The 'black screen of death': fact, fiction, or FUD?

The 'black screen of death': fact, fiction, or FUD?

Summary: Worried about the Black Screen of Death? Don't. Startup problems are not new to PC hardware and operating systems, and the phenomenon definitely isn't limited to the Windows operating system. Blank or black screens can strike Macs, Linux, and Windows. Fortunately, they're relatively rare. Here's what to look for and how to troubleshoot a black screen if you encounter one.

SHARE:

Here’s what you need to know about the so-called Black Screen of Death: There’s no such thing.

Yes, yes, I know: The mainstream and tech press published hundreds of stories last week using that term to describe a supposedly new phenomenon affecting Windows PCs. Virtually all of those stories were rehashes of sloppy reporting based on a blog post from a minor security company that later admitted it was wrong and apologized for the story. But as I explain in this post, startup problems are not new to PC hardware and operating systems, and the phenomenon definitely isn’t limited to the Windows operating system.

Editors at tech sites love to write “Black screen of death,” because it echoes the well-known “Blue Screen of Death,” or BSOD—a dreaded event in any Windows user’s workday, to be sure. But it’s not a fair comparison: that distinctive blue screen is not a bug, it's a feature, more properly known as a STOP error. STOP errors allow Windows to respond to a catastrophic hardware or software failure that prevents the system from continuing to operate. A STOP error captures diagnostic information about the source of the failure and displays it as white text on a blue background. If you see a BSOD, there are debugging tools and well-documented troubleshooting techniques you can use to resolve it.

By contrast, when your PC or Mac torments you with a black screen (or, more accurately, a blank screen), all you know for sure is that the startup process failed at some point. Unlike with a BSOD, there’s no crash file to analyze, no tools you can use to figure out the root cause. The first step in the troubleshooting process involves figuring out where the problem lies, which can be anywhere in the chain of events that begins when you push the power button. It might be a bad system configuration, faulty hardware, defective third-party software, a buggy driver, a race condition or hang in a system service, corruption in the file system or registry, or malware.

So what does it mean if you start your PC or Mac and end up staring at a blank screen instead of seeing your familiar user environment? If you’re using Windows Vista or Windows 7, there are some known causes that I’ll list later in this post. But first, I want to dispel the myth that this sort of trouble is widespread, new, or unique to Windows.

Next page: Black screens on Windows, OS X, and Linux -->

 

<-- Return to introduction

The phenomenon I’m talking about here is not new, and it’s not limited to Windows PCs. That pesky blank (or black, or gray, or light blue) screen can occur with any operating system. A Wikipedia page suggests that the term was coined in 1991 by a technician deploying Windows 3.0; the same page notes with dry understatement, “The black screen of death has been present in all versions of OS/2.”

In the week or so since the current hysteria began, I’ve received a handful of reports from readers suggesting they’re experiencing this problem. In all three cases I did some remote troubleshooting and was able to determine that the problem was related to hardware. This lengthy but off-topic thread at a Microsoft-run forum for notebook and Tablet PC developers, which started in March 2008 and still flickers back to life every so often, shows the phenomenon in action. Most of the participants describe getting stuck at a black screen on a PC with with Windows Vista installed. But there are at least four separate problems described in the reports there.

The most interesting one involved a hardware defect with a large number of HP Pavilion (DV2000, DV6000, and DV9000) and Compaq Presario (V3000 and V6000) notebooks. The problem was related to overheating of defective NVIDIA GPUs, and was acknowledged in a late-2007 “Limited Warranty Service Enhancement” in which HP offered free replacements and doubled the normal warranty on affected systems. Dell offered a similar warranty extension on notebooks that it sold with the same defective part.

Depending on the root cause, problems with a blank or black screen can often be cured in less drastic fashion: by doing a hardware reset, using the Windows System Restore and Startup Repair utilities, or booting into Safe Mode and resetting a defective video driver configuration. I found several known “black screen” issues with Windows 7 and Windows Vista documented in the Knowledge Base; these are all fixed with hotfixes, stability/reliability updates. or service packs. (My full troubleshooting list begins on page 3.) It’s entirely possible, even likely, that similar unpatched issues are out there waiting to be fixed.

