TLDR: Upgrading to Windows 8.1 may lead to a blank/black screen with a mouse cursor on reboot/cold boot. Updated graphics drivers may solve the problem. But if the drivers don’t exist, then use a recovery drive to continue booting to Windows 8.1, then DISABLE the Fast startup option in the Control Panel.
I spent the past weekend rebuilding my sister’s 9+ year old Windows 8 PC from a hard drive crash. It was a Dell Dimension XPS 400 with a 3.0Ghz 64-bit Pentium D dual-core CPU, 2GB RAM, and a Radeon X600 GPU that I gave her years ago. What’s cool is that it was one of Intel’s first x86-64 processors (they wouldn’t dare call it AMD64!), and so it can run 64-bit Windows just fine. Like other Dell systems, there’s nothing exotic with the system’s internals—most of the components can be driven with Microsoft’s standard drivers.
After clean installing Windows 8 (from the $39.99 upgrade promotion in 2012), the display wasn’t running at native resolution because there was no native Radeon X600 driver available for Windows 8. So after some trial and error, I brute-force installed the 64-bit Vista driver, and it worked!
Fast forward 2 years to now, the Windows 8.1 upgrade failed and couldn’t get the system back up and running. Some testing revealed hard disk problems, so the disk was replaced, and the reinstallation process began. Of course the product key I used to reactivate Windows didn’t work because it was already in use, so a phone call to Microsoft solved that problem, and they took remote control of the system and reset the product key on their end. Once Windows 8 was activated, it took 8+ hours to get the system fully updated. I tried loading the 64-bit Radeon X600 driver again, but didn’t work. Then I found the 64-bit Windows 7 driver on AMD’s site, and that did the trick. The Catalyst installer doesn’t work, so you’ll have to update the driver manually and have it look in C:\ATI to find the driver.
Eventually, the system was fully updated to Windows 8.1, and I was happy that it was finally over. I also rebooted the machine around twenty times just to make sure that it started ok, and without error. Finally, I shut down the system, thinking that everything was ok.
A little later, I turned the system back on to see if I missed installing any software my sister needed. Booting seemed fine, and I expected to see the login screen shortly.
But there was no login screen. Just a blank screen screen with the mouse cursor at the center of the screen. What the heck’s going on here?!
The power button was configured for shutdown, so I turned the system on and off several times to see if anything would change. Nope, I kept seeing the blank screen.
Some research made me think that we’d have to get a new video card that fully supported Windows 8. After all, we were using Windows 7 drivers because there were no Windows 8 drivers. All the Windows forums online were on fire, as many users were experiencing the blank screen problem after upgrading to 8.1, with no definitive solution. The interim fix? Go to a previous restore point and don’t upgrade to 8.1. I didn’t want to do this, and tried some other things such as uninstalling and reinstalling the graphics card driver. No dice.
Still not being used to Windows 8’s UI, I was fooling around the Control Panel and was trying to think about how I can work around the problem. The USB Recovery drive I created gives me an option to continue booting into Windows. It performs a warm boot, and then I can get back to the desktop. My idea was that upon getting the system up and running back at my sister’s place, I was going to tell her not to ever turn the computer off. Otherwise, it’s going to have a blank screen and she’d have to use the recovery drive to boot the system. But if there was ever a power loss, I’d have to walk her through the boot process.
So long story short, my plan was to reconfigure the power button to sleep the machine when not in use, instead of powering it off. Then I saw the advanced setting to “Turn on fast startup (recommended)”, and thought that maybe it had something to do with the blank screen, and that perhaps Fast startup was performing some shortcuts to boot faster, but with a higher chance of instability. Might work perfectly fine for new computers, but this machine was almost 10 years old, running with a Windows 7 graphics driver.
And so it worked. Disabling Fast startup, shutting down the machine, and doing a cold boot brought me to the login screen, exactly how it should be.
It was nice to have an old machine running the latest version of Windows, but it came at the price of spending an entire weekend to get the system installed, activated, upgraded, and configured to work with unsupported hardware. We were also able to recover a majority of my sister’s personal files, and immediately picked up an external hard disk to backup the newly installed hard drive with Windows 8’s obscured “System Image Backup” option. We’re also working to use Google Drive and Dropbox for Cloud redundancy.