We’re excited to announce that Mike Halsey’s Troubleshooting Windows 7 Inside Out (ISBN 9780735645202; 500 pages) is now available for purchase!
In today’s post, please enjoy an excerpt from Chapter 13, “Identifying the Source of a Problem.”
Why Problems Occur with Windows
So many things can go wrong with Windows because every single PC is unique . It is highly unlikely, especially outside of a business space, that another PC exists with exactly the same hardware, installed software specification, and updates as yours . Your PC will contain a unique mix of software and hardware components, and there would be no way for any person or any company to ever test all of the possible combinations for stability . There are logo certification programs for Windows hardware and software, and a great many vendors do indeed put their products forward for testing by Microsoft . All that these tests prove, however, is that on a basic Windows system, they will be stable and not cause the system to crash . What can’t be tested is how a certain piece of software or hardware will interact with other software or hardware on your machine, some of which might not have been submitted for certification .
Keep Things Simple
The sheer number of software packages you have installed or the number of hardware devices you have plugged in can also cause problems on your computer . I always keep my Windows systems simple and uncomplicated . When it comes to hardware, I like multifunctional devices such as printer/scanner combinations, and I avoid unnecessary USB devices, such as USB attached speakers . Your PC already comes with audio out jacks that are perfectly good .
I also try to avoid installing all the software that comes with a new device . Wi-Fi adapters and printers are common culprits for loading your PC with bloatware . You may also find, if you have a new PC, that it came preloaded with lots of software that you don’t need and will never use . The software packages that come bundled with hardware devices broadly fall into the following categories .
• Trialware Software that will expire after a period, normally 30 days . If you do not intend to buy the software after this time, you should uninstall it because it might, especially in the case of trial anti-virus software, leave programs and services running that can slow down Windows 7 or cause other problems .
• Dupliware Programs that duplicate Windows features, such as Wi-Fi connection software, media players, or CD/DVD burners .
• Craplets ‘Useful’ utilities that your PC supplier might have preloaded onto your computer . They are intended to simplify certain tasks, such as writing notes or accessing media files . They will always run when Windows launches at startup, although you will probably never use them .
Don’t Install Programs that Duplicate Features in Windows
Why would you want to install a software package that simply duplicates Windows functionality? By default, the operating system can burn CDs and DVDs (including audio discs and ISO image files), play media (video, TV, and audio), display photos and images, and much more .
Although a few Windows functionalities available in Windows Vista have been removed from Windows 7, such as the Calendar and Email software, a great many functions still exist . (Note that these programs have been moved to the excellent Microsoft Live Essentials Suite, which you can get from http://download.live.com .)
The more software you install on your PC, the more problems you invite . If at all possible, avoid having software packages installed that duplicate functionality that’s already in Windows . CD/DVD burning software is a good example . You should need these only if you have a Blu-Ray burner in your machine .
What Are the Causes of Common Problems?
What Are the Causes of Common Problems?
It’s very rare for Windows 7 to fail . Windows will fail on its own only if something disastrous happens, such as a power surge or a sudden reset while Windows is modifying a critical system file . Problems are more commonly caused by something outside of Windows, such as software, updates, and drivers . Physical hardware almost never causes problems in Windows . (But I will talk about diagnosing hardware problems in Chapter 19 .)
A great many of the problems with Windows are caused by poorly written software or hardware drivers or by having too many devices or programs installed on or in your PC . In my experience, the most common problems within Windows are caused, in order, by:
• 1 . Device drivers
• 2 . Poorly written software
• 3 . Poor security
• 4 . BIOS corruption (See more information on resetting the BIOS in Chapter 7, “Hardware”)
The Domino Effect
Some problems can cause what is called a domino effect, where one event sets off a string of other events, so it’s always advisable to diagnose and repair problems as early as you can after they first appear . One unchecked problem can then lead to others, because a malfunctioning process, service, or driver can cause other programs or Windows functions to fail, since these processes, services, or drivers are often shared by several applications or Windows components . For instance, you might have a problem with Internet Explorer crashing repeatedly . This could be because a component Internet Explorer shares with another Windows program, such as Windows Explorer, is corrupt or because another program or process is causing it to crash . I’ll cover the sometimes complex process of repairing Internet Explorer in Chapter 15, “Advanced Repair Methods .” The point is that the source of a problem is not always obvious; a failing program may not be the root cause of the issue . In these cases, you can use more advanced diagnostic methods and tools to diagnose an issue . I will cover these in Chapter 14 through Chapter 16, “Windows Problems Demystified .”
Have You Tried Turning It Off and On Again?
If you’ve ever called an IT support department, the first question the support person probably asked you is, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” This is a running joke with IT support professionals, because you might be amazed how often it fixes problems!
It might not be a permanent fix if there is something more serious happening, but for odd occasions when a software package suddenly crashes, restarting the PC will often fix the problem . Software crashes are common, and just because a program crashes once does not mean it will continue to do so . Crashes can be caused by freak conditions that are unlikely to recur, such as two programs trying to access the same file simultaneously.
With all IT problems, be they hardware or software, this is a good thing to try . You should also restart all external hardware devices attached to your PC when you restart the computer by manually switching them off and on again when you restart your computer.
The Blue Screen of Death
The Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) is notorious and, although not frequently seen in Windows 7, is still feared by many Windows users . The BSOD is the ultimate sign that Windows has died . However, the BSOD can provide some very useful information when you are troubleshooting problems that have caused it .
Figure 13-4 shows an example of a BSOD . I have marked two useful messages within the screen . The top one is the error type that caused the critical stop, in this case a PAGE_ FAULT_IN_NONPAGED_AREA, indicating a memory problem .
The Perpetual Restart
Figure 13-4 The Blue Screen of Death
The second callout, located in the Technical Information section of the screen, is the actual error code, in this case STOP: 0x00000050 . A BSOD may also provide additional information . The BSOD in Figure 13-4 indicates the Windows service that has failed: SPCMDCON .SYS .
If a BSOD provides this type of information, you can use it to search online for more information on the error . In this case, SPCMDCON .SYS is a “mini command console,” which isn’t the most useful description, but a search for the error code reveals that there are several problems with Windows 7 that can cause this specific error . You can search through the results to find a fix that works for you and your PC .
By far the most common cause of BSOD in Windows is a hardware driver error, especially from unsigned drivers that have not been tested and certified by Microsoft . On occasion, other issues, such as a poorly written piece of software or even a power drop, can cause the dreaded BSOD .
The Perpetual Restart
Sometimes Windows 7 will automatically restart when it encounters a critical error . This can cause terrible problems, with a PC constantly restarting and never loading the desktop .
You can disable automatic restart on the boot menu shown in Figure 13-5 . To access this menu, press F8 on your keyboard after the BIOS screen disappears but before the Starting Windows logo appears .
Figure 13-5 Disabling Windows automatic restart on system failure
Select Disable Automatic Restart On System Failure from the options list, as shown in Figure 13-5 . At the next critical stop, Windows will display the error message on the BSOD instead of automatically restarting . You may discover (unless you’re having an extremely bad day) that after making a note of the stop error code, you can start your PC in Safe Mode .
Honing your troubleshooting techniques is one of the most useful computer skills you can develop; every person will find a method that works best for him or her . Because computers are so complex, using a step-by-step approach and attempting to eliminate first what a problem cannot be, will ultimately help you to identify the source of a problem . This is by no means the only way to troubleshoot a PC . You should never forget that sometimes you need to take a step back and sleep on a problem, or you may never find it .