An extremely unusual Radeon driver bug can badly break Windows, but AMD is on it.
This week, my trusty and meticulously secured PC, which I use to test graphics cards, suffered a catastrophic failure. Despite my attempts to troubleshoot the issue by booting into Windows repair mode, the system remained unresponsive. Upon further investigation, I discovered that the cause of the problem was a rare bug in the interaction between Windows and AMD’s newest WQHL-certified Radeon drivers, Adrenalin 23.2.2. After some quick online research, I learned that a small number of other users had also experienced this issue since the release of Adrenalin 23.2.1 in mid-February, with similarly severe consequences.
Unless you happen to be the executive editor of a computer publication with a vast network of contacts, this particular situation could be an utter catastrophe for you. However, it is worth noting that AMD representatives are highly receptive to feedback on social media regarding drivers. Luckily, I had the opportunity to collaborate closely with AMD to resolve the problem.
The AMD engineers have not only identified the possible origin of this unusual bug but have also uncovered a similarly unusual workaround that has assisted in restoring my PC. Although a permanent solution is being explored, those impacted can potentially mend their systems using this workaround instead of performing a complete Windows reinstallation.
This is what occurred, the manner in which it occurred, how you can prevent it, and what you can do to remedy the situation in the event of a comparable catastrophe on your PC.
How AMD’s Radeon drivers broke my Windows install
This week, I obtained a brand-new custom Radeon RX 7900 XT for testing purposes. To ensure accurate benchmark results, I followed my strict standard operating procedure, which involves updating the PC and preparing it for benchmarking. Prior to swapping in the new graphics card or installing new drivers, I take several measures to restore the system to a “like-new” state, minimizing potential issues that may arise from using GPUs of different brands. The system hardware remains unchanged, with only essential benchmarking tools installed, to ensure consistency.
After setting up a GeForce RTX 4070 Ti to test Nvidia’s RTX Video Super Resolution, I updated Windows 10 manually. Next, I shut down the system and swapped out the 4070 Ti for a Radeon RX 7900 XT, which booted up without any issues. To fully remove all Nvidia software from my PC, I utilized Windows 10’s Add and Remove Programs tool, followed by the DDU Uninstaller tool to ensure complete eradication of any remaining Nvidia bits. The entire process proceeded smoothly.
Then the problems started.
To obtain the WQHL-certified Adrenalin 23.2.2 drivers recommended for a 7900 XT, I launched Chrome and visited AMD’s website. After downloading the drivers, I opted for a clean installation by selecting the “factory reset” option instead of upgrading in-place. However, this decision, combined with a Windows update that occurred silently in the background without my awareness, is likely what caused my system to fail.
Things were fine until the software prompted me to restart my PC to complete the installation of the driver. After rebooting, the MSI BIOS splash page appeared as usual, but the moment it tried to load Windows, a Blue Screen of Death appeared, displaying the “Inaccessible Boot Device” error code (unrelated to the AMD issue) shown in the tweet’s image below. This was frustrating. The system then got stuck in a continuous loop of BSOD > reboot > BSOD > reboot without initiating automatic repair or displaying the typical Windows troubleshooting options.
Due to time constraints, I was unable to troubleshoot the issue at hand. Therefore, I turned off the system and attempted to try again the following day. Unfortunately, I encountered the same problem. In an attempt to resolve the issue, I removed the custom Radeon RX 7900 XT that I needed for testing purposes and replaced it with AMD’s reference Radeon RX 7900 XT. After two cycles of the system experiencing a blue screen of death followed by a reboot, Windows initiated an automatic repair process after the BIOS splash screen. At first, it appeared that the repair had been successful, but to my dismay, I soon realized that my assumption was completely incorrect.
Selecting Startup Repair had a counterproductive effect and worsened the issue. After the repair process was complete, the screen became unresponsive and went completely dark while still powered on. Subsequently, every attempt to boot the computer resulted in a brief moment of the “Windows thinking about it” circle spinning after the BIOS screen, followed by an infinite black screen. The Windows installation was severely damaged to the point that even BSOD crashes were not occurring anymore, and there was no opportunity to attempt standard Windows troubleshooting methods.
I attempted to alleviate my desperation by swapping out the Radeon RX 7900 XT for GPUs that I had tested in the previous two weeks, namely the RTX 4070 Ti and the Intel Arc A750, both of which had performed reliably. However, this proved to be unsuccessful.
After conducting a Google search, I came across an article on WCCFTech from mid-February, which was one of several sources that reported on numerous user complaints about Adrenalin 23.2.1 causing their Windows systems to fail. This can be a highly frustrating experience, especially for regular PC gamers. After sharing my difficulties on Twitter, an AMD representative reached out to me promptly. While it’s possible that my position as the executive editor of PCWorld may have expedited the response, AMD is known to be highly attentive to driver feedback on social media. My publicized issues enabled AMD to investigate the root cause, and I am glad to report that I was able to successfully troubleshoot the problem, and that a permanent solution is being explored.
