Tracking Vista's elusive 'Black Screen of Death'

Artist's conception of Windows Vista's 'Black Screen of Death'What we've been calling a "perception problem" with Windows Vista -- the notion that users may tend to think it's less secure or reliable than it has proven to be on a large scale -- isn't just about perception for users faced with severe unreliability issues. As a Windows user for over two decades, I have been to the far depths of unreliability, and have lived to tell the tale. Probing the problems with Windows is actually part of my job, and one reason I actually am a Windows user -- unlike the rest of the world.

Yesterday, a problem that's far beyond perception afflicted a 64-bit Vista SP2-based Betanews production system for the fourth time in a year, this time with the remedy being so far out and unusual that everyday users could not possibly have discovered it by normal means. As we've found out, it's a problem that has affected a small number of Vista users since the system's debut three years ago, though that number appears to be growing steadily just as Vista is preparing to vacate the spotlight for Windows 7.

It's being jocularly called the "Black Screen of Death" (KSoD), although unlike its bluer predecessor, it's not about a Windows driver freezing up or an exception or stack overflow locking up the kernel. In fact, the most puzzling aspect of this dilemma has been that Vista is actually running and the logs show all the drivers have loaded and are in working order. You just can't use it -- the screen stays black, except for a bright mouse pointer that you can move around for no reason except to prove your machine hasn't locked up. The usual system keystrokes -- Ctrl-Alt-Del, Ctrl-Esc, Alt-Tab, Ctrl-Shift-Esc -- all appear non-functional.

The first three times we encountered this dilemma, we were able to restore our Vista system through System Restore rollback, which did bring back our system and which then enabled us to uninstall and reinstall updates. We then dismissed the incidents as more peculiar and perhaps non-unusual behavior from Windows. The fourth time was more serious, although we did recover and, just in case you experience this yourself, we'll tell you how. Our research during the incident indicated that gradually more Vista users have faced the KSoD in recent months, though the experiences they have shared are so diverse that a precise pathology of the problem has yet to emerge...and Microsoft hasn't been much help in that department.

This amateur YouTube video shows the actual Black Screen of Death behavior on an Alienware notebook computer.

Here is what my experience with Windows is telling me: The KSoD appears to me to be a behavior that's, to borrow a Microsoft phrase, "by design." In other words, the behavior that allows you to see the Vista log in screen, see your users' faces all in a row, and log in under any user name and password just as you would normally...before encountering the inky void, feels like a program that's behaving the way it was designed to. Presently, my belief is that this behavior may be triggered by any number of different events, and that the nature of the events themselves is not directly connected to the behavior. That would explain the different situations users faced leading up to the problem, as well as the fact that what appears to be the solution for some has not been a solution for all.

Back in 2007, Microsoft representatives sent e-mails to their customers warning of the onset of something called "Reduced Functionality Mode," which reportedly enabled Vista to disengage the Start Menu, taskbar, and other features when Microsoft software was determined not to be genuine. That was when the whole "Black Screen" metaphor was first coined. For reasons that we thought at the time had to do with Microsoft listening to its customers, it replaced RFM in Service Pack 1 with a less detrimental piece of built-in nagware. (Our affected Vista machine uses SP2.)

My experience is telling me that the Black Screen is a kind of "curtain" which may have been intended as an intentionally aggravating shutdown for suspected software pirates. Think of it as deprecated code that may be hanging around the operating system, like unused DNA for a more evolved species. I have no independent confirmation of this theory; however, it's the only rational explanation I can apply to the fact that Windows truly is running and operational during the whole time, as I was able to confirm. Now, did I deserve this curtain? In other words, am I running non-genuine Microsoft software? No. All of our Microsoft software on production systems here is legitimate -- either purchased individually or distributed to us by Microsoft itself through our MSDN subscription.

The first three times I encountered the KSoD, for the first several tries, I could not boot Vista even to Safe Mode with Command Prompt -- in that instance, the system would appear to freeze at the "Please wait" screen. Running the WinPE recovery environment (available either from the Vista install disk or from the extended boot menu, available when you press F8 on startup) enabled me to roll back the system to a pre-update state, and that appeared to resolve the issue. For the record, two of those incidents began with Vista failing to recover from hibernations, the third seemed to be random and triggered by nothing obvious.

This fourth incident was, to use my grandmother's phrase for recipes that never cooked to her standards of perfection, "a doozy." Not even the earliest system restore point resolved the matter, and I often had to run WinPE from the Vista install disc instead of the F8 method (although that method did eventually work twice). The incident began with an attempt to load a simple Excel spreadsheet. Excel locked up, then I tried using Task Manager to remove Excel. Nothing happened, so I tried a reboot from Task Manager. And that didn't happen either, so I tried to close all my programs first. They locked up and turned that ghostly shade of white that Vista gives them when that happens. So in desperation, I powered down.

Cue the Rod Serling narration.

Next: How I escaped from Vista's darkest tunnel...

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