There’s no evidence that any of these issues are widespread at the present time or that a new issue is to blame for them. Microsoft says it’s seen nothing in its Product Support system to suggest this is a significant issue. That judgment has been confirmed by third parties as well. Graham Cluley, Senior Technology Consultant at security firm Sophos, wrote last week that “we [haven’t] had any reports from customers” of black-screen issues.

As I researched reports of blank or black screens at startup, I was struck by the similarities between Windows and OS X, where the same exact problems (and similar solutions) appear on support sites. In September of this year, after Snow Leopard was released, Apple support forums lit up with cries for help from users reporting that they had encountered a “black screen” at startup or during operation. Many of those user reports, ironically, use the phrase “black screen of death.” Apple has officially acknowledged the issues with a pair of support bulletins, titled Mac OS X: Gray screen appears during startup and Mac OS X v10.6: Gray screen after installing Snow Leopard. A companion help page lists what to do If you see a blue screen at startup (“you may have a problem with damaged or incompatible startup items or software”). The last two items on the list of five suggested remedies involve repairing your hard disk or (gasp) reinstalling Mac OS X. Oddly, the “I’m a Mac” guy never mentions that this might be necessary.

OS X “black screen” reports aren't new, and like the Windows variety they occur for all sorts of reasons. An official Apple support document lists startup sequences and error codes for Intel-based Macs. It notes that a “black screen” can be caused by a POST or BootROM failure. If the kernel fails to hand itself off to launchd, you get a “grey screen with Metallic Apple and spinning gear.” A blue screen means that the login process failed. Another troubleshooting topic, last revised in June 2009, explains what to do if your Apple notebook's display has no picture after you turn it on. You might need to reset the PRAM or the System Management Controller (SMC), which is explained in yet another support article.

A wave of incidents similar to the September Snow Leopard wave happened in mid-2006 with the 10.4.7 update to OS X, as documented in a pair of Apple support bulletins:

A troubleshooting article at Apple’s support site explains how to resolve startup issues in OS X 10.4 or earlier, which includes this description: “Your computer starts but either it won't reach the login screen, or it may reach the login screen but not load the Desktop after you log in… “ For OS X 10.3.9 and earlier, Apple devoted an entire troubleshooting topic to the issue, starting with this text, which sounds like the sort of thing you would think only applied to the “I’m a PC” guy:

Your Mac won't start up in Mac OS X

Nothing can be more frustrating than turning on your Mac only to find that it won't start up. Instead of seeing the Finder, you see a blue or gray screen, an icon of a broken folder, a kernel panic, a flashing question mark, or a computer that just sits there. What can you do? Don't worry. It could be a simple issue that you can fix yourself...

The list of symptoms mentions an “empty, blue screen” and a “blank, gray screen.”

Black, blue, gray. It’s nice to know Mac and PC have something in common.

And don’t get cocky just because you use Ubuntu or some other Linux distro. I mean, the fact that the official Ubuntu Wiki has an entire section dedicated to Troubleshooting Blank Screen Issues might suggest that it is capable of suffering from the same woes as other operating systems, right? I found plenty of posts pleading for help with “black screen of death” issues in Ubuntu forums.

Next page: Troubleshooting startup problems on Windows PCs -->

 

<— Previous page: Black screens on Windows, OS X, and Linux

If you’re experiencing problems with a Windows PC that refuses to start up properly after it previously worked fine, your starting point should be the hardware manufacturer’s web site. In some cases, the issue is tied to a specific hardware model or family. For example, Windows 7 has been known to lock up or display a black screen on a Dell Vostro 1320, 1520, or 1720 notebook; the problem is caused by a resource conflict between the touchpad and the video BIOS, and can be fixed with a BIOS update. A more general article, published in August 2009, describes how to resolve blank-screen issues with a video driver update.

For notebook owners, HP has a document that decodes Blank Screen LED Error Codes. Another support document explains How to Troubleshoot Problems When a Computer Does Not Start Up or Boot Properly, which in turn links to more detailed diagnostic checklists for different stages of the startup process. One of those documents includes a list of specific black-screen errors and advice for troubleshooting errors where the system “may appear to stop responding with an empty, black screen.” Gateway has general troubleshooting documents as well: My notebook does not power on and Notebook – No POST / No Video.