How to fix Radeon drivers breaking your Windows install
Although a clean Windows installation on a new SSD was an option, we opted to spend two days troubleshooting the issue. During this time, AMD engineers attempted to reproduce and diagnose the problem. We tried several troubleshooting fixes, such as swapping GPUs, testing new monitors, disconnecting the display cable at different times, clearing the CMOS, and verifying that UEFI was selected in the BIOS instead of CSM (which it was). However, none of these attempts proved successful.
Earlier today, I received another suggestion from AMD’s team. They proposed slamming the power button when the BIOS splash screen appears after turning on the PC, in an attempt to prompt Windows into performing an automatic recovery. Despite attempting this method four times without success, I was advised to persist and assured that it would eventually work. Finally, after fifteen attempts in total, the approach was successful.
Although I am uncertain about the exact reason for its ignition, timing appears to have played a role in it. When the BIOS keypress options were displayed, pressing the power button caused my PC to shut down instantaneously. When I pressed it after the spinning “Windows thinking” icon appeared, my PC stayed on but didn’t respond, leading to another black screen. Finally, I was able to press the power button at the precise moment when the BIOS options disappeared and the Windows circle appeared, initiating an automatic recovery attempt.
Following some time of Windows processing, I found myself in the Windows recovery tools menu where I had the option to restart my PC or access advanced options. I navigated to the troubleshooting menu in the advanced options and chose System Restore as Startup Repair had worsened my PC’s condition earlier. After selecting a restore point from mid-February and enduring two extremely frustrating days, my test rig was finally operational again.
If you have experienced issues with recent Adrenalin drivers corrupting your Windows installation, you can try the following steps to recover your system. Additionally, you can use the traditional method of accessing the Windows recovery tool, which can be found in the “Use the Startup Repair function” section. However, instead of using the Startup Repair option, it’s recommended to use a restore point. Use the process described below to access the menu with both options.
How did this occur and what measures can you take to avoid it happening to you?
How to avoid Radeon drivers breaking your Windows install
AMD informed me that they had to make several attempts to replicate the problem in their labs as it was extremely uncommon. During a call, one of their representatives even referred to me as “patient zero.” While their investigation is ongoing, the company gave me the following statement.
We have identified an issue that may occur in very few cases when installing AMD Software: Adrenalin Edition, if a PC update happens simultaneously. We are presently investigating the matter and suggest that users apply or pause any system updates before installing the driver. Additionally, we advise unchecking the “Factory Reset” option during the AMD driver installation process. Our team is dedicated to resolving issues as quickly as possible, and we urge users to report any problems with AMD Software: Adrenalin Edition via the Bug Report Tool.
It should be noted that my Windows 10 version had been updated before I tried installing the Adrenalin Software. However, it’s possible that the Game Bar or another component of Windows was silently updated in the background, leading to this catastrophic outcome.
To avoid the issue, just refrain from selecting the factory reset option when installing new Radeon drivers. This step is unnecessary if you already have a functional Radeon GPU and are only upgrading to the latest drivers. It’s as straightforward as that. Following this approach helped me restore my test system, and I have now successfully installed and am using Adrenalin 23.2.2 without any issues.
A damned shame
It’s regrettable that this occurred, especially for myself and fellow gamers whose Windows installation was severely impacted. Additionally, it’s a setback for AMD.
Over the past five years or so, I have been an outspoken supporter of AMD’s committed efforts to enhance their drivers and software. Despite criticisms from users about the subpar quality of Radeon drivers for a long time, AMD took notice and devoted significant resources to refine them. As a result, Team Red’s drivers have surpassed Nvidia’s widely used Game Ready drivers in numerous aspects. In June 2022, AMD expressed confidence in their software, declaring that it offers “industry-leading stability” with “99.95% of users experiencing no crashes when AMD Software is installed.”
It is undeniable that AMD’s driver stability and overall performance have significantly improved over the years, putting them on par with the industry’s best. However, the incident where only 0.05% of users experienced catastrophic issues is a rare but unfortunate edge case. Even though such occurrences are infrequent, they can significantly damage the efforts to restore the reputation of Radeon software. Whether Windows or AMD is responsible, the negative impact of this kind of experience can prompt many PC gamers to completely abandon Radeon GPUs and discourage others from using them. It is regrettable that such incidents can have long-term consequences.
Although I personally experienced a severe issue, only occurring in rare circumstances, with several Radeon GPUs included in our roundup of the best graphics cards, I have decided not to remove them. This is because AMD offers excellent value compared to Nvidia, which has increased prices for its GeForce line. Furthermore, AMD’s drivers are generally reliable. Despite the complexity of the PC ecosystem, no software is perfect, and in this instance, AMD’s direct assistance was invaluable. While my experience was deeply frustrating, the chances of it happening to others are microscopic. Hopefully, this article can be of help to anyone who may encounter a similar issue.
It’s rare for people to select the factory install option. So, make sure you don’t choose it either until a permanent solution is made available.