Troubleshooting Windows 7 With Microsoft's Built-In Tools

It All Began With Firefox 3.5

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.

  • Compability ??

    Compatibility is better
  • flabbergasted
    Good article thanks for the tips
  • cryogenic
    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.
  • cknobman
    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."
  • ajcroteau
    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...
  • JohnnyLucky
    Thanks for an informative article. I am going to be installing Windows 7 this evening. Should be interesting.
  • 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.
  • saint19
    ^The action certer is good for drivers problems and compatibility problems.
  • coldmast
    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.
  • volks1470
    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.