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Troubleshooting Windows 7 With Microsoft's Built-In Tools

Troubleshooting Windows 7 With Microsoft's Built-In Tools
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Firefox on Windows 7 had been behaving...oddly. The app would simply stop working and exit to the desktop. Yet, parts of the Firefox kernel would remain in memory, making it impossible to restart the application without firing up Task Manager and manually killing the process. It happened a half dozen times a day. I was beginning to contemplate a browser change.

Then I saw a message in the Windows Action Center. But more about that shortly.

By most measures (sales figures, user satisfaction, OEM pickup) Windows 7 has been a major success for Microsoft. But no operating system is perfect, and you will encounter problems on occasion. The vast array of hardware, drivers, and applications available for Windows necessarily means that issues will inevitably crop up.

The good news: Windows 7 gives you a robust set of tools to track down problems you encounter. We’ll take a look at a number of those tools, and how they can help you in your problem solving.

Given the complexity of the modern PC, it’s easy to think that any issue you encounter is an OS issue. I once had a user contact me about a technical issue back in the Windows XP era. He raged at some length about how poorly Microsoft had designed Windows, and how Windows needed to do a better job of helping him troubleshoot his PC. His actual problem turned out to be a bad southbridge. His USB controller had apparently died, so the system never made it past the POST, locking on the USB enumeration phase. I’m not sure how Windows could have helped him with that particular problem. Anyway...

My point is that you need to have some basic understanding of the problem you’re encountering. On top of that, you need to keep a clear head and dispassionate attitude during the problem solving process. After you’re up and running again, feel free to swear blue clouds at the real culprit; it makes me feel better when I do.

However, Windows even helps with at least one fundamental hardware problem: finicky memory. Both Vista and Windows 7 shipped with a surprisingly robust memory diagnostic, included on the Windows setup DVD. It’s not as granular as something like Memtest86+, but will certainly tell you if you’re running into memory problems or if your Windows setup issues may be due to something other than RAM failures. You can run the Windows memory diagnostics tool by either booting from the setup DVD or by typing “mdsched.exe” in the Run window. It doesn’t actually run in Windows, so you’ll need to reboot after scheduling a test run.

When you’re running Windows, problems you encounter typically span a discrete set of categories:

  • Hardware stability issues (not driver related). For example, extreme overclocking may introduce stability problems. Similarly, system overheating or insufficient power supply problems can crop up under heavy loads.
  • Application compatibility or app bugs. These range from simple problems, like UI bugs, to more serious issues, such as memory leaks.
  • Driver issues. The most common driver issues you will encounter are graphics driver instability, followed by sound driver problems.
  • Windows bugs. That’s right, Windows actually has the occasional bug. Really.
  • Integration problems. This is the most difficult problem to track down, and can be due to a host of different issues. After you’ve installed and uninstalled large numbers of applications and multiple different pieces of hardware, you may have multiple DLLs, Visual C++ redistributables, weird registry entries, driver traces, and incompletely-uninstalled applications. All can contribute to Windows stability problems or just make Windows perform more poorly than a clean installation.


With these thoughts in mind, let’s take a look at some of the tools available within Windows 7 to assist you in your detective work.

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Top Comments
  • 21 Hide
    cknobman , January 13, 2010 11:51 AM
    CryogenicThe title of this article should have been "Troubleshooting your **PC** With Microsoft's Built-In Tools". None of the techniques explained actually troubleshoot windows itself, but applications, drivers, hardware etc.


    Title of you post should have been:
    "I nitpick and bitch about anything and everything."
  • 12 Hide
    ajcroteau , January 13, 2010 12:08 PM
    This is a great article with a lot of fantastic information. First and foremost.

    However, one thing you started talking about was people who were gripping about their computer blaming Microsoft for their problems. These are the people who know little to nothing about computers except how to turn it on, check for email, play a few games, and surf the net. I think a lot of this information is really geared toward people who have a more advanced understanding of computers. For example, you talked about your components starting to fail and they all leading up to an ICH10 component which was most likely the culprit and figured the appropriate course of action was to replace the motherboard... there aren't a lot of people who could have put those dots together. Especially the people blaming microsoft for all their computer problems...
Other Comments
  • -5 Hide
    Anonymous , January 13, 2010 5:26 AM
    Compability ??

    Compatibility is better
  • 4 Hide
    flabbergasted , January 13, 2010 6:14 AM
    Good article thanks for the tips
  • -8 Hide
    cryogenic , January 13, 2010 9:41 AM
    The title of this article should have been "Troubleshooting your **PC** With Microsoft's Built-In Tools".