From these documents and from my own experience, I’ve put together a brief checklist of things you might want to look for.

System won’t power on at all

In this scenario, the system is plugged in and you see lights indicating that it’s receiving power, but pressing the power button has no effect. The problem might be related to power management. Your first troubleshooting step should be to perform a hard reset of the system. Disconnect all external devices and unplug the AC power cord (remove the battery from a portable PC as well). Wait 10 seconds or so and then plug in the AC power cord and press and hold the power button for at least five seconds. If the PC still doesn’t start up, you have a serious hardware problem, possibly a bad power supply or a failed motherboard. If you hear hard disk noises and beeps that suggest the system is starting up but nothing appears on the screen, you might have a failed video card or monitor.

System powers on but won’t boot from installed operating system

If you’re able to watch system messages during the Power On Self Test (POST) routine but the system seems to stop responding before you get to the Windows logo or to a login screen, there might be problems with the startup files on your hard disk, or a recent configuration change (software or driver) might have interfered with the ability of the shell to load. To troubleshoot, try booting from the Windows installation disk or a system repair disk. Both Windows Vista and Windows 7 include a Startup Repair option that checks for common startup issues and automatically fixes registry corruption, missing or damaged system and driver files, disk or file system metadata corruption, errors in boot configuration data, and incompatible drivers or updates. It can also detect memory and hard disk errors, although it can’t repair them.

If you can’t boot from the installation media or a repair disk, you probably have a hardware problem.

Windows loads, but you get a black screen when you try to log in

This type of error might indicate a problem with your user profile. The second option on the System Recovery menu, System Restore, can roll back recent changes to a known good state, which might allow you to log on. If all else fails, try to start in Safe Mode and create a new user profile. If the new profile works, you can copy your data from the old profile and get back in business fairly quickly.

Known issues for Windows 7 and Windows Vista

If you’ve made it this far, you can also check for documented issues with your version of Windows. Here's a list of documented issues I've found for Windows 7 and Windows Vista:

For Windows 7, your computer might stop responding at a black screen if a screen saver is set to activate in the same time as the system is set to sleep. A hotfix is available. There's also a cumulative stability and reliability update for Windows 7 that corrects a variety of black-screen issues, including one that occurs when the computer resumes from hibernation.

For Windows Vista, with three years of history, the list of issues is much longer. If you upgraded a Lenovo computer to Windows Vista from Windows XP, the Onekey Recovery program could result in black screen. Another issue caused Vista systems to stop responding (hang) at a black screen because of file system corruption within the $Txf directory. You might also experience a black screen with an 0xc0000034 error message after installing a Windows Vista service pack.

When a volume on the hard disk is corrupted, a conflict between the Autochk.exe application and the NTFS system causes the system to reboot repeatedly and eventually stops responding with a black screen. The recovery process is complicated. Fortunately, a hotfix was published shortly after the issue was discovered and is presumably incorporated in Vista Service Pack 2. Another black-screen problem occurs because of a deadlock in the remote procedure call (RPC) component. It too has been addressed with a hotfix.

The most serious black-screen error I found for Vista systems involves a black screen and a system that stops responding. After you enter your user credentials in the logon dialog box, you see a black screen. You can still move the mouse pointer but cannot start applications. "After a while, the operating system stops responding," according to the Knowledge Base article. This issue occurs when an event log is corrupted; at startup. the Event Log service spins in an infinite loop, preventing you from logging on. I found reports of this issue on forums for several months this year before Microsoft finally released a hotfix in July of this year.

In each of these cases, the problem was relatively rare and difficult to diagnose. That's small comfort for anyone who had to deal with the issue. I have no doubt that a few similar issues are hanging around in Windows 7 waiting to be discovered and fixed.

Topics: Windows, Apple, Hardware, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, Software

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

126 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Off Topic

    Hey Ed,

    any idea why MS seems to be canning the W7 family pack 3 license ?
    Alan Smithie
    • "Limited time offer"

      That's the official statement anyway:

      http://www.edbott.com/weblog/?p=2699
      Ed Bott
      • Just another reason for consumers to look

        into alternatives. $120 to upgrade one home machine is ridiculous. Of course if you look at the anytime upgrade prices, should be an indication of the greed going on in the MS house. $120 difference between Professional to Ultimate, when the retail price difference is only $20. Not that there is any real good reason for that upgrade, just pointing out the obvious.
        Snooki_smoosh_smoosh
        • Ed and I have had this argument before...

