17 November 2009

XP Blank Desktop, No Task Manager, No UI

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I hit this failure pattern in the context of doing an XP SP3 repair install over XP SP3 with IE 8 installed, and it may be that this is a generic issue.  Searching the web did not find a solution, which is why I’m writing this. 

The fix is to install IE 8 from Safe Mode.

Failure pattern

Windows XP boots to the desktop, showing wallpaper, but nothing else; no icons, Taskbar, Start button, etc.  Mouse pointer present and moves OK, and the “lock” keys toggle the appropriate keyboard LEDs, so the system is still running.  Safe Mode works OK.

Pressing Ctl+Alt+Del does not bring up Task Manager, pressing Alt+Tab or the Flag key does nothing, and pressing (but not holding) ATX power off does not initiate a shutdown.  Pressing the case Reset button forces a hard reset and holding down ATX power button forces ATX “power off”; both cause some file system damage due to bad exit with files open for writes.

Note how this failure pattern differs from some others that are more common; no icons but UI elements present (desktop properties setting to hide icons, icons unselected, etc.), other “shell” failures where Ctl+Alt+Del and ATX power press still work, and malware effects that specifically knock out Task Manager while leaving the desktop UI functioning.

Typical Scenario

It is often necessary to do a “repair install” of Windows XP if one has changed core hardware that breaks compatibility with XP’s pre-PnP code base.  This is what happened to me, when I had to replace a dead motherboard with a different one, even though this was based on the same chipset and the hard drive interface remained the same. 

In addition, folks often “just” re-install Windows for all sorts of problems, even when there are cleaner ways to fix the problem, and/or when doing so is likely to fail.  So I’m surprised there hasn’t been solutions visible via Internet search for this issue – if indeed it is as generic as I suspect it may be.

A few weeks earlier I’d done a similar replacement on a similar PC, using a completely different motherboard chipset.  In that case, Windows booted just fine, did a bit of PnP device detection and driver installation, tossed its Activation cookies out of the cot, but was ultimately fine.  But in the second case, I had the half-expected STOP BSoD error (“Windows has been shut down to prevent damage to  your computer”) earlier during the boot process.

What didn’t work

Writing to an at-risk system, especially installing new software, can often make things worse – so installing IE 8 was far from the first thing I tried.

The PC had already donethe prelim”; RAM, motherboard capacitors, hard drive, file system were all OK and malware had been managed from a Bart boot, and the C: partition had been backed up as a partition image using BING.

First, I hunted down and removed all startup items and drivers for old hardware, working both from Safe Mode and Bart boot.  No joy.

Because Safe Mode worked OK, I suspected a shell integration factor, so I tried setting the shell to Cmd.exe and starting Windows normally.  This failed in the same way; no Cmd.exe window appeared, and ATX power, Ctl+Alt+Del etc. still didn’t work.  Disabling shell extensions using Nirsoft Extension Viewer didn’t work either.

Then I thought there may be a problem with launching the shell, so I edited a batch files run via an existing Task so that it launched Explorer.exe instead of doing what it had done before.  I’d noted this Task running behind the dead desktop, but from Safe Mode one cannot create new Tasks properly – some properties can’t be set, such as “run only when logged on”.  That’s why I edited the batch file of an existing Task, rather than creating a new one.  No joy, again.

The fix

Re-installing Windows often causes problems when bundled subsystems (e.g. Windows Media Player, Internet Explorer) are forced back to older versions.  With that in mind, I tried re-installing IE 8 from Safe Mode, half expecting the usual “Windows Installer is not running” failure pattern.  Much to my surprise, not only did the installation of IE 8 from Safe Mode work, the next boot brought up a functioning shell in normal Windows mode.  Problem solved!


Kiai Kim said...

Thanks! Hope it works.

Kiai Kim said...

Fortunately, I didn't have to reinstall anything. Something about a profile's settings went awry. Just switched to the last known working configuration, which was a docked profile, and it worked.