    None of the techniques explained actually troubleshoot windows itself, but applications, drivers, hardware etc.
  • 21 Hide
    cknobman , January 13, 2010 11:51 AM
    CryogenicThe title of this article should have been "Troubleshooting your **PC** With Microsoft's Built-In Tools". None of the techniques explained actually troubleshoot windows itself, but applications, drivers, hardware etc.


    Title of you post should have been:
    "I nitpick and bitch about anything and everything."
  • 12 Hide
    ajcroteau , January 13, 2010 12:08 PM
    This is a great article with a lot of fantastic information. First and foremost.

    However, one thing you started talking about was people who were gripping about their computer blaming Microsoft for their problems. These are the people who know little to nothing about computers except how to turn it on, check for email, play a few games, and surf the net. I think a lot of this information is really geared toward people who have a more advanced understanding of computers. For example, you talked about your components starting to fail and they all leading up to an ICH10 component which was most likely the culprit and figured the appropriate course of action was to replace the motherboard... there aren't a lot of people who could have put those dots together. Especially the people blaming microsoft for all their computer problems...
  • 3 Hide
    JohnnyLucky , January 13, 2010 12:24 PM
    Thanks for an informative article. I am going to be installing Windows 7 this evening. Should be interesting.
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , January 13, 2010 12:50 PM
    Good Article,

    I haven't used 7 yet but Looking at the Action center and Compatibility settings seem amazing.

    Really looks like it makes it a lot easier then Event Viewer.
  • 0 Hide
    saint19 , January 13, 2010 12:55 PM
    ^The action certer is good for drivers problems and compatibility problems.
  • 3 Hide
    coldmast , January 13, 2010 2:40 PM
    This article is good for... um let's say... (better then your) average computer user, but still not really something for people who know their way around the trenches of an OS; all the helpful free third party applications and free support that is out there (in them interwebz').

    @ajcroteau: FORUMS(even those on Tom's) are an excellent resource to find out what is really (going on or going) wrong with your computer; though I don't suggest posting until you at least look for a similar circumstance. Somewhere out there -- is a saint! (or a non-religious altruistic computer guru who makes the table scraps that I pride myself on knowing look utterly insignificant) whose got the answer to your burning question; and all you have to do is be polite, patient, and read up on some forum posting guidelines (usually as a sticky note at the top of the forums).

    Don't worry I (try to at least) only blame Windows when it's Microsoft's fault.
  • -8 Hide
    volks1470 , January 13, 2010 3:11 PM
    Yes, I have noticed that Windows 7 does not like extreme overclocking. I'm stuck with a X3 720 @ 3.737GHz, even that BSODs every so often. In XP, I could OC more and get better stability.
  • 2 Hide
    FSXFan , January 13, 2010 3:51 PM
    coldmastFORUMS(even those on Tom's) are an excellent resource to find out what is really (going on or going) wrong with your computer

    I agree, and I use forums a lot as well, but there's also a lot of folks on them who think they know more than they really do as well as some that are just plain full of crap. I'm the kind of person that doesn't mind searching for answers myself even when it takes a long time, but it's sometimes hard to wade through all the BS. Either because there's so much BS or because I don't always know which is BS.

    I try to encourage a few of my smarter friends to use forums a little more to solve their own issues (so they stop calling me all the time), but they're not for everybody.
  • -6 Hide
    wh3resmycar , January 13, 2010 4:30 PM
    i had 6 bsod's on my first day with win 7... fully documented with "whocrashed".

    geez.
  • -2 Hide
    Anonymous , January 13, 2010 7:51 PM
    Windows 7 tools are a step in the rigt direction. The problem however, they realy do not help you that much. in most cases you can be mis-directed or it just completely drops the plot.
    Tools are supposed to work, not half arse guess and be 5% accurate.
    Good try MS, but not functional. If you work in the computer industry like myself you require fast and accurate answers. Not a pile of crap that you have to sift through to eventually reject because it is wrong.
    There are much better tools available.
    To help -- If you have win 7 Ultimate and have installed the unix addons.. you will find a usefull set of tools there.
  • 0 Hide
    cjl , January 13, 2010 8:17 PM
    volks1470Yes, I have noticed that Windows 7 does not like extreme overclocking. I'm stuck with a X3 720 @ 3.737GHz, even that BSODs every so often. In XP, I could OC more and get better stability.

