Windows Enterprise Desktop

Nov 27 2013   2:53PM GMT

More Interesting 8.1 Upgrade Maneuvers

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

As a person who loves to tinker with his systems, I couldn’t stop myself from rebuilding my primary 8.1 test machine over the past couple of days. It’s a brute of a system with an i7-3700K CPU, 32 GB RAM, almost 6 TB of storage including 2 SSDs, and lots of other bells and whistles. The ostensible reason for the rebuild was to see if a clean install of Windows 8.1 works better than an upgrade from Windows 8 to 8.1 did. Interestingly enough, the answer in this case turned out to be: “In some ways yes, and in some ways no.”

The install certainly went quite quickly: from start to finish, including rearranging SATA drives in the system so I could switch from an older OCZ Vertex 3 128 GB SSD which had been acting as the system drive, to a newer OCZ Vertex 4 256 GB SSD, the whole shebang took less than 20 minutes. With another half hour to get through all the updates and so forth, this was less than half the time the upgrade took on roughly the same configuration (different system disk). I was also able to get all four of the bays in my plug-in 2.5″ drive bay device hooked up and working, so the system now has 9 storage devices attached: 6 SATA-attached HDs and SSDs varying in size from 119 GB (actual, nominal 128 GB) to 1.36 TB (actual, nominal 1.5 TB), plus a couple of USB 3.0 attached hard disks in a ThermalTake dual drive caddy, and a Blue Ray player/burner as well.

But unlike my recent experiences in upgrading Lenovo and Dell notebooks, and with a mini-ITX DIY system, all of which  I took from Windows 8 to 8.1 recently, I didn’t do anywhere near as well on the driver front. To my astonishment, DriverAgent reported 23 out of 40 drivers as bad after the initial install was completed, or over 50% bad drivers. On other systems, I’ve never seen worse than 25% of drivers, and that only once or twice over the decade or so I’ve been using this platform on my various PCs. In fact, DriverAgent is still showing 25% bad drivers — rating I think is bogus for reasons I will shortly explain — even after my best efforts in trying to catch things up. My research has shown, however, that it is not unusual to get better results from an upgrade from 8 to 8.1 than from a clean install on the same hardware, so I’m not alone in observing this phenomenon.

Here’s the most galling example of what DriverAgent is showing me in graphic form for this system right now:


The yellow question mark means “unknown device” and the listings show odd driver discrepancies, too.

Here’s a list of the dates and drivers that DA says I should have installed, next to what’s actually installed for all of these items:

Other Devices Entries from DriverAgent on Win8.1 i7-3770K PC
Item name/info Recommended version Recommended date Actual version Actual date
ASMedia XHCI Controller 11/08/2012 08/16/2013
Intel C200 USB EHC 1C26 12/21/2010 07/31/2013
Intel C200 USB EHC 1C2D 12/21/2010 07/31/2013
Intel SATA AHCI Controller 09/20/2010 09/20/2013
Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti 09/12/2013 11/11/2013

Now the way I understand it, you only need to replace a driver if the one found on your system is older or has a lower version number than the one in the update database. Occasionally, DA gets things wrong and either recommends a driver that causes problems once installed (rare), or a driver for which the automated installer won’t work on the target machine (more common). This is the first time I’ve seen so much stuff show up under the Unknown Device yellow question mark, for which the scanner apparently recognizes most, if not all, of the salient device details (including all of the stuff that I care about). It also doesn’t make sense that DA is tagging these items because none of them is older or lower in version number than the recommended alternative. Bizarre!

But at least the system is running well, and behaving itself nicely. I’m still in the process of reinstalling all my favored apps and tools, but have hit no serious snags so far into the process. As and when I do, I’ll report further on what I learn. Happy Thanksgiving to one and all, too!

[Note: WOW! Talk about a quick fix
I sent a copy of this blog post to Eric Pellerin at DriverAgent right after lunch today, and asked him to share my observations with his engineering folks. About one hour later I got a phone call to say that the problem was known and relates to a change between previous versions of Windows up to Windows 8, and 8.1. That change saw two registry entries per device in earlier versions: a descriptive ID field, plus a GUID to uniquely identify the device in encoded format. In Windows 8.1, the descriptive ID field is no more, and only the GUID is used. The DA software needs to find both entries on the reporting machine, or be able to find them in its own database, so as to avoid the “unknown device” reporting with a yellow question mark. And now I know that this didn’t happen for those particular devices.

But it wasn’t for a lack of effort or a failure of preparation. To get ready for Windows 8.1, the DA team made sure to add all of the descriptive field data they could muster for possible devices, but in the words of engineer Kevin (no last name given nor requested) “we missed a few.” He went on to explain that, in particular, display devices, disk controllers, and USB 3.0 drivers, were prone to lack the DA-supplied descriptive ID data for Windows 8.1 lookups. Because of my input, they were able to identify and fix those offending entries. And the last time I ran the driver scan, all of those Unknown Device items were gone. Check this out! Now THAT’s what I call customer service…



Hey presto! All fixed, and I’m impressed.

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