The Reason Why I Drink, Or Why Documentation Is So Important

I’ve had a really bad couple of weeks…

So… gratuitous resume rewind – 25 years of QA experience… CHECK! On every, formal, Technical Windows Beta Team between Windows 95 and Windows XP and beta tested ALL versions of Windows between Windows 95 and Windows 10… CHECK! 20 years of experience as a technology journalist… CHECK!

Whoosh! Ok… I feel a LOT better. For a moment there, I thought I turned into an idiot.

Over the past three to four weeks, I’ve been having a great deal of trouble with my Surface Pro 3. I got the device in December and have had it warranty replaced once and swapped out to a NEW unit once. My original unit bricked when I tried to refresh it from Windows 10 Build 9926 to a clean install. I found out the hard way that installing Build 9879 blew the Windows 8.1 recovery partition and replaced it with a Windows 10 Build 9879 partition. Upgrading from Build 9879 to Build 9926 did NOT update the recovery partition, so the device choked upon refresh.

One appointment to the Microsoft Store’s Answer Desk had it restored to Windows 8.1; but then when it tried to setup Windows 8.1, the device froze during setup and was not recoverable. Hence warranty replacement number one.

A week so after that, I’m back at the SAME Microsoft Store, wanting to put Windows 10 back on my i3-based Surface Pro 3; and I’m having a problem creating a Windows 8.1 bootable, USB Recovery Drive. The process involves using the internal Recovery tool to create the drive. You’ll need the following:

1. An 8GB or larger USB Stick
2. A working Windows 8.1 PC with an whole and undamaged Recovery Partition on the internal SSD
3. About 30 minutes of free time

The full process can be found here. It’s easy to do, and anyone who can use Windows 8.1 (meaning EVERYONE) can complete the process. It’s really super easy…

However… please don’t think that you’re going to be able to actually USE that USB Recovery Image for anything, especially if you have a Surface Pro 3, and ESPECIALLY after the 2015-03-26 Firmware Update. The status quo has changed…but just slightly.

Before the firmware update, I could boot from just about any external, bootable image – from one on a USB stick to a bootable DVD on my USB-based BDVD-RW drive. It just didn’t matter. If it was a bootable image and Windows could read the image and the media, it all worked.

Then the firmware update hit, and it all went south.

I don’t have confirmation from anyone on this at Microsoft, but the latest firmware update modified the way Surface Pro 3 can boot. Now, you don’t need to hold Power+Volume Down to get the device to boot from USB. Now, you can set boot order preferences in UEFI, and the device will boot from the first device in that chain with a bootable image. So if you want to have your SURFACE PRO 3 boot from

Network–>USB–>SSD

Or

USB–>SSD

Or any other potential, hard coded methods, the device will just do that. You don’t need to hold the buttons down any longer and hope that you’ve let them go at the right point, so you don’t have to repeat the process. It makes life, much easier.

However, Microsoft fails to note a couple of very important items in any of the documentation – if you can find it – related to the firmware update or the process for making a recovery image. The USB stick you use must have a GPT partition table.

Say what??

Yeah… a GUID Partition Table.

Mac users will recognize this. This is the partition table scheme that Macs have been using for years. PC’s have been using MBR or Master Boot Record partition tables since the dark days (…before the empire…) of DOS 1.0. However, that was when all PC’s were using BIOS and not UEFI. UEFI will use MBR formatted disks, but they’re much happier with GPT formatted disks.

UEFI

And that’s NOWHERE to be found in the instructions here or here.

That second set is a better recovery image creating process than the first set of instructions. All you have to do is format a USB stick with FAT32, download a zip file, unzip it and copy the contents of the ZIP to the USB stick and you’re in business.

The problem is that the instructions fail to inform you that you have to format the stick with GPT. Which, BTW, Windows will NOT do by default… AND there’s no way that I know of to get any GUI element in ANY Windows to do that, either.

However, you CAN do it with a third party tool called Rufus.

The tool is small, simple and easy to use, and you can use it to do a couple of different things
1. Use it to format a USB stick with the proper partition type, file system and cluster size
2. Use it to create a bootable USB stick from just about any ISO you can get your hands on.

With Rufus, I was able to create a bootable, USB Windows 8.1 Recovery Drive with the downloadable recovery image you can get here. The most important thing you need to know about this process – which, by the way, isn’t documented anywhere – is that in order to create a bootable Recovery Drive for Windows 8.1 AFTER the firmware update from 2015-03-26, you again, must format the USB stick with the following parameters:

Partition scheme and target system type – GPT partition scheme for UEFI computer
File system – FAT32 (Default)
Cluster size – 4096 bytes (Default)

There are a couple of things you need to be aware of:

1. Anything that is on the USB stick will be destroyed when you click Rufus’ Start button. Back it up or copy it off before beginning the process.
2. Microsoft recommends you use a 16GB USB stick for this process, though I’ve been able to demonstrate that an 8GB stick will work.
3. Some partition types and file systems don’t work together. Rufus will tell you which ones don’t work and play well with others when you try to use them together.
4. If you want to create a bootable USB stick for, say, a Windows 10 install, you can specify an ISO image to use.
5. That ISO image will likely have file system requirements that you may have to adhere to. Again, Rufus will tell you when your choices and the file system on the ISO don’t match up.

This app saved my bacon AND my sanity.

I have been working a support thread with Barb Bowman most of the day today, and without her help and DIRECT intervention; I would not have been able to resolve this problem. I would have created yet ANOTHER Microsoft Answer Desk appointment and they likely would have swapped out my SURFACE PRO 3 i5 for another unit, suspecting it to be defective.

Now… the big problems I have will be moving this device over to Windows 10. There are a couple of new issues with that, given that I want to run the Enterprise version of Windows 10 and not the Professional (consumer-based) version.

1. The Enterprise download for Windows 10 is still Build 9926. Currently, Microsoft has us on Build 10049 in the Fast Ring.
2. I don’t want to have to install/ download a version of Windows 10 that’s three versions back.
3. The file system in the Windows 10 Build of 10041 (the last Build released to the Slow Ring and the last official, released ISO) is formatted with an NTFS file system, and Rufus won’t let me create a GPT based partition table with an NTFS formatted ISO. They don’t work and play well together.

This still leaves me with a problem of creating a bootable Windows 10 drive so that I can install Windows 10 Build 10041 on the new Surface Pro 3. From there, I can use Windows Update to upgrade to Build 10049, which includes the new Spartan Browser.

But that’s been my life over the past few weeks. I’ve been banging my head up against this SP3/ Windows 8.1 Recovery Drive issue so I can figure out a way of getting BACK to Windows 10 so I can continue my coverage of the OS on Soft32. As a result of this problem, I may have left my OneNote Disappearing Ink problem in the dust, but I’m without a way to actively test current builds of Windows 10 as I sold my Surface Pro 1 to Gazelle.

The biggest problem here is the total and COMPLETE LACK of documentation. I’m a software quality professional. I TRIED to find information on the issue. I had to start a support thread with Microsoft to get any resolution to this issue. If Microsoft had included this information as part of their instructions for creating a bootable recovery drive, AND if they had their Windows 8.x recovery tool automatically format the USB stick with a GPT partition table and as FAT32 as part of the process that creates the Recovery Drive, this wouldn’t be a problem at all.

Do you have a SP3? Have you had issues booting to a USB drive since the application of the 2015-03-26 Firmware Update? Did you know about Rufus; or about needing to format ANY bootable USB stick to use a GPT partition table? I’d love to hear about your recent experiences with this issue, if you’ve had them. Why don’t you join me in the Discussion Area below, and give me your thoughts?

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