Windows Vista SP1 Disaster Recovery Guide

Vista's SP1 was expected to solve a lot of problems; instead, it caused even more trouble. Here are fixes to some top complaints, from a Windows Update that won't update to endless reboot loops.

Serdar Yegulalp, Contributor

April 29, 2008

16 Min Read

When Microsoft rolled out Windows Vista Service Pack 1 to millions of users, people had king-sized anticipations about what SP1 would do for their systems. Sadly, for some people, that eagerness turned into an imperial-sized disgust at what SP1 did to their systems. Sometimes SP1 wouldn't install correctly; sometimes it wasn't installed at all; and sometimes it left their machines far worse off than before.

I'm going to profile some common disaster scenarios that crop up with Vista SP1 and talk about what can be done in each case. The vast majority of the problems that crop up with SP1 can be solved with a little care and diligence. Even if you have to completely reinstall, you can usually do so without torching your data.

When SP1 Isn't Offered At All

One of the first problems that people reported with Service Pack 1 was that they weren't being offered SP1 for download through Windows Update in the first place. If they wanted to install it, they had to obtain and apply it manually.

Knowledge Base article KB948343 goes into detail about why this might be the case, with one broadly cited reason being a series of conflicts with a few hardware device drivers. Most of the drivers are audio components by Realtek, SigmaTel, and Conexant, which are often found as embedded devices in a system's motherboard. After people reported SP1 caused serious problems with these drivers, Microsoft suspended automatic distribution of SP1 to any machines that had those drivers until newer versions were installed.

SP1 is usually offered along with the usual crop of Windows Updates, but if it isn't, it may be a sign of a blocking driver.

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Common sense would say that if you wanted to get SP1 delivered automatically but didn't have an update for one of the offending devices, you might be able to fix the problem by turning off or removing the device and deleting its driver. In my case, I have a Dell XPS system with one of the offending drivers, but disabling the device in question and unloading the driver didn't cause SP1 to be offered to me. I later suspected this may be due to some of the audio driver's control panel software still being present in the system.

If you clean out the drivers and still don't have SP1 offered to you, go for the monolithic download. This obviously works best if you have the bandwidth for it -- be sure to get the proper edition, either the x86 or x64 version. Slipstreamed media may also be available from PC manufacturers for a nominal fee and Microsoft does sell a separate SP1 disc (available from NewEgg, for instance), but only along with the purchase of an actual Vista OEM disc. The First Line Of Defense: System Restore

If you've applied SP1 and ended up with an unbootable system, or at least one that behaves very strangely, an easy (albeit slow) way to back out of the mess is to roll the system back with System Restore. SP1 quite wisely creates a System Restore point right before it installs -- labeled as "Service Pack 1 Installation" -- so you can typically roll back to right before the installation without a lot of hassle.

This of course assumes that your system can still boot. If your system isn't bootable, or you don't trust it to boot properly, one way to get around this is to boot the Windows Vista DVD and use the Repair / System Restore option to run System Restore remotely on your Windows installation. You might also want to run Startup Repair from the same menu if booting continues to be problematic. Note that if you don't have a Vista installation disc, you can borrow someone else's to get up and running. It doesn't have to be the exact same disc you installed Vista with.

If your system is bootable, run System Restore as you normally would -- you can simply type "System Restore" from the Start menu to go directly to the program. Click on "Choose a different restore point" from the first screen in the wizard and then look for "Install: Windows Vista Service Pack 1" as the restore point to roll back to. The whole process will take some time.

If needed, System Restore can be performed from the Vista DVD.

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When you're finished running System Restore and you're back at your desktop, the system will most likely be badly fragmented. You may want to run a full-system defragmentation cycle by typing defrag -i -b -w -c from an elevated command prompt. This will also take a while (upwards of several hours), so get it set up before you go to sleep and let it run overnight.

The most total but not always the most convenient way to get around an installation damaged with SP1 is a full system-image restore. This assumes that you have one in the first place, and that it's not so old as to be essentially worthless. Vista's own Windows Complete PC Restore is only one possible solution among many -- I've stumped for Terabyte Unlimited's Image for DOS / Windows, which is inexpensive and powerful; other people swear by Paragon Partition Manager, too.

