A Tale of Saving a Windows Installation with Linux

A Tale of Saving a Windows Installation with Linux

Death of a Gaming Laptop

I have been able to figure out how things work and fix them when they are broken since I was young and started taken broken things apart. I fixed VCRs, lamps, bikes, anything I thought would be interesting take apart. It was just a puzzle that was more useful than taking valuable tabletop space. You got a prize at the end. Something worked again. Puzzle-puzzles were like 52 card pickup.

I don’t have the time to fix as many things as I once did. But some things like computers I will let let them go gentle into that good night, especially my old Alienware M15X. So when it had a white screen of death a couple of years ago, figured out that the nVidia video card croaked and I had to manually deactivate it to keep Windows from choosing it instead of the onboard card.

That, of course, wasn’t until after I wiped the installation and reinstalled Windows using the license key from the sticker that was still on the bottom. Only to find out I couldn’t get the key to work. And we sort of dealt with the warning about using counterfeit software. I knew it wasn’t. It was a spare computer for the most part, so everyone just worked around it when they had to.

And for some reason, it couldn’t find most of the drivers it needed, so I hunted them down manually and installed them.

Windows Black Screen of Death?

So fast forward a couple of years. The old Alienware got a little bit of use. It was quirky. Sometimes it would never come back from sleep and you would have to use the power button to shut it down and turn it back on. And there was sometimes the windows loading screen would never show, just a black screen right after the bios and Alienware stuff. But shut it down once and it would work the next time.

But this weekend, it didn’t come back. It did just so happen I had a Windows 10 license to burn, so what the hell. I’d try it. It might have something to do with the whole counterfeit software thing or hand picked driver thing.

I had just upgraded a Windows 7 computer to Windows 10 from an iso on a USB drive, but this wasn’t going to work since I couldn’t even get to the Windows 7 installation. I was going to have to do something different

Creating a Bootable Windows 10 USB Drive

Not wanting to reinvent the wheel, unless it’s broken (more on this later), I will just direct you to directions to create a bootable usb drive for Windows 10 from and ISO because they worked.

But working wasn’t enough. After trying every option other than installing Windows 10 over everything, I figured out Windows 10 couldn’t do much with the old installation other that basically saying, “Yup, what you got here is a Windows 7 installation. Nope, I can’t fix it.” But I had made it this far and I had a screen that wasn’t black, so I figured I was going down the right path.

At this point all I wanted was the contents of one user folder. Fucking with bullshit changes your priorities. We all had used the same user and left files there. Fine, Windows, I will get rid of everything but first I wanted a folder from the wreckage and if you can’t do it, we’ll move on. (I did find out later that Windows 10 would create and Windows.old folder to put old Windows installation in for a month before it deleted them completely.)

Creating a Bootable Ubuntu Live USB Drive

Here is where we get to the broken wheel. So a few places online tell you to use Universal USB Installer and an Ubuntu ISO. Tried that. Got some sort error that had the word boot in it that scrolled down the screen. I know, not enough details to help anyone else. But fuck that. That’s where the devil is, the time sucking, rabbit hole devil.

So I tried the Rufus installer. What the hell? It worked for Windows, why not for Ubuntu. That type of logic only works about 5% of the time, and I just happen to be in that 5% window.

Broad details. Only minor demons there and if you can’t figure it out from these, then you probably shouldn’t be trying this at home. Go to the Ubuntu site and download the ISO you need. Go get Rufus and run it. Pick your USB, Pick your ISO, click the button that means start doing things and wait for it to be done.

I don’t actually know how long any of this shit took. From doing things like this before I knew just to start the thing, go get some other stuff done and come back and check if it was done later.

I was able to boot the thumb drive and choose the live option…with the touchpad. Ubuntu loaded the desktop and I had no touchpad but a window popped that gave keyboard shortcuts. We can do this. All referencing a Super key. What is this Super key you talk of, Ubuntu. Off to Google. The Super key is the Windows key. Ok, not working. Off to Google again to make sure. Click a few links to do an ad hoc survey. 100% of random forum users say the Windows key. Ding, ding, ding, ding…fucked.

