your computer.”
The next step was to reach out to Microsoft customer service directly through Windows’ help interface. My first chat with a customer service agent began with a stern reminder—and one I’d be remiss not to share with you—that I should wait until my Windows 10 system received an 1809 download through Windows Update. If I wasn’t getting it yet, I should cool my heels. But my heels were hot, I insisted, and I was ready to use official Microsoft downloads to get to 1809 and its ray-tracing goodness.
After I politely asked if I had any official-download options, my first agent directed me to the Media Creation Tool (which had been advertised on the same site where I’d grabbed the Windows Update Assistant). This came in two flavors: an executable to launch on the existing Windows install, or a boot-disk creation process (which either farts out an ISO or a Microsoft-tailored flash drive). I was told to go ahead with either option, so I installed the MCT executable on the affected machine and rebooted.
This time, the install process got me to a reboot, but instead of a 17-percent crawl, it flashed the “undoing changes made to your computer” message for a split-second, then rebooted. After my BIOS loaded, the same thing: “Undoing changes made to your computer,” insta-reboot. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Too mad at Microsoft to use Bing
After some furious Googling, I found a few troubleshooting recommendations for “endless Windows 10 reboot” woes, which all revolved around MCT’s flash drive option. However, every possible step I could take using that utility—including repairs, system restores, and update uninstalls—failed with blank error messages. As in, I’d get a nicely phrased “unfortunately, this didn’t work” message, followed by a “Log:” note that had zero text afterward. The log was a lack of a log.
With this information in hand, I turned to Microsoft customer service once more. Nobody had a clue where to go with my specific error state. The MCT made accessing a command prompt easy, but every command I entered turned up specific errors that indicated something wasn’t loading or being recognized correctly. The language barrier with some Microsoft reps didn’t help. Upon advising me to attempt a “custom install” via the MCT, one care agent informed me that “all of your apps on all of your drives” would be deleted by doing this. When I asked for clarification—are we talking about UWP apps, or every single x86 executable?—I received the same “all apps” guidance. (Of course, the answer was “no.” My non-Windows drives would be fine, especially since I would be better served by unplugging unaffected drives before going forward with any changes to my C: drive.)
For now, I’m choosing games that are easier to back up on PC.
As of press time, I have yet to get a response from Microsoft about what it has tracked regarding the error I faced in terms of other users running into the same situation as me: finding my Windows drive unable to recover from an endless reboot loop, in spite of exhausting all troubleshooting options. We’ll update this article with any response, but the Thanksgiving holiday will likely delay that.
My next step should have been to email my Windows wizard of a coworker Peter Bright. Instead, I got hung up on a question that Microsoft’s reps failed to answer in a clear manner: was my ancient, paid Windows 8 license—which was upgraded to Windows 10 during its limited free period—in peril if I opted for a full system wipe? The answer, which took me way too long to figure out, was no. The license was fine, attached to my Microsoft account and mindful of specific hardware on my system.