Finally note that System Restore will only work if you haven't turned System Restore off -- which is not a good idea in the first place. If System Restore is turned off when you install SP1, no pre-installation restore point will be created.

Third-Party System Services Issues

Another possible reason for a service pack installation failure, and one not documented terribly well, is having third-party system services running when you attempt the installation. This is one possible reason for a generic "SP1 failed to install" warning: the installer ran afoul of one of these services, or stumbled across another issue documented in that article.

The JTB World blog has a detailed note about the services problem. The poster was using the Carbonite automated network-backup solution, which in turn hooks into low-level system components to accomplish a number of its tasks. The author used msconfig to disable any non-Microsoft services, rebooted, and installed SP1 without problems. In my case, I'm using a very similar program, Mozy, which I figured might be a good idea to keep disabled during the SP1 setup process.

The process requires a little work, but isn't hard to pull off. Type msconfig in the Start menu to launch it, go to the Services tab, check off "Hide all Microsoft services," and then "Disable all." This disables all non-Microsoft services in a non-destructive way; they can be re-enabled later on down the line from the same menu. Do the same thing in the Startup tab -- click "Disable all" to disable any applications that might be starting up at boot time. Click OK, then reboot, and then apply SP1 either via Windows Update (if it's available) or the full SP1 download.

Once you're back to your desktop, you can turn services and startup programs back on through msconfig, reboot normally, and verify that everything's working as intended. The Reboot-Loop Issue

One commonly-reported issue didn't stem from SP1 per se, but rather from a prerequisite update to allow SP1 to be installed -- the "Servicing Stack Update," also known as KB937287.

According to the Microsoft Update Product Team Blog, the SSU had a problem where under certain circumstances it would get stuck in an infinite reboot loop -- it would assume a reboot was needed to complete some other pending installation.

Microsoft issued a fix to prevent this from happening (KB949939) and changed the SSU update's installer code as well (not the update itself, which didn't need to be changed) to fix the problem.

This issue doesn't affect people who use the full standalone download of SP1, however, so if you chose to upgrade that way you won't have to worry about this.

An unsuccessful SP1 installation will typically fail with some kind of error message, although not always an informative one.

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Problems With NetFlix Watch Instantly

Another problem that surfaced for many people concerns NetFlix's on-demand video system, Watch Instantly. After installing SP1, Watch Instantly may throw a Windows Media Player error, "C00D1197," which the NetFlix player reports as a "video card problem." From what I've been able to discern, the problem is related to changes in user permissions in SP1 that affect how existing IE plugins work. It doesn't appear consistently, and it doesn't always affect all users on the system, but when it does appear it's hugely irritating.

Because most of the major program-breaking changes in Vista revolve around user permissions, I tried launching IE in admin mode to see if that solved the problem. It did, but the idea of running IE in admin mode to work around this issue didn't thrill me; it sounded like a great way to make IE vulnerable to problems all over again. Another solution was in order.

I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with NetFlix's technical support (who were actually quite good), and sent them detailed feedback about the issue, including the fact that admin-mode IE worked but a regularly launched instance of IE didn't. In my case, Watch Instantly also worked when I logged in as a different user with non-admin credentials -- which led me to believe there was some problem with Watch Instantly and SP1 that involved permissions of some kind that were profile-specific.

After some more research, we got things to work perfectly again by resetting IE to the factory-default settings—which, my guess is, have been changed in SP1 and so need to be reapplied to get third-party plugins to behave properly. To do this, go to IE's Tools / Internet Options / Advanced menu and click the "Reset Internet Explorer settings" button. You'll want to back up your bookmarks before you do this, however, but after this I was able to run NetFlix in IE as-is, without launching it as admin or switching profiles. Performance Problems

Disable third-party services and startup programs before installing SP1.

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Another fairly common post-SP1 complaint is poor system performance. This is one of those thorny issues that doesn't have a single, one-size-fits-all solution, simply because it can be caused by a whole slew of possible things. Here are some of the bigger culprits:

  • An outdated hardware driver. Disk, video, and network device drivers are three of the biggest culprits. NIC drivers in particular get overlooked far too often. Also consider the possibility that specific device settings which were acceptable before SP1 may no longer work the same way. Example: My on-board Intel NIC was set to use a 100-megabit full-duplex link by default, and behaved very sluggishly after installing SP1. Resetting the NIC to autodetect link speed fixed this.

