Windows Partitioning: MediaDirect vs Everyone Else

This is probably more than you really want to know, but it might come in handy at some point…

Prior to refurbishing a friend’s dog-slow XP laptop, I did some exploratory surgery on mine just to make sure I understand the parameters. I’ve long since repartitioned my laptop’s drive and done horrible things to it, so it’s an ideal testbed. Before doing that, of course, I backed up all the partitions & MBR, Just Because.

So, to begin…

Partitions

Dell laptops have (at least) three partitions in addition to the one that holds XP.

  1. Dell Utilities, accessed by Ctrl-F12 during boot, then selecting the “Diagnostics” boot. The same utilities are also on the Utilities CD and you can fetch an ISO, so you really don’t need this partition, but it’s handy to have if something hardware-ish goes wrong. I think I’ve used the diagnostics once, over the course of a decade or so.
  2. Dell Restore, accessed by Ctrl-F11 during boot. This blows away whatever’s in the XP partition and reinstalls an image copy of whatever the laptop had when it shipped. This includes all the apps, bloatware, and other junk that came with your copy of XP. It is not a “reinstallation” of XP that saves your data; you must back up & restore that yourself.
  3. Dell MediaDirect, a special “embedded” version of XP that runs a Dell-branded media player so you can watch DVDs without enduring the lengthy XP boot process. W00t!

It turns out that you cannot restore the drive to its as-shipped condition with all those functions in place and operable, at least without far more tinkering that seems worthwhile under any reasonable circumstances.

Utilities

This must be the first partition on the drive, with partition ID DE. It’s booted by the BIOS and seems relatively rugged; you can restore it from back up and it’ll work.

Restore

This must be either the third or fourth entry in the MBR partition table, with partition ID DB. It’s invoked by code in the MBR’s boot code when you hit Ctrl-F11 during boot. When you repartition the drive and install GRUB to run Linux, you destroy that loader.

The distinguishing feature of the Dell MBR loader is that it puts a blue bar across the top of the screen with www.dell.com (or some such) while it’s booting. If you hit Ctrl-F11 (or, according to some sources, just F11) while that bar’s on the screen, you’ll reach the System Restore program.

If you don’t see the blue bar, you’re sunk for Restore, even if there’s a Restore Partition on the hard drive. Some sources indicate you can boot into it with Grub, but I didn’t try that.

There’s a non-Dell repair utility (search for it; I’ve lost the link) that can generally replace / repair the Dell MBR loader, which naturally kills GRUB in the process. You can tweak the Windows boot process to present you with a menu that includes Linux (!), but the procedure seems fraught with peril.

If the Restore Partition is still on the drive and still listed properly in the MBR table, then you can repair the MBR loader and restore XP to its as-shipped condition. Of course, if you did a partition backup soon after you got the laptop, you could do that yourself.

MediaDirect

Recent Dell laptops have a MediaDirect button with two functions.

  1. When the laptop is off, the MD button turns it on and boots the MediaDirect partition.
  2. When the laptop is on, the MD button fires up a version of the Dell-branded media player as an ordinary Windows program; it has no obvious advantages over Windows Media Center, but, yo, it’s Dell.

It turns out that the MediaDirect button depends on an incredibly frail structure to pull off function 1. The embedded XP + media player dingus lives in a separate, hidden partition with partition ID DD that prevents it from appearing in the normal XP’s view of the machine.

The BIOS checks for that partition when you poke the MD button, rewrites the partition table on the fly to change the ID and make the partition active, then boots the embedded XP. As part of the MD boot, another program evidently rewrites the partition table again to hide the evidence. The reliable sources differ on this. Opinion: WTF were they thinking?

It is thus possible (nay, likely) that Something Bad Will Happen to kill the button’s function. If the BIOS can’t find the appropriate partition ID, it boots the first bootable partition it finds in the MBR. Most often, that’s the normal XP partition and away you go: the MediaDirect partition is just not available.

Dell provides a “MediaDirect Repair” CD with which you can fix that issue. It’s a pretty big hammer, though, as it repartitions & reformats the entire drive, destroying the existing drive contents as it goes. It then reinstalls the Dell Utility partition and replaces the MBR. You manually reinstall XP, then run a setup program from the MD Repair CD that finishes setting up the MD partition.

En passant, MD Repair also replaces the Dell Restore boot loader in the MBR and destroys the Restore partition, so you cannot get your as-shipped XP back. You must restore from the CD… except, of course, that Dell no longer ships XP Reinstallation CDs, expecting that you’ll use the restore partition in case of trouble. Whoops.

MD allows you to create either one or two partitions on the drive, so you may have one giant XP-and-data partition or an XP “system” partition and a “data” partition. Any attempt to change that partition structure prevents MD from finishing its installation: XP will work fine, but MD will be dead. You cannot fix MD without starting all over again from scratch by blowing the drive away.

Oh, yeah, almost forgot. Dell has, natch, several different versions of MediaDirect floating around, each with incompatible repair / restore / update requirements. None of what you’ve just read may apply to your PC.

What a piece of crap!

Fresh Windows

While discovering all this, I did a clean install of XP from the Reinstallation CD (IIRC, I paid extra to get it when I bought the laptop: me being no fool!) with drivers from the Drivers CD. That’s a bit tedious, as the network interface doesn’t work until you feed in the driver CD, so Windows gets pissy. When XP finally sees the Internet, it’s not happy until it downloads all 100+ patches from the Mother Ship; it’s been a while since the XP SP2 version that’s rolled into that CD.

This process does not install the usual bloatware and it turns out that bone-stock Windows XP is actually pretty snappy: it starts up quickly, shuts down even faster, and is generally pretty responsive. You can’t do very much with it, as you don’t have many programs, but … that’s Windows!

I then reinstalled the Windows programs I use with the various & sundry hardware gadgets: device programmers, data loggers, note-taking tablet, stuff like that.

It’s worth mentioning that my well-cared for and rarely used Windows turned into the usual dog-slow lump everybody complains about over the course of two years. Bit rot is real and you need a clean install to fix it.

Bottom line(s)

Dell Restore will be useful if I ever give the laptop away. I’ll zero the drive, restore the Restore partition from my backup, run the fixup program to get the right boot loader, boot into the Restore partition, restore XP to its as-shipped level, do the updates, and be done with it.

I suppose I could do the restore, do a partition backup, restore MediaDirect with one partition for XP, install a base version of XP, finish the MD install, -then- restore XP. I suspect that wouldn’t actually work, which is why I haven’t tried it.

MediaDirect isn’t compelling enough to make me want to futz with it that much, particularly as it appears to be incompatible with any Linux installation.

Props to SystemRescueCD from http://www.sysresccd.org, which I used for all the partition backups, restores, copies, MBR editing, hex dumping, and so forth and so on. All my backups live on the file server in the basement and SRC makes network backups a cinch. Can’t (and shouldn’t) live without it.

At this point, words fail me…

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