          My limit is $200 for an unlimited, single location family pack, on a mix of XP and Vista machines. I currently have 7 computers plus a couple of virtual machines. If MS wants to keep me, that is my limit. If not, I will just wait and probably switch to Linux when XP is no longer supported.

          It is MY money and I set the terms.
          Economister
          • I don't recall it being an argument

            Here's the original exchange, for those who want to read it:

            http://talkback.zdnet.com/5208-12354-0.html?forumID=1&threadID=66513&messageID=1255420

            Personally, I think the idea of an unlimited Windows upgrade license is ludicrous. It won't work with Microsoft's business model, which requires activation on a per-PC basis.

            If you have 7 PCs in a home, I think you qualify as a hobbyist and should consider TechNet, which gives you 10 licenses for each Windows edition.
            Ed Bott
          • You didn't agree with him...i.e. and argument - nt

            nt
            TheBottomLineIsAllThatMatters
          • To make sense, you would have to

            start at the root. I do not feel it worth revisiting/rehashing that "discussion" however, although I appreciate the link.

            "Ludicrous" is probably WAY too strong. There may be practical issues in implementing it, but that is not MY problem. In addition, there are market realities out there. Linux is becoming a more and more viable option. Do not forget the comment attributed to Gates, where he allegedly said that he'd rather people pirated Windows than use someone else's OS. In this case, they can have $200 (which is a LOT more than the pirated or Linux "price") or have me use someone else's OS. Their call.

            I know MS is trying to squeeze as much as they can out of each customer. With me, they have a choice. Give me a deal that I am happy about or risk losing me forever. There is nothing ludicrous about that. That is my (and in this case also their) market reality.

            And regarding the Technet, I briefly looked into that if my memory serves me correctly, but it turned out to be much more expensive over any reasonable OS life. Please correct me if I am wrong on this point.
            Economister
          • Goodbye

            They are not giving you the deal.
            m.leddy@...
          • Technet does not give you 10 licenses,

            It gives you 10 activations. If you reload a single PC 10 times you have used up your activations. You could activate on 10 machines, but if you need to reinstall Windows on 1 you are buying a new license. At least this is what I read on one MVP blog. If I am wrong feel free to correct me.

            Now I have never been a technet subscriber, Unless those activations can be reset every year after paid renewal, it may or may not be worth paying the money. I have been kicking around the idea, trying to weigh the benefit of the subscription to the recurring renewal cost.
            Snooki_smoosh_smoosh
          • You are both incorrect.

            It gives you 10 separate product keys. To confirm this I just looked at my technet page for my Windows 7 Ultimate x64. I've installed on three machines so far and it lists three separate product codes and in the Claimed/Maximum column it says 3/10 . Every time I click the "get another key" link it gives me one more product ID and incrments the claimed/maximum colum - i.e. next time I get a new product key it will change to 4/10. And this goes by version as well. For example for Windows 7 professional I'm still at 0/10 because I haven't claimed any keys yet, but I could get 10 of those in addition to my 10 ultimate keys.

            However...that does not mean that everyone should just go out and buy a technet subscription. Although technet copies of Microsoft software are full versions with no expiration, they are still not intended for production use. They are basically for trial and evaluation purposes. For example I'm currently experimenting with configurations that will be eventually deployed in our office under our volume license product keys. But while I'm going through that process I can use technet copies and product keys even if I don't have any actual licenses. Comes in handy when you are trying to decide if you will be upgrading in the first place.
            cornpie
          • You appear to be misunderstanding how activation works.

            [i]It gives you 10 activations. If you reload a single PC 10 times you have used up your activations.[/i]

            To my knowledge you can reactivate the same PC any number of times.

            Product Activation works by generating a unique identifier for a PC based on its hardware profile. This unique ID is combined with the product key and then forwarded to the activation servers. Based on this the activation servers do the following:

            1. If the product key has not been activated the activation succeeds and the hardware profile becomes associated with the hardware profile included with the activation request.

