How Windows (may have) killed my laptop

Little-known fact about me: For the past two weeks or so, I haven’t been able to use the ThinkPad I bought last summer. Here’s what happened, in 10 painful steps.

1. Months after successfully installing the Customer Preview of Windows 8 in a separate partition of my  ThinkPad X120E (and somewhat regretting that it required me to wipe out Lenovo’s recovery partition), I finally got around to trying to install the Win 8 Release Preview Microsoft shipped at the end of May.   At the tail end of a seemingly-nominal installation, the Release Preview installer, it got stuck at the “Finalizing your settings” screen. After waiting a few hours, I forced the machine to shut down and got a prompt at startup saying that Windows would undo the RP installation and return me to CP.

2. Because I am an idiot, and because I was getting fed up with some networking problems in Win 8 CP, I decided I’d try installing Release Preview again the night before I was heading out to San Francisco to cover Google’s I/O conference. Once again, the installer couldn’t get past “Finalizing your settings”–which is a funny place for Win 8 RP to halt, since it doesn’t preserve any of your settings in the first place.

3. Because I’m an idiot, I then tried wiping the Win 8 partition and doing a clean installation. The results were much worse:

4. After yet another restart that night–which by now counted as “early morning,” I got as far as the setup screens where Windows 8 asks you to set a live.com user account. It said mine was already in use on the machine. Trying different usernames only resulted in yet another stall

5. With no Win 8 system available and less than six hours remaining before my 8 a.m. departure from National Airport, I gave up, reverted to Windows 7, and resented its slower performance all week long.

6. Back home, I took yet another stab at installing Win 8 RP in early July. I got the same failure: a bogus report that somebody else was trying to use my Windows Live account on the system. (By then, I had gotten a few sympathetic e-mails from a Microsoft publicist promising help from people on the Windows team, but I never got more than an initial, friendly “what can I do to help?” response from them.)

7. For reasons I don’t remember precisely, I elected to switch back to Windows 7, saw that the system had a round of updates to install, and thought I’d proceed with them. Bad idea: The installation failed, leaving the computer unbootable in two different versions of Windows.

8. Successive attempts to use the disk-repair tools in Windows 7 failed; a Lenovo troubleshooting utility came up, complained that it needed me to log in, and demanded a reboot with an “Okay” button. No, it’s not okay. The disk-repair tools on the Win 8 installer’s flash drive didn’t do any better.

9. Because I’m not a complete idiot, I had a complete drive-image backup of my pre-Win 8 system (plus incremental backups from mid-July). But I can’t recover it: The Win 8 installer flash drive said it couldn’t restore a 32-bit disk image–even though there’s nothing bit-specific about that job. (Sometimes I think the only way the 32- and 64-bit editions of Windows could get along worse is if Microsoft farmed out the development of each to the Israeli Defense Forces and the PLO.) Edit, 2:43 p.m. And as of this morning, booting up the laptop yields the results you see in the photo above.

10. A 32-bit version of the Windows 8 Release Preview installer then said it couldn’t restore an image from an earlier version of Windows. So now I need to generate a Windows recovery-tools flash drive from a 32-bit version of Windows 7. And thanks to Microsoft’s unwillingness to offer a download of that program, this job apparently either requires a machine with CD or DVD burner or a painful amount of monkeying around with DOS commands.

But things could be worse. Wired writer Mat Honan, one of the smarter observers of technology around and one of the more decent human beings on the Internet, had somebody break into his iCloud account and use its remote-wipe feature to nuke his MacBook Air, iPad and iPhone–while also laying waste to his Twitter and Google accounts. So I’m not going to whine too much about this self-inflicted wound. Besides, I can always install Linux on the machine.

Epilogue, 10/21: In case anybody was wondering how this turned out, I was able to generate a USB-based, 32-bit Windows 7 system-repair volume using Into Windows’ directions. My only hangups involved having to disable Parallels Desktop from sharing USB volumes with OS X, followed by the exceptionally long time it took to format this USB flash disk in NTFS from the command line. Things worked as advertised otherwise, and I once again have a working Windows laptop–ready for me to try out Windows 8 once again when it ships next week.