Apr 26, 2005 (12:04 PM EDT)
Accidental IT: Crash Insurance

Read the Original Article at InformationWeek

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Welcome to Accidental IT, a series of technical how-tos for people whose job descriptions don't necessarily include tech support but who often find themselves doing just that for their co-workers.

The Recovery Console is one of the darker corners in Windows XP. It's one of those places you hope you never have to go. But whether a computer is crashing with blue screen Windows Stop errors, booting up in a funky manner, or simply not booting at all, the Recovery Console can save a seemingly impossible situation from becoming a total disaster. Even so, you can only make a bad problem worse if you try to pick your way through the fairly arcane command line entry system. Here are some instructions that will help non-geeks navigate that road safely.

How to Avoid the Recovery Console

First, the best advice is to simply avoid the Recovery Console altogether. This is often possible. After all, Windows XP is a lot less prone to crashing that its predecessors, and when something goes awry, such as a program freezing, you can usually squirm your way out of trouble by using the Windows Task Manager to kill uncooperative programs; making use of System Restore; editing the BIOS to tweak hardware settings; or rebooting in Safe Mode and uninstalling problematic software or hardware.

Your first move should be to make sure that the simple, yet very effective System Restore function can't get the PC in question back to its original working order. Just navigate to Start/Accessories/System Tools/System Restore and you can literally warp the PC back in time, before it started acting up.

If there is some recently installed hardware, double check that there are no hardware conflicts in the Device Manager of the System Control Panel. If the Device Manager doesn't list a conflict, get on the horn to that company's tech support and ask them about uninstalling the product. They will probably have you navigate to the Windows Registry and direct you to manually remove entries.

If the Windows XP System Restore function can't alleviate the problem and there are no conflicts listed in the Device Manager, it also can't hurt to try minor BIOS tweaks, such as disabling a problematic peripheral port, as these are relatively easily undone. Often, you can fix seemingly impossible problems by simple things such as disabling an unused USB port in the computer's BIOS settings, or disabling the Plug and Play OS option and manually assigning IRQs. While in theory USB is the ultimate Plug and Play interface, I've seen plenty of nasty USB conflicts, especially where third party USB expansion cards are involved, so nothing is foolproof. Ditto for sound cards and some secondary hard drive controller cards.

Whatever you do, be sure to have the full motherboard manual in front of you before you try tweaking the BIOS settings, and before you change anything, make detailed notes on the settings so you can restore them if needed.

Software crashes can also often be solved by simply uninstalling, and re-installing a program. However, install routines can sometimes get corrupted, especially if, for example, antivirus software was left on during the installation. Registry entries can remain changed, or partially changed, even if you uninstall a program. Commercial uninstallers like Ashampoo Uninstaller and registry utilities like Registry Mechanic can scan for unused or corrupted entries, but they're not full-proof, and many times a corrupted install routine will remain in the XP boot sequence.

Because Windows XP has a protected memory architecture, individual program crashes can usually be banished by killing the boogeyman in the Windows Task Manager, but if you experience a complete system lockup, it may indicate a more pervasive problem.

Click for full screen.

A "blue screen" error on the troubled PC, is indicative of more serious trouble, and it's a whole 'nother Accidental IT topic in itself. Briefly, however, here's what you should do. Blue screen errors begin with "A problem has been detected and Windows has been shut down to prevent further damage to your computer." Even if you can simply reboot and get back into Windows XP, that doesn't mean the problem is magically gone; in fact, it can get worse.

Solving blue screen errors takes a bit of sleuthing. First, write down the error code, and search for it on Google, you'll almost always pull up a Microsoft Knowledge Base page as one of the first entries. If not, go directly to support.microsoft.com and search from there. Also, be sure to duplicate the error code search on Google's Groups search function. This searches Usenet archives, and you may find some very useful message threads.

But there are some cases where no amount of BIOS tweaking and hardware and software uninstalls solve a PC's quirks, crashes, or simple refusal to boot, so roll up your sleeves, you're about to turn to the Dark Side.