            2. If the product key has already been activated then the hardware profile on record (with the activation servers) is compared to the hardware profile in the activation request.

            2a. If they match the activation succeeds.

            2b. If they do not match the activation fails.

            Using this method you are able to reactivate the same PC any number of times.

            The process is more involved as it does allow for the hardware profile to change slightly. But this should give you a general idea. Since the details of activation are unknown the above is subject to error.

            It would be nice if Microsoft provided a means to deactivate Windows so the software can be transferred to a new system without having to manually reactivate.
            ye
          • Ed You Haven't Used Linux Recently! :D

            Referring to one single distro publishing "Black Screen of Death" issues, only represents how well documented Ubuntu is!

            If you ran a survey on Linux users in general, I doubt seriously that you'd find more than 1% actually experiencing the problem. Near none if the install used is from a Live DVD OS image transfer install. On say a distro like Sabayon (highly successful distro based on Gentoo Linux). This OS install comes with Adobe Flash, Java, and most every codec in the world pre-installed even on 64bit Hardware that M$ has failed to get Adobe to co-operate on!

            Then here you have, your true blue, green, orange, yellow loyalties crying about BKSOD common on all OSes... haha.. Or perhaps you are on a commission basis with Microsoft sales?

            BTW.. You and your cronies are way off on your Linux actual installs. The truth is far greater Linux installs exist, than you'd care to expose. Sabayon is a relative newcomer but boasts Downloads: 22,774,956

            Now I know being it's just 3yrs old OS, it's only a 10th of what Ubuntu has out there now. If you consider all Linux distros, that at least half of the downloads are indeed installed or at least running in virtual machines somewhere(as our own Director of FBI concluded, is the most secure way to do your banking and online purchases), then you might realize that the numbers put out by M$ and Apple are for Factory Installed Systems Only!

            When I can take a 64bit PC, boot to a fully running Live version of Linux with all drivers installed and enough applications to keep me working for ages, the myth is busted. That on an out of box install, that M$ and Apple proprietary powerhouse numbers bubble, has been busted wide open for what it is. A marketing farce and ploy to discredit Linux, in spite of it powering nearly every Super Computer in the top 100. Including IBM's DOE Roadrunner at Los Alamos. Greater than 90% of all HPC (high performance computers) run Linux. Apache powers the web you use and Google owns the most popular Search Tools under the heavens, run on what? Linux!!!

            Your cars are powered by versions of Linux. Your cell phones are increasingly running on some form of Linux or Unix derivative. Open Source is being taken up by even the competition in the way of Nokia's Symbian going Open as well in the Cell Phone Market!

            Need I add that for the most part, Stock Exchanges Worldwide run on Linux. The number of Banks that actually use Linux has increased at a phenominal rate. But no wonder, you have the NSA writing a Secure Kernel for Linux ONLY!!!

            So selling Windows as the Utimate OS will certainly get harder for you and M$. Not easier as you make it out to be! My Grandma can operate Linux today and she is totally freaked out by Vista and the 7ista I showed her last week!!! ;)
            i2fun@...
          • Ditto

            I agree 100% with i2fun. If you think i2fun is on
            mark, just reply to his post with the subject
            "Ditto".
            FXEF
          • You're wrong

            I'm running both Ubuntu and OpenSUSE here.

            But thanks for that sales pitch.
            Ed Bott
          • Goodbye

            MS does not want to keep you.
            m.leddy@...
        • Cute, but, what does this have to do with bsod's

          nt
          eargasm
    • They DID say it was for a limited time

      Of course one would expect it would have lasted at least through the holiday shopping season. <a href="http://news.cnet.com/8301-10805_3-10409797-75.html">CNet reports that it simply sold out.</a>

      I'm sure that if enough of a stink is made another offering will be made.
      Michael Kelly
      • How do you "sell out"?

        How is a "non-material" product ever out of supply?
        Hallowed are the Ori
        • The "pretty" packaging might be (nt)

          nt
          Economister
        • They go to press

          They have X number of copies in that pressing and they say "This is all we are selling". As far as I know this was not available as a download.
          Michael Kelly