When Windows 10 breaks, don't just blame Microsoft

It's often easy to blame Microsoft for every flaw and failing in our Windows update experience. The fault, dear reader, may not be in the updates, but in our own installs.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

We glory in our righteous indignation when we think the giant has stumbled or mistreated us by giving us a free upgrade that's not perfect.

Well, I finally did it. I upgraded one of my Windows 7 machines to Windows 10. I know. I know. Back in July I said I wasn't going to do it. But I did.

My four year old, super-honkin' Sager laptop -- which we now use as a media center, conferencing tool, and writing machine -- was starting to act up. This is our most actively used machine, so that was a problem.

My first thought was to do a clean Windows 7 install, but I just didn't want to take the time to reconfigure all the software on this very well used machine. I also didn't want to go through the 300 or so updates a fresh Windows 7 install would require. So I decided to see if an in-place Windows 10 install would smooth out the rough edges.

Despite the laptop's manufacturer warning that Windows 10 is not supported for the four year old machine, and offered no Windows 10 drivers on its support site, I decided to take the plunge and give it a try. If it didn't work, I planned to fall back to a fresh Windows 7 install.

The first thing I did was check to see if the component vendor drivers existed for Windows 10. Just because a PC manufacturer hasn't bothered to update their support site for new drivers don't mean they don't exist. The other thing to consider is that Windows 10 has a lot of native drivers that support a good amount of hardware.

Following Ed Bott's advice, I ran the official compatibility checker, which contradicted what the laptop's manufacturer said, and informed me my machine was good to go. Actually, Ed helped a lot with this article. I'll tell you more about that in a bit.

The upgrade process itself went relatively smoothly, except for a period where the updater got hung up on checking for updates. I just let it sit for an hour. When I came back, it had started its run. After about two hours, the checking for updates process completed. About a half hour after that, the whole upgrade was done.

The biggest thing I noticed was just how much like Windows 7 the system felt. In fact, I didn't tell my wife I had done the upgrade and she went on using the machine for a few hours without noticing any difference at all.

Can you imagine how much more successful Microsoft would have been with Windows 8 if they'd made it that seamless an upgrade?

Things started to get wonky

There was one main problem, and this manifested itself to me shortly after the upgrade completed. Windows started spewing notification messages saying "An app default was reset." I got about 20 of these at a time, each accompanied by an error tone.


Most of the file types at issue were image formats. I went into the default settings and set the image defaults to open with Photoshop. That worked for a moment or two, but then the messages came back. Each time, they reset the defaults to the Microsoft Photos app.

What was weird is that I re-associated the file formats with Photoshop multiple times. Each time, I confirmed that they were properly set in Settings. Still, if I did anything, even touch an icon, I'd get another spew of error notifications. When I checked the defaults in Settings again, they'd once again show as associated with the Microsoft Photos app.


I went online and found a lot of users complaining about this issue, including various comments that Microsoft knew about it, hadn't gotten to fixing it, and so on. Reddit had a number of very vocal threads.

InfoWorld, among others, blamed a recent Windows update for causing the problem. I attempted to uninstall that update. It wasn't available for uninstall on my machine, probably because it came with the update to Windows 10.

While it was actually possible to work with media files with this problem, it was certainly annoying. For one thing, the constant stream of error notifications obscured the system tray.

What idiot decided to put the notification error messages in the lower right corner so they block the system tray?

Clearly I wasn't alone, and clearly this was a big problem with Windows 10. It seemed like it might be worthy of editorial, so I pinged Ed Bott with the details.

Ed patiently took me back through the tests I had performed and suggested a few more. None of them solved the problem. At that point, we left it that he would reach out to Microsoft and see what they had to say.

But wait, there's more. As it turns out, this was not Microsoft's fault.

Not a Windows problem

The email collaboration with Ed required me to organize my thoughts in order to describe what was happening on the system with detail and clarity. Towards the end of the discussion, I explained that the error barrage would launch as soon as I even touched an icon, without trying to open it. Even just dragging the icon to a different location on the desktop would trigger the error stream.

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I mentioned that I was starting to think the problem was occurring before the file associations came into play. I had noticed that the problem occurred whenever I touched a media icon, before I even had a chance to launch anything.

Windows 10 feels a lot like Windows 7.1 -- which is as it should be to preserve the comfort, training and muscle memory. Even so, one of the things that happens after a moderately major upgrade is that you see subtle changes. The task bar highlights differently. The Start menu is a bit different.

I also saw, but didn't initially didn't really register, that the hidden icons pop-up in the system tray had a whole bunch of little gray diamonds. I observed that pretty early in my interaction with Ed, but paid it no mind.

Somehow my subconscious was chewing away at the problem. When I described that moving an Explorer icon triggered the errors, I remembered that little gray diamond, which was present in the system tray in Windows 7, was a third party utility that modifies Explorer icons. I also remembered that there was only ever one of those gray diamonds in Windows 7, not a bunch of them.

We were running a product called Mystic Thumbs. Mystic Thumbs generates thumbnail images in Explorer for a wide variety of file types. We installed it back in 2013 or so. Because it just ran behind the scenes, I'd forgotten about it.

Aha! So now I had a set of clues. First, even touching an Explorer icon caused the errors to go crazy. Second, I had a piece of software that updated Explorer icons. Third, that software was behaving differently (all those extra icons in the system tray) than it had in Windows 7.

Light bulb! Perhaps there's a problem with Mystic Thumbs.

Before I go any further, let me be clear about something. Mystic Thumbs is not bad software. It's worked so smoothly all these years that we forgot about it. I was just running an old version. I was running version 3.1.0. Mystic Thumbs is now at 4.0.9. There have been 35 updates to the software since the version I had installed and forgotten about.

I uninstalled the program, rebooted the machine, and re-associated the graphics formats with Photoshop. I haven't had an error message since.

The moral of the story: Don't just blame Microsoft

When this problem exploded shortly after I upgraded, I was convinced Windows 10 was at fault. I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I was almost gleeful about it, because it's something of a guilty pleasure for pundits to have an excuse to point the finger at Redmond.

I know. You always suspected as much. I'm not pure. I'll admit it.

This wouldn't have happened if I did a clean install. But I wanted to do an upgrade because I'm busy, this machine is very nicely set up, and I just didn't want to take the time to do it all over again.

These machines are filled with the detritus of years of use. It might seem easy to simply blame Microsoft, but if we want our machines to function properly, it's important to dig deeper. The root cause of the problem may well be some old software from a third party vendor.

We (users and the tech press alike) are quick to judge Microsoft at an almost unbearably high standard. We glory in our righteous indignation when we think the giant has stumbled or mistreated us by giving us a free upgrade that's not perfect.

The fault, dear reader, may not be in the updates, but in our own installs.

Now that I've solved that issue, I've started noticing some nice new features. My favorite so far is a small one. But because I use it so often, it's big to me. The Snipping Tool in Windows 10 now has a delay-before-snip option. Nice. That'll get used. A lot.

Here's the big take-away: Don't just blame Microsoft. Look deep into the root cause. You might wind up with a working machine and a better appreciation of the hard work all those Microsofties have put in to provide you with it.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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