Linux as a Tool for Windows Hardware Errors
by Mark Rais
Our "Windows to Linux" series also includes: Windows to Linux Beginner's Guide and Introduction to the KDE Desktop.
It may seem a bit ridiculous to some, but on more than one occasion I have been asked to help address a Windows hardware issue by assisting with Linux. The "hardware" problems these people faced were quickly reconciled either by placing Linux on an existing secondary partition of the hard disk, or by using a Linux Live-CD.
In every case I have personally encountered, the problem turned out to be Microsoft Windows, rather than hardware related.
One example of a prevalent failure is related to Windows not recognizing the DVD drive after some extensive use. Upon cursory examination, the problem appears to be related to a hardware failure due to overheating, or perhaps the laser reader being damaged or dirty.
However, if you encounter a Windows error that is explicitly related to hardware such as "device not found" or "no media", you may benefit from trying a Linux Live-CD boot. This will allow you to see if the problem is restricted to your application, your OS or if there is an actual physical problem with the device. In most cases, the Live-CD will boot without issue and you can quickly isolate the problem to Windows.
In fact, Windows has a tendency to throw "hardware" related errors, when in actuality the flaw is in the device driver setting or with the underlying OS configuration. A DVD drive that is not recognized is often corrected by reinstallation of the device driver. Windows throws a major device error, but often the error is then corrected when the same exact driver is reinstalled. This again points to the possibility that the problem is related to a systemic OS weakness rather than a device driver bug.
To understand the scope of the hardware related false positives triggered under Windows, you have only to look on Google for the number of people trying to replace what they assume are failed devices. One example is to look at how many are replacing their Toshiba SDR2412 DVD drives. Is it that some, and perhaps even many, of these DVD drives are being replaced because the OS triggered a "device failure" when it was not the device that failed?
In my quest to help colleagues deal with Windows hardware issues, my tool of choice for verifying the underlying culprit is Linux.
Linux offers something that Windows can not. It allows a much more precise examination of the specific device in question and does not attempt to cover the anomaly by inappropriately mixing the hardware device conditions with the OS responses. In simple words, where Windows fails to properly abstract the hardware from the OS, Linux does a much more effective job.
To this point, even the system BIOS on the computers tended to properly identify the device in question. Windows throws a "Device not found" error, even when the system BIOS properly identifies the DVD drive prior to Windows boot. This is another signifier that Windows leaves much to be desired, not only in terms of its ability to communicate anomalies to the user, but also to effectively handle device operations.
For one example, using several varieties of Windows DVD movie applications, I found that when a disc is removed from the drive while the title menu is displayed, a complete failure of the application can sometimes occur, leaving the entire OS in a wait state.
Windows recovery from this seemingly major device failure is useless, and the system requires a full restart (hot reboot). In the case of this happening with laptops, Windows does not even allow a shut down, and therefore requires that the battery be removed from the laptop (I tested Toshiba Satellite Pro and Dell Latitude D810). A seemingly simple mistake of removing the DVD disc prematurely may on occasion completely destabilize the entire OS.
With the same computers, not only did Linux (I used Knoppix Live-CD and PCLinuxOS installed on secondary partition) identify the hardware and verify that it is functioning; it also was able playback the DVD without any anomalies.
By using Linux, I can often determine that the culprit is, as I guessed, a failure of Windows OS to properly identify the hardware -- rather than the hardware going bad.
Although there are indeed some issues with device drivers in the Linux realm, more often than not related to proprietary conditions, the fact remains that Linux is performing more thorough checks prior to throwing hardware related failure responses. As a result, Linux can actually assist in identifying such Windows related device failures.
At the very least, a business will benefit by utilising Linux when troubleshooting Windows hardware failures. Although ironic, and perhaps mildly humorous, it further validates Linux as a stable and useful OS.
I propose that there are a number of hardware updates and corrections being made to systems that are often related to Windows OS failures rather than at the physical layer. Linux is a very useful tool for uncovering such problems.