Windows XP : Troubleshooting and Recovering from Problems (part 1)

9/1/2012 9:16:13 PM
One of the ongoing mysteries that all Windows XP users experience at one time or another is what might be called the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t problem. This is a glitch that plagues you for a while and then mysteriously vanishes without any intervention on your part. (This also tends to occur when you ask a nearby user or someone from the IT department to look at the problem. Like the automotive problem that goes away when you take the car to a mechanic, computer problems will often resolve themselves as soon as a knowledgeable user sits down at the keyboard.) When this happens, most people just shake their heads and resume working, grateful to no longer have to deal with the problem.

Unfortunately, most computer ills aren’t resolved so easily. For these more intractable problems, your first order of business is to track down the source of the glitch. This is, at best, a black art, but it can be done if you take a systematic approach. Over the years, I’ve found that the best approach is to ask a series of questions designed to gather the required information and/or to narrow down what might be the culprit. The next few sections take you through these questions.

Did You Get an Error Message?

Unfortunately, most computer error messages are obscure and do little to help you resolve a problem directly. However, error codes and error text can help you down the road, either by giving you something to search for in an online database or by providing information to a tech support person. Therefore, you should always write down the full text of any error message that appears.


If the error message is lengthy and you can still use other programs on your computer, don’t bother writing down the full message. Instead, while the message is displayed, press Print Screen to place an image of the current screen on the clipboard. Then open Paint or some other graphics program, paste the screen into a new image, and save the image. If you think you’ll be sending the image via email to a tech support employee or someone else who can help with the problem, consider saving the image as a monochrome or 16-color bitmap or, if possible, a JPEG file, to keep the image size small.


If the error message appears before Windows XP starts, but you don’t have time to write it down, press the Pause Break key to pause the startup. After you record the error, press Ctrl+Pause Break to resume the startup.

If Windows XP itself handles the error, it displays a Windows Error Reporting dialog box similar to the one shown in Figure 1. It also lets you know that Windows XP has generated an error report and asks whether you want to send it to Microsoft.

Figure 1. If Windows XP handles a program error, it displays a Windows Error Reporting dialog box similar to this one.

This error report was built by the Dr. Watson debugging tool, which springs into action when an error is detected and then creates an error log in the following folder:

%AllUsersProfile%\Application Data\Microsoft\Dr Watson

To see the contents of the error log, either click the Click Here link in the dialog box, or display the folder just mentioned and open the drwatsn32.log text file.


You can customize the contents of the Dr Watson error log as well as the operation of the program. Select Start, Run, type drwtsn32 in the Run dialog box, and then click OK. The dialog box that appears enables you to change the log location, turn log contents on and off, control program options, and view application error logs.

Does an Error or Warning Appear in the Event Viewer Logs?

Open the Event Viewer and examine the Application and System logs. In particular, look in the Type column for Error or Warning events. If you see any, double-click each one to read the event description. Figure 2 shows an example.

Figure 2. In the Event Viewer, look for Error or Warning events in the Application and System logs.

Does an Error Appear in System Information?

Select Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, System Information to launch the System Information utility. (Alternatively, select Start, Run, type msinfo32, and click OK.) In the Hardware Resources\Conflicts\Sharing category, look for device conflicts. Also, see whether any devices are listed in the Components\Problem Devices category, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. You can use the System Information utility to look for device conflicts and problems.

Did the Error Begin with a Past Hardware or Software Change?

A good troubleshooting clue is when the onset of an error coincided with a previous hardware or software change. To investigate this possibility, launch the System Information utility (as described in the previous section) and select View, System History. This displays a history of the changes made to your system in each of the main categories: Hardware Resources, Components, and Software Environment. If you know when the problem began, you can look through the history items to see whether a change occurred at the same time and so might be the cause of the problem.

Did You Recently Edit the Registry?

Improper Registry modifications can cause all kinds of mischief. If the problem occurred after editing the Registry, try restoring the changed key or setting. Ideally, if you exported a backup of the offending key, you should import the backup.

Did You Recently Change Any Windows Settings?

If the problem started after you changed your Windows configuration, try reversing the change. Even something as seemingly innocent as activating the screensaver can cause problems, so don’t rule anything out. If you’ve made a number of recent changes and you’re not sure about everything you did, or if it would take too long to reverse all the changes individually, use System Restore to revert your system to the most recent checkpoint before you made the changes. 

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