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Resuscitating the Soul of an Old Machine on a Newer One

As fate would have it, I was on an important conference call with clients yesterday at around 2:30 PM my time when I rebooted my machine after installing the recently-issued MS Office 2013 Service Pack 1. I was a bit surprised when the boot-up process hung, but figured something had reset the BIOS to change the boot drive order. And indeed, I had to point the UEFI BIOS at the proper drive to force Windows to access the Windows Boot Manager on that device. But this didn’t solve my problem, which quickly degenerated into a full-blown hardware failure on the motherboard for that system. When I was able to instruct Windows to start booting, it would still fail (with the frowny-face error screen that so unhelpfully indicates that “Your PC ran into a problem” but doesn’t provide much insight) anyway. And when I tried booting from a bootable UFD with the Windows 8.1 installer to attempt a repair, the PC wouldn’t recognize the keyboard (though the mouse kept working) no matter which port I plugged it into (or which of the four keyboards I keep in my office I plugged in).

This is seldom a good sign when rebooting Windows, but sometimes it’s a worse sign than at other times.

I had to go to school yesterday to help out with the robotics club meeting as I do every Thursday afternoon, at which point I described the symptoms and asked for a confirmation of my diagnosis — bad motherboard — from the club leader, who also happens to be the “IT guy” for the school. He concurred that the motherboard was hosed, and agreed with my decision to move my production platform over to my Sandy Bridge i7 test machine (2600K on an ASUS P8Z68-V Pro Gen3 motherboard). “No big deal,” I figured, “All I have to do it install Office, migrate my PSTs, and move the drives, and I’m done.” Moving the drives turned out to be easy, because I have learned to keep my important stuff on eSATA or USB-attached external drives: that simply means moving cables, and not much else. I did also remove the boot drive from the dead machine because I knew I’d need it to grab my most current PST file (and might need access to pictures or other stuff that automatically takes up residence on a Windows system/boot drive).

But I hit an “interesting” snag when I brought up MS Office. For some reason or another, the Windows Search service (SearchIndexer.exe) had quit working, and when I tried to restart it, informed me that the file was missing even though I could see it in …/System32 and the sfc /scannow utility reported nothing wrong with the file. Artful attempts to replace the file also had no impact on its intransigence. I Googled my way into troubleshooting mode, and tried various repairs documented online, including some registry hacks, all without success.

Because I depend heavily on being able to search my Outlook email folders (it’s my primary repository for work information and communication history), I found myself forced into a clean (re)install of Windows 8.1 on my new production machine. I was able to get through this process in under one hour, but of course, following up with all the patches through Windows Update took quite a bit longer to complete. Likewise for the process of reducing the number of out-of-date drivers on the newly reminted system from 18 out of 74 to 2 (of which one, the Intel Management Engine Interface aka MEI is a false positive: it doesn’t create the correct registry entries to show itself to DriverAgent, even though Device Manager shows that the version I’m running is the one they say I should be running; and the other is for some “HID-compliant consumer device” that defies detection sufficient to tell me what driver for which device is involved). Then, of course, I had to reinstall all my standard applications to restore my normal working environment, which easily consumed two hours. And finally, installing Office 2013 plus the 800-odd MB of updates, patches, and yesterday’s SP1, also took just over two hours to complete, including Outlook configuration and importing the necessary PST files.

But hey! I’m back in action, on a faster PC with more memory, storage, a newer, faster CPU with a better graphics card. And I didn’t lose more than half a working day to get back to where I started (though I did keep plugging away until after 9 PM last night). In the wonderful world of Windows, that’s not too bad — but it does make me wish that virtualization and back-up technology were sufficiently advanced that I could just select “run on new machine” and make it so, more quickly and easily. Perhaps when GB Internet links are the norm, and most everything really is virtual, this will seem entirely normal, and not like a wonderful but unattainable fantasy.

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