So I spent about a half an hour trying random things people said worked for the issue that were never the same but sort of hovered around the same area, except for one guy that replaced the motherboard. I wasn’t going that far. Then someone said they just shut the computer down and tried again and it worked. I kept looking but I came back.

You have heard that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Here’s the thing, the reason I came back is that I had an experience with Ubuntu being insane before.

When I was installing Ubuntu somewhere else I got to a menu where the Next button was grayed out and I had filled out everything. It made no sense. I had made it this far. What the fuck? Did everything just become unwritable.

But I ran into an equally ludicrous suggestion that time, again after searching for about a half an hour and trying everything. Click the back button and try it again. I did. It worked.

So I tried restarting. The mouse and keyboard worked this time. Ubuntu is certifiable.

Recovering Files from Windows with Linux

So I read some article on this to make sure I was doing the right thing. They mentioned having problems with Ubuntu mounting the Windows folder. I had no problem. I just clicked on the biggest mounted hard drive and there was the Users folder. So if you have trouble, search Google for those articles. This post is already longer than I wanted.

And the user folder I needed was about 30gb and I needed to copy it to some sort of external drive. Ok, I had a 2TB thumb drive with me. It sounds like cake. It was not cake. I was so excited when I ordered it. Then I tried moving files to it the first time and never used it again. You could move files to it at about dialup speed.

What the hell. I could let it do it overnight. I didn’t feel like driving a whole 30 minutes to get my external drive I knew would work. And then I spent a half an hour trying to figure out how to get Live Ubuntu to work with ExFat, like you do. I didn’t like dicking with this shit unless I had to, so I didn’t see this rabbit hole coming.

But I eventually let Linux reformat the drive to NTFS and started moving files.

Woke up to an error and nothing on the thumb drive. Drove and got my external drive. Moving the files took like 10 minutes.

Recovering Files From Old.Windows

Got Windows 10 to install, realized it saved the old files, felt like I was an idiot (wait for it). Started moving the user files from the old.Windows folder, the screen did something weird and the computer shut down. Restarted. Screen turned black. Restarted. Got to Windows again. Went to go do something and came back to the computer shut down. I only got a black screen from then on.

You thought it was going to end differently, maybe. Hey, but I did get the files off. I wasn’t an idiot, by accident. The best way. One gleaning accidental right move in this whole fucking process.

Why I Don’t Deal with this on My Own Machine

This was work for a friend who didn’t want to lose files. There was a period of time where I would back up my whole computer as an image each week. And when I got a new computer, I would open the old one in a virtual machine if I forgot anything I needed earlier. Then I finally paid for cloud storage and keep most of the files I don’t want to lose not locked into one machine.I really hate saying “the cloud”, just to let you know but it’s the general word for “on some other company’s server” that people understand in the way they understand e=mc2, by not even wanting to go down the path of understanding it, aka, magic.

So I no longer really have this problem. As my development skills got better and I got out of the SEO and t game, I actually found myself using less software. I have to say, Mac or Linux, it’s a toss up for me. If someone else is paying for the Mac, I will take that over Linux, just for the GUI nicities, the nice aluminum case and higher bar on the base hardware. But on my own machine, I go to dual boot with Linux and Windows and rarely go to the Windows side because I can do most things I need to on Linux.

Open source is here to stay and it just works less well on Windows than the other two platforms. When you are working with a non-Microsoft language or technology on Windows, you are bound to find stupid issues getting things to work on anything but the simplest example application.

I would like to say otherwise. But the stoic in me says, wishful thinking on Windows will only end in heartache and despair. Then when the rare occasion some huge open source application works on Windows, you can celebrate it like a Solar Eclipse and people from far off cubicles will come to witness the miraculous occurrence.

It’s all in how you frame it. And in Windows land, only stoics survive and hope is an evil siren luring you to your death with bash on Windows promises of just working. Windows just works for what it does. Add something it doesn’t like and prepare to spend your time finding the perfect intersections of library versions to compile something. It takes the forecasting skill of Nostradamus and the stubbornness of Sisyphus.

And in the end, I don’t hate Windows. For my use, the UI is great, things are pretty and I can find free software for things I need to do. But Ubuntu is free and that’s where the files I moved now live, happily ever after.

The End.

Stephan Miller

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Kansas City Software Engineer and Author

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