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Crashes and Error Messages (part 2) - What to Do When Windows Will Not Start

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2. What to Do When Windows Won't Start

Unfortunately, Windows' inability to load itself is a common problem, usually occurring without an error message or any obvious way to resolve it. Sometimes you'll just get a black screen after the startup logo, or your computer may even restart itself instead of displaying the desktop. Of the many causes to this problem, many deal with hardware drivers, conflicts, or file corruption.

But when Windows won't start, how do you fix the problem? There's no Windows Explorer to delete files, no Internet to research solutions, no Device Manager to check and uncheck boxes, and no Solitaire to while away the time.

Luckily, Microsoft has provided an out—actually, about a dozen of them. Gone is the frustratingly limited Recovery Console found in Windows 2000 and XP; in its place are a handful of useful "recovery tools" on the Vista setup disc, and several alternative ways to get into Windows that are already on your hard disk .

2.1. Grab your Vista DVD

The best tools are on your Windows Vista setup disc, the location of which has probably escaped your mind. If you don't have one, and Vista came preinstalled on your PC, you may have a "recovery partition" ; otherwise, contact your PC manufacturer and request the original Vista DVD (after all, you paid for it when you bought the machine).

Pop the Vista disc in the drive and turn on your computer. When you see the "Install Now" page, click the Repair your computer link at the bottom to get to the System Recovery Options window shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. These recovery tools, available on your Vista setup disc, allow you to repair your installation in the event that Windows won't start

Here's how these options work:

Startup Repair

This is the first step you should take when Vista won't start. This tool repairs your hard disk's master boot record (MBR) and partition boot sector. If Vista still won't start after using Startup Repair, read on.

System Restore

This reverts your Windows installation to an earlier incarnation, which is useful if a recent driver installation has prevented Windows from booting. But beware, depending on the age of the most recent restore point, this may do nothing, or may go back too far. Use this option only if you don't have a more recent backup (discussed next).

Windows Complete PC Restore

Use this option to wipe your hard disk clean and restore a backup you made with the Backup and Restore Center that comes with the Business and Ultimate editions of Windows Vista. (Sorry, Home Basic and Home Premium users—apparently your data is not that valuable.)

The fact that the Windows Complete PC Restore feature wipes your hard disk clean is a strong case for having your personal data on a separate partition from Windows.

Windows Memory Diagnostic Tool

This examines your PC's system memory (RAM) for errors; . Unlike the other tools here, this one makes no changes to your hard disk, so it's safe to use at any time.

Command Prompt

Use this tool to open a Command Prompt window, from which you can copy, delete, or rename files that may be preventing Windows from loading. Also available is the Safe Mode with Command Prompt, discussed later in this section.

2.2. Use the F8 menu

It's a pity that the recovery tools on the Vista disc aren't available without the disc itself. If you can't find the Windows DVD (or CD disc 1), or your PC manufacturer was too stingy to give you one, there are some lesser tools you can use that are already on your hard disk. Just after you power up your PC (and after it displays its own logo or POST screen), but before you see the Windows logo, press the F8 key on your keyboard to invoke the Advanced Boot Options menu shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Press F8 just before you see the Windows logo to display this menu, from which you have access to several tools to help you get into Windows when it won't load normally

From the F8 menu, you'll have these choices:

Safe Mode

This forces Windows to start up in a hobbled, semi-functional mode, useful for troubleshooting or removing software or hardware drivers that otherwise prevent Windows from booting normally. Use the next option, Safe Mode with Networking, instead of Safe Mode, unless it turns out that your network drivers are the ones responsible for breaking Windows.

Safe Mode with Networking

This is the same as Safe Mode, except that Windows loads your network drivers. This is vitally important if you want Internet access when you get into Windows (useful for researching your problem).

Safe Mode with Command Prompt

Instead of loading Windows and your desktop, all you'll see is a Command Prompt window, sort of like the one you can get to from the System Recovery Options window (Figure 3, earlier).

The Safe Mode with Command Prompt option is a good choice if you suspect that a recent driver installation is to blame for Windows' inability to start. Once the Command Prompt appears, type devmgt.msc at the prompt and press Enter to start Device Manager. Then, find the driver in the Device Manager window, right-click the entry, and select Disable. Close Device Manager and restart Windows when you're done.

To get out of the Command Prompt cleanly and restart Windows, type exit at the prompt and press Enter. If typing exit closes the Command Prompt window but leaves Windows running, press Ctrl-Alt-Del and then click the tiny arrow next to the red button at the bottom of the screen.

Enable Boot Logging

This starts Windows normally, except that a log of every step is recorded into the ntbtlog.txt file, located in your \Windows folder. If Windows won't start, all you need to do is attempt to start Windows with the Enable Boot Logging option at least once. Then, reboot your PC, press F8 again, and choose one of the Safe Mode tools above (preferably, Safe Mode with Networking). When you're back in Windows, read the log with Notepad; the last entry in the log is most likely the cause of the problem.

Enable low-resolution video (640×480)

This starts Windows normally, but in VGA mode (640×480 resolution at 16 colors). This helps you troubleshoot bad video drivers or incorrect video settings by allowing you to boot Windows with the most compatible (and ugliest) display mode there is.

Last Known Good Configuration (advanced)

This starts Windows with the last set of drivers and Registry settings known to work. Use this if a recent Registry change or hardware installation has caused a problem that prevents Windows from starting.

Directory Services Restore Mode

Don't bother with this unless the PC is a Windows NT domain controller.

Debugging Mode

This option, typically of no use to end-users, sends debug information to your serial port to be recorded by another computer.

Disable automatic restart on system failure

Unlike the previous eight entries here, this option merely changes a setting so you can determine why Windows won't start. By default, if Vista crashes while it's loading, it reboots your PC so fast, you can't read the error message on that infamous blue screen. Choose Disable automatic restart on system failure if you want to read the message and then reboot by hand.

Disable Driver Signature Enforcement

By default, the 64-bit edition of Windows Vista won't allow you to install any device drivers that haven't been digitally signed (a bureaucratic requirement to get the Microsoft certification logo on a product's packaging). In theory, you should be able to choose Disable Driver Signature Enforcement to allow your PC to install nonsigned drivers, but in practice, this never works. Instead, boot Windows normally, open a Command Prompt window, and type the following:

bcdedit.exe -set loadoptions DDISABLE_INTEGRITY_CHECKS

and then press Enter. Close the Command Prompt and restart Windows for the change to take effect. If that doesn't help, you may have to forgo supporting a specific device until the manufacturer makes a signed, native (64-bit) driver available.

Repair your computer (not shown inFigure 4)

You may see this option if your PC came with Vista preinstalled and your PC manufacturer was too cheap to include a real Windows installation disc.

Start Windows Normally

Use this self-explanatory option to continue booting Windows normally, as though you never had invoked the F8 menu.

With these tools , you should have everything you need to get Windows running again. At the point you discover the grim fact that your repair mission has turned into a recovery mission.

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