    Are you using 64 bit windows 7? If so, that explains it. It can often be harder to overclock in 64 bit (including xp x64 and linux) just due to the use of additional processor features that would not be accessed in a 32 bit OS. Windows alone is not intolerant to extreme overclocking though. If it is (legitimately) stable in one OS, it will be legitimately stable in all equivalent (I.E. all of them are x86 with the same extensions) OSes.
  • 0 Hide
    masterjaw , January 13, 2010 11:32 PM
    Nice article.

    In the end, all you need to do is to sit back, check what's wrong with the system and try to solve it yourself (of course, with the help of some forums and Google). It's like hitting 2 birds with 1 stone. You learn something along the process of troubleshooting the system.
  • 0 Hide
    eduardosmx , January 14, 2010 12:44 AM
    Great article! I hope a lot of people read this, and stop bleaming the computer manufactures, hehehehe, I had work as a tech and I know people that just drop water on the computers and they want them to still work fine... mjm!
  • -2 Hide
    volks1470 , January 14, 2010 3:31 AM
    cjlAre you using 64 bit windows 7? If so, that explains it. It can often be harder to overclock in 64 bit (including xp x64 and linux) just due to the use of additional processor features that would not be accessed in a 32 bit OS. Windows alone is not intolerant to extreme overclocking though. If it is (legitimately) stable in one OS, it will be legitimately stable in all equivalent (I.E. all of them are x86 with the same extensions) OSes.


    Yep, I am using 64 bit Windows 7 RC and XP was 32 bit. I guess that would make sense, what doesn't make sense is why I got -6 feedback on that comment...
  • -3 Hide
    warpete , January 14, 2010 5:02 AM
    One brand new tool you neglected to mention is the "PSR" (problem step recorder) tool which is new for Windows 7. Also, as others have said, the "normal" PC user has absolutely no idea what to do with the tools you mentioned, let alone try to diagnose hardware problems. Microsoft is fabulous at marketing, but the folks I have built Windows 7 systems for are not happy---especially the ones who paid for Windows Vista. So, for some of them, I set up a dual-boot with XP and Windows 7. Since I did that, I have found that they all simply boot into XP and don't bother with Windows 7. I myself, have reverted back to XP Pro/SP3 do to all the problems (Deja Vu Vista) I encountered. I am a systems builder and no longer want to spend half my time tracking down and fixing problems and the "normal" folks are helpless. Windows 7 may be more stable than Vista, but it is still Vista. Microsoft had plenty of time to change things around in Vista's core, make it more stable, add a few features and call it a different name. I'll remain with XP until at least Service pack one is released for Windows 7. By the way, regarding the "PSR" tool---mine didn't work.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , January 14, 2010 8:04 AM
    Good article, very helpful. I do still very often get the feeling I'm having a conversation with HAL after he lost it. Particularly wireless problems and performance issues with the indexing service.

    "HAL, can you at least create a connection with the wireless access point?"

    "I'm afraid I can't tell you that, Dave."

  • -2 Hide
    Sardaukarz , January 14, 2010 1:59 PM
    Little basic article will surely help some people troubleshoot theyre problems.

    However, this doesn't help the power user abit. And most of the things you point out in the article are easy to fix withouth the need to use all the brand new Win7 tools u described.

    For instance : "For example, I had an early version of Acronis True Image that I’d installed and uninstalled. When I checked the services panel, I found the Acronis License manager running, and consuming memory and resources. So I had to track it down and uninstall it." it's not a problem. It is you who want to optimise and clean your system by ensuring you have uninstalled all traces of Acronis True Image. Also, the License manager whos running even after you uninstalled the main program it's not stated as causing any kind of problem. It's just consuming system ressources. One would ask himself why didn't this got uninstalled with the software itself but that is another story.

    Another point : "At the time, I was running an early beta of the Radeon HD 5870 driver. Removing that and installing the shipping Catalyst 9.11 driver cured a number of stability issues with several games."

    Do you really need the Windows Action Center to tell you to uninstall a beta version of the driver and that might cause problems with your installation? Is it common knowledge even for the most green noobish user that a BETA driver should be use only for testing purposes and for the sake of beeing on the bleeding edge and try new features. It is also common knowledge it should be used only by experienced users and/or under other special circumstances like for instance when NO OTHER driver is available. Now, it also widely known that one the stable version comes out (witch in ATI case it never happens but then again thats another story), you should install it.

    From all of this I must conclude you should have stated in your article this is intended for the more uninformed user to use. I also must point out that statments as those made on the 4th page of the article should be thinked of carefully before publishing. A lot of people take the info on this site for hard cold cash and they might just buy a new motherboard influenced or even BASED ON your article...
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