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If a Win10 Upgrade Fails, Then What?

The question that entitles today’s blog post turns out to be more than fuel for idle speculation. I recently spent 9-plus hours trying to upgrade my Lenovo X220 Tablet from Windows 8.1 to Windows 10. Just for the record, this notebook PC was purchased in February 2012, and is outfitted with an i7-2640M 2.8 GHz Sandy Bridge CPU, 16 GB RAM, and a 246 GB Plextor mSATA SSD and 128 GB OCZ Agility SSD. It came with Windows 7, which I immediately upgraded to the Windows 8 Technical Preview, this machine being one of the few available and affordable touchscreen tablet units on the market at the time with more than two simultaneous touchpoints. I bought it with 4 GB of RAM (2×2 GB SoDIMMs) which I later upgraded to 16 GB RAM (2×8 instead). I also plugged the mSATA drive into the PCI-e port inside the unit, which can accommodate either an SDD or a wireless WAN device. In the three-plus years I’ve owned it, it’s been a reliable workhorse though the display (12.5″ diagonal, 1366×768 resolution) is a bit smaller than I like it.

I signed the X220T up for the Windows 10 upgrade as soon as it became available. Earlier this week, upon my return from a family vacation, I started the process of upgrading my PCs from Windows 8.1 to 10. So far, this is the fourth machine I’ve taken through the installation process. Unfortunately for me, I encountered a particularly nasty install problem while trying to upgrade this machine from 8.1 to 10, using either the automated upgrade via Windows Update, or the Windows 10 bootable UFD that the Windows 10 Download Tool will build for you. Here’s a brief description of what happens, followed by my thinking on what’s causing the upgrade install to fail:

1. Either running setup.exe while booted into Windows 8.1, or booting up from the Windows 10 UFD, the upgrade goes all the way into the install process to the point where the PC gets into the Pre-installation environment (no longer running Windows 8.1, but before 10 is completely in control). For a nicely illustrated overview of this process, and related on-screen visuals, see the How-to-Geek’s “How to Install Windows 10 on Your PC.”
2. When the round progress indicator labeled “Installing Windows 10” gets to 25%, a second reboot occurs (the first one is to hand control over from the previously-running OS to the pre-installation, or PE, environment. On the X220T, instead of rebooting into the WinPE environment, I get an error message that tells me the boot/system drive is inaccessible, with error code 0xC000000F. Further research on that error code and some spelunking using the command shell in the Advanced Troubleshooting portion of the Repair side of the Windows 10 installer shows me that the primary boot/system partition has changed from “NTFS” to “RAW” (never a good sign), while the research shows that the 300 MB recovery partition originally created by Windows 8 is thoroughly munged.
3. I spent hours trying to fix the ondisk layout so that the upgrade install could proceed without success. No amount of diskpart activity, BCD reconstruction, and so forth produced a workable WinPE environment so that the upgrade could proceed. I even went so far as to spend 2.5 hours working with a Microsoft Support technician who remotely logged into that system and blew it up for me long-distance with exactly the same results as I had experienced on my own recognizance in two prior tries.

The default disk layout for Windows 10 now allocates 450 MB to the recovery partition, which leaves more room for image backup action.

In short, I’m confronted with some kind of ugly, time-consuming problem — most likely, a driver-level issue with the OCZ Agility 3 boot/system drive that was the focus of the upgrade install — that has so far made it impossible for me to take advantage of the free upgrade for that machine. Because my MSDN subscription gives me access to up to 5 Windows 10 Pro keys for testing and research purposes, I burned one of those keys to perform a clean install on this machine, which took all of 20 minutes to complete, though it put me in the position of having to reinstall all of my applications and so forth. This also gave the opportunity to switch the boot/sys drive over from the OCZ 128 GB SSD to the Plextor 256 GB SSD, where I noticed that the size of the recovery partition has gone up from 300 to 450 MB (a good thing, because Win 8.1 was unable to use its own built-in image backup utility that resides in the File History applet, because of a shortage of space in that partition through which to move files from the boot/system drive to the backup drive: the bigger partition in Windows 10 works just fine). Also, I went into the install from 8.1 where a decidedly cluttered-up DriverStore encompassed over 100 device drivers, to a post-install Windows 10 environment with only 13 drivers present. That’s the most amazing post-install change I’ve ever seen in all my years of running and installing Windows 10, and makes me believe that the latest desktop from Microsoft has been thoughtfully engineered to manage devices and drivers far more efficiently than earlier desktop OS versions (this also augurs well for Windows Server 2016, which likely shares this same approach to drivers and devices).

After a clean install of Windows 10, my X220T shows only 17 drivers present in the DriverStore, down from over 100 in Windows 8.1!

Eventually, I got through to a manager in the Microsoft Support organization last night, when we spoke at about 9 PM my time. After I explained my situation to him, he explained that while MS is offering a free upgrade from valid-key installations of Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, that offer does not extend as far as providing a key for Windows 10 to those who are unable to get the upgrade installer to work all the way to completion. I understand Microsoft’s stance, and believe they don’t want to tie up their support techs verifying hosed installs to hand out keys to would-be Windows 10 users whose upgrade attempts result in failure, rather than success. It just goes to show you that there’s more than one way to read the phrase “free upgrade,” and in this case MS apparently means that “if you can get your PC through the upgrade install process, then your upgrade is free.” Alas, that’s probably not the same reading that Windows users are likely to want, where they’d like it to mean something more like “If you’re running Windows 7 or 8 on your PC, you can run Windows 10 on that PC for free.” MS emphasizes the means, while users are more likely to focus on the desired outcome.

In fact, my support contact emphasized that the “free upgrade” applies ONLY to the results of getting a PC through the upgrade install process with a successful outcome. Any clean installs, he averred, must come from a valid Windows 10 license and key obtained through any of the legitimate means available to buyers — retail license purchase, volume licensing agreements, and so forth — where a new license is obtained at some cost to its user (or the organization that employs her or him). I didn’t discuss OEM licenses with this person, but the cheapest deal available right now for Windows 10 Pro is a $140 OEM license that’s intended for use on a home-brew or custom-built computer. I’m going to test his further assertion that an upgrade key cannot be used for a clean install over the weekend on my son’s Dell XPS27 PC by extracting its key data, creating an image backup of that PC, and then using the Windows 10 UFD to run a clean install with that key. We’ll see if it works or not: stay tuned for those results.