  • Software that's not yet updated to an SP1-compliant edition. This applies specifically to antivirus, firewall, or other software that uses low-level system hooks. Check to see if there are newer versions of such programs that are SP1-compliant.

  • A damaged user profile. Problems with a user's profile are hard to diagnose, but one of the ways you can get an idea of the scope of a problem is to create a new user account with the same privileges and see if the problem persists there. If it does, it's an OS issue; if it doesn't, it's a user-profile issue, and you will probably want to migrate to a clean profile sooner rather than later.

  • Post-SP1 cleanup. I've mentioned elsewhere in this article that a post-SP1 system may need to be defragmented due to the amount of changes made. Another issue to keep in mind is that the prefetch subsystem, which accelerates application launches, has all of its data reset when SP1 is applied. This means that apps may start a little more slowly than normal at first, but as you work with the system and more of the prefetch data is rebuilt, this should go away.

Use Microsoft SP1's Free Tech Support With A Grain Of Salt

Microsoft offers unlimited, no-charge installation and compatibility support for SP1.

An unsuccessful SP1 installation will typically fail with some kind of error message, although not always an informative one.

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When SP1 wasn't automatically added to my system, I gave Microsoft's support a call and discussed some possible issues. I also mentioned the NetFlix problem to them, before I solved that independently, and one of the suggestions they had was to install the full SP1 download in Safe Mode.

This turned out to be a disaster: the service pack didn't install properly, the automatic rollback process kicked off by the service pack caused many things to break, and I had to perform a System Restore to put all the pieces back together. On the plus side, I was given diligent and punctual callbacks by the agent in charge of my case, and I was able to provide him with a system log that might be used to debug further cases like this one.

In short, Microsoft's tech support for SP1 is a mixed bag. Compare their advice against what you might get from a local guru if possible. "Nuke-And-Pave"

My favorite euphemism for erasing a system and reinstalling Windows from scratch, a nuke-and-pave should be your absolute last resort for recovering from a botched SP1 installation. It's a complete solution, to be sure, but it comes with its own set of annoyances -- hence, it's best employed only if everything else has failed to return your system to normal.

For one, it's often a fairly messy operation: you not only have to reinstall applications, but track down drivers, install updates (including, most likely, SP1 itself), and transfer over all your existing user data. That said, there are a few tricks you can pull to make this incrementally less painful.

The single biggest trick to keep in mind is that reformatting your system drive is not always required. If you have a Vista installation DVD (not a "restore image" disc), you won't have to reformat your Windows partition. This will save you the trouble of having to copy out your user data and possibly some of your programs as well.

Here's how to do this: When you boot the DVD and start the install process, select "Custom (advanced)" as the installation type, and then install Windows to the partition where it already exists. Do this and you'll get a warning: The partition you selected might contain files from a previous Windows installation. If it does, these files and folders will be moved to a folder named Windows.old. You will be able to access the information in Windows.old, but you will not be able to use your previous version of Windows. Click OK, and the installation will continue.

When you're finished, you'll find a directory named Windows.old that contains your old Windows directory, your old Users directory, and your old Programs directory. Obviously none of these will be functional (i.e., you can't boot the old Windows directory), but you'll be able to copy data out of them into your working Windows installation without having to go to another drive. It's a big timesaver.

If you decide to "nuke and pave," you can keep your old Windows installation in a backup directory for easy reference.

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If you don't have enough room on the target partition to perform the installation, you can mount an external USB drive, boot the installation DVD, select Repair / Command Prompt, and copy files out from the existing Windows partition to the USB drive. You may need to check to see which drive letter the USB drive is mounted as, but if C: is your Windows partition, D: will be the installation media, and E: will be your USB drive.

Another possibility is to run a repair installation, which preserves as many installed programs and user settings as possible. Keep in mind this is really only possible if a) Windows itself is still bootable and b) you have enough free space to perform such an operation. If you can boot Windows and run setup.exe from the top-level directory of the installation media, you'll get some guidance on how much space is needed.

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Serdar Yegulalp


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