Jun 2007

Windows Genuine Advantage Killed My PC

Unless you actually know a bit about, and are interested in, the inner-workings of a Windows PC then this post will be dull and obscure at best. If, on the other hand, you’ve ever assembled a PC from bare components or have perhaps manually tweaked your registry and had a vague idea of what you were doing at the time, then this post may interest you and will — at the very least — offer the opportunity of a prize.

With regards to getting back to some kind of semi-regular blogging… hopefully that’ll happen soon. I’ve been away, and then I was busy, and even when I’ve been neither; I’ve really not felt like I’ve had much to say. I can’t guarantee any of that will change much, but here’s hoping.

A Prize!

I know. How exciting, eh? A prize! Here’s the run-down; I’ve got an unfathomable Windows problem that’s proved immune to three days of diagnostics and reinstalls. If you can offer a solution that actually works then you shall win either (a) A CD of your choice off amazon [within reason — Tg24, though a groovy choice, would probably be a bit of a cheeky request, even if you do save me the hassle and expense of having to buy a new computer]; OR (b) A double-CD of the finest music ever recorded as compiled by yours truly [a far superior prize I think you’ll agree].

All well and good. But what of the problem? Well, it’s a weird one and no mistake. A long story with more than one red-herring-shaped dead-end…

The problem

It all started a few days ago when I received an email from A. She’s the only person I know who actually uses PGP on a regular basis and as always her email had that familiar chunk of seemingly-random text that is her PGP signature. I don’t use PGP, but I did have it installed and I do have a PGP key (which is now atrociously out-of-date, filled with old email addresses I suspect). I’m a big fan of the idea of routine email encryption, but it’s such a faff and nobody else does it, so I tend not to bother with it.

Nonetheless, it was late and I had some free time, so I downloaded the latest version of the PGP client purely out of curiousity. See what new bells and whistles they’d added. I ran the installer and that’s when the problems began. However, I caution any seeker of the prize that the whole PGP thing is almost certainly a red-herring. It just happened to be what I was doing when the actual fault occurred. See, although I can’t recall for sure, it’s very possible that Windows XP did a scheduled update just prior to all this.

Anyways, Windows just hung during the install for PGP. I could move the mouse cursor around the screen, but clicking things elicited no response. And the keyboard was also unresponsive. Even Ctrl-Alt-Del didn’t work. After waiting a very long time, I hit the reset button on the PC and it rebooted. I decided against trying to reinstall PGP and instead fired up a browser to check something online. I clicked through a couple of pages and suddenly the PC hung again. Exactly the same as before. No response from anything I did, though I could still move the cursor.

And this continued to happen. No matter what I did, after every boot the PC just hung after about 30 seconds. I was furious with PGP (almost certainly unjustifiably). Thankfully I could boot into Safe Mode, so I quickly backed-up all my data (I’ve not lost anything but time to this problem… yet) and spent a while using a different computer to google for solutions to this hypothetical “PGP install bug”. Nothing I did seemed to work and I eventually settled on a Windows reinstall as the least frustrating option.

I’d just backed up everything, so I fired up my Windows XP Original CD (all hologrammed and everything), repartitioned and reformatted my hard-drive and reinstalled Windows. At this point, a quick rundown of my PC:

CPU: AMD 64 3500+
MOBO: Gigabyte GA-K8NXP-9 (Chipset: nVidia NFORCE4 Ultra)
RAM: 2 x 1024MB PC3200
GRAPHICS: NVidia GeForce 6800
SOUND: Creative Soundblaster Audigy Platinum
PLUS: 250GB WD hard-drive, NEC CD/DVD burner, Dell 20” widescreen monitor

So yeah, I installed Windows XP Professional on the PC. I then installed a bunch of other stuff (avoiding PGP obviously) but very quickly the same problem occurred, and once again I could only use my PC for 30 or 40 seconds before it became unresponsive. Hell, that’s not even long enough to start up some Adobe software.

This confused me. It meant that clearly PGP had sod all to do with the problem (unless it can cast a malign influence from beyond a reformat). So I resinstalled Windows. Again. And this time in the full knowledge that it would only last a few minutes as I had no idea what stage in the process the problem arose. And this is what happened (note: Between each install I played a hand of Spider Solitaire to check that the system wasn’t hanging)…

– Windows XP Professional (from original CD).
– Service Pack 2 (from backup DVD — used it plenty of times before, no reason to suspect it’s a problem).
– Motherboard Drivers (from OEM CD — been fine for years).
– Graphics Drivers (from backup DVD — recently downloaded from nVidia, fine for at least a month)
– Soundcard Drivers (from backup DVD — downloaded from Creative, fine for several months)

Then I activated Windows online which went without a hitch.

No problems so far. I could play Spider Solitaire, fire up Internet Explorer and read the news, and play the sample music in the preinstalled version of Media Player. All hunky-dory. Then however, I found the step that caused the problem…

I connected to Windows Update.

And it broke my computer. First a couple of ActiveX controls got installed, then Microsoft Installer 3.1, an Update for XP (KB898461) and the Windows Genuine Advantage Tool. They downloaded, installed, forced a reboot and suddenly my PC was hanging every 30 seconds once more.

One thing that occurs to me is that the Windows Genuine Advantage Tool might be misidentifying my copy of Windows as being dodgy (despite it being 100% legit). But surely it’d pop up a message letting me know and not just hang the computer within a minute of reboot. Also, I can boot into Safe Mode and it doesn’t hang. Surely if Windows was supposed to be crashing due to some anti-piracy measure gone wrong, then it wouldn’t let me boot into Safe Mode either, right?

So this time I’ve reinstalled Windows, plus SP2 and the various drivers, but have switched off Automatic Updates and am avoiding the Windows Update site / app. I’ve reinstalled Firefox and Thunderbird (plus a bunch of add-ins) and have also installed MS Office 2003 (though obviously haven’t run the updater on that either as it’s all tied into the same Microsoft Update system). All without a hitch.

However, I then downloaded and tried to install Windows Media Player 11. Because I did this using Firefox, it couldn’t force me through the usual Windows Genuine Advantage ActiveX process. Instead it runs through a separate Windows Genuine Advantage process at the beginning of the installation process. When it was doing this though, Windows again hung and became unresponsive. Thankfully this didn’t result in a crash after each reboot, but I’m obviously staying well clear of any attempt by Microsoft to “verify” my copy of Windows. It is a Genuine copy. I paid through the nose for it soon after it was released but it seems like every time I connect to an MS website they try to torpedo my PC.

All of which presents problems… I suspect that not regularly updating Windows and Office with security patches is a recipe for disaster. I’m really not sure what to do about that (and no, I can’t switch to Linux… too much of the software I use is Windows only). Plus I’ve always been a fan of Windows Media Player… an app often overshadowed by its rivals. Now I’ll have to find something else to do the job as any attempt to update or patch Media Player could bugger up my system. Same goes for Outlook.

I don’t know for certain that shoddy Microsoft code (maybe a recent update to the Windows Genuine Advantage Tool clashes with the drivers for the Creative Audigy Platinum or something?) is at the root of this problem. But it’s certainly the most likely culprit. As for how to claim the prize… just let me know what’s going on and how I can sort it out (start patching Windows again and not worry about my PC becoming unusable as a result and requiring a complete rebuild).

Any ideas? Or perhaps just a similar tale of woe?

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