Errors stymie Windows 8.1 updates on some devices

Microsoft support blames device driver 'bug check' for some of the installation failures

Microsoft customers have been plagued with problems that have foiled attempts to install the Windows 8.1 update, according to widespread reports on the company's support forums.

Some of the trouble has been tentatively traced to incompatible device drivers.

While the situation on traditional PCs and Windows 8-powered tablets has not prompted Microsoft to yank the update -- as it did Friday with the one designed for Windows RT -- they have frustrated users' efforts and gotten a few angry enough to swear off Windows 8.1.

Customers saw a variety of cryptic error messages, but most reports about the sequence of events were similar: After the update has downloaded and was being installed, at some point the PC or tablet spontaneously restarted with an error message. The update then tried to recover but failed a second time -- or went through that cycle several times -- before restoring the system to Windows 8.

"Something happened and the Windows 8.1 couldn't be installed. Please try again," read the message on four devices owned by Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategies, when he tried to update each last Thursday.

Microsoft began offering the Windows 8.1 update to current Windows 8 users that same day.

Some of the aborted updates were triggered by what a Microsoft support representative said was "a driver bug check during second boot" in a response to a customer's complaint on a Microsoft forum.

The rep suggested users disconnect all unnecessary devices from the PC, run Windows Update again in the hope of retrieving newer device drivers, and visit third-party component makers' websites to acquire the newest drivers. "Go to the computer manufacturer's website and search for the latest Windows 8 drivers available for all the devices on the computer and then install them by following the instructions given in the website," the representative said.

That last suggestion may have been appropriate for the technically-inclined, but most customers would refuse to go through such a complicated, long process simply to receive an update. Downloading and installing the wrong device drivers also risks crippling the computer.

Several customers reported on the same support thread that they had done what the representative asked but to no avail, burning even more hours trying to troubleshoot.

Many of the users who left comments on the thread -- which by Sunday had grown to over 225 messages, easily the most heavily trafficked of those about Windows 8.1 installation errors -- confirmed that they too had not been able to update, and listed their devices, which ranged from custom-built PCs to off-the-rack stock systems from Dell, Lenovo and other PC makers.

Some said they had successfully completed the update after stripping out drivers from SteelSeries, a third-party maker of keyboards and mice.

The fact that these same users had been able to update their PCs to Windows 8 earlier, but were thwarted by Windows 8.1, left some confused. And furious at Microsoft.

"I had NO problems installing [Windows] 8," said Dudeinco on the same thread. "And 8.1 is MINOR UI changes and a few code clean-ups? Give me a break. Did I miss something, or is this the same company that's been successfully deploying operating system for the past 3 decades both in-home and enterprise alike?

"I am beyond frustrated, and finding out that this has been going on throughout the preview only fuels that fire," Dudeinco added, referring to reports that the same, or at the least, very similar issues cropped up after Microsoft shipped Windows 8.1 Release Preview. "Sorry, but this is unacceptable. Why bother having a preview and maintenance releases if you don't actually work on the problems during that time?"

Other forum threads focused on different error messages displayed after a failed update. Some of the threads received explanations from Microsoft support personnel -- one was blamed on unspecified third-party applications, a common target for support reps -- but others went unanswered. As often happens, other customers stepped in with theories about what led to the breakdowns, or workarounds they claimed had solved the problems.

In one thread, for instance, a Microsoft support technician blamed the same driver bug check for scrapping the update. After more users logged reports, some concluded that it originated with the Nvidia GTX780 SLI graphics chipset on their PCs' motherboards.

It's not unusual that a Windows upgrade -- from one edition, say Windows 7, to another like Windows 8 -- causes problems for some, considering the huge variety of components that make up PCs, their peripherals and the software running on them.

Windows Vista, for example, was a nightmare in comparison to the complaints thus far about Windows 8.1. Because Vista relied on a new device driver architecture, many long-used peripherals could not be paired with the OS. Vendors were slow in creating new Vista-compatible device drivers, putting the brakes on adopting the operating system.

But any significant stumble with Windows 8.1 will damage Microsoft, perhaps even more than did Vista, as the company's already stinging from poor reviews of the original, and unlike 2007, working in a climate where it's far behind in tablet market share and staring at the PC industry's longest-lasting sales contraction.

Windows 8.1 is also Microsoft's first OS update in its new, faster release tempo. Any quality issues in the update -- including the ones already reported -- will be seized on to claim the company can't handle the faster pace, and more importantly, to justify ignoring the quickened cadence.

That's exactly what the user identified as Dudeinco, who said he was a software engineer who worked exclusively with Microsoft's products, planned to do. "[I] was able to share my experience with interested parties in my engineering group, and looks like they're keeping a 10-foot pole handy to help separate themselves from this update for the foreseeable future," Dudeinco wrote on the support forum.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is

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