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Troubleshooting Windows XP Startup

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3/3/2011 11:21:00 AM
Computers are often frustrating beasts, but few things in computerdom are as hair-pullingly, teeth-gnashingly frustrating as an operating system that won’t operate. To help save some wear and tear on your hair and teeth, this section outlines a few common startup difficulties and their solutions.

When to Use the Various Advanced Startup Options

You saw earlier that Windows XP has some useful options on its Advanced Options menu. But under what circumstances should you use each option? Well, because there is some overlap in what each option brings to the table, there are no hard and fast rules. It is possible, however, to lay down some general guidelines.

You should use the Safe Mode option if one of the following conditions occurs:

  • Windows XP doesn’t start after the POST ends.

  • Windows XP seems to stall for an extended period.

  • Windows XP doesn’t work correctly or produces unexpected results.

  • You can’t print to a local printer.

  • Your video display is distorted and possibly unreadable.

  • Your computer stalls repeatedly.

  • Your computer suddenly slows down.

  • You need to test an intermittent error condition.

You should use the Safe Mode with Networking option if one of the following situations occurs:

  • Windows XP fails to start using any of the other safe mode options.

  • The drivers or programs you need to repair a problem exist on a shared network resource.

  • You need access to email or other network-based communications for technical support.

  • Your computer is running a shared Windows XP installation.

You should use the Safe Mode with Command Prompt option if one of the following situations occurs:

  • Windows XP fails to start using any of the other safe mode options.

  • The programs you need to repair a problem can be run from the command prompt.

  • You can’t load the Windows XP GUI.

You should use the Enable Boot Logging option in the following situations:

  • The Windows XP startup hangs after switching to Protected mode.

  • You need a detailed record of the startup process.

  • You suspect (after using one of the other Startup menu options) that a protected-mode driver is causing Windows XP startup to fail.

After starting (or attempting to start) Windows XP with this option, you end up with a file named NTBTLOG.TXT in the %SystemRoot% folder. This is a text file, so you can examine it with any text editor. For example, you could boot to the command prompt (using the Save Mode with Command Prompt option) and then use EDIT.COM to examine the file.

Move to the end of the file and you might see a message telling you which device driver failed. You probably need to reinstall or roll back the driver.

You should use the Enable VGA Mode option in the following situations:

  • Windows XP fails to start using any of the safe mode options.

  • You recently installed a new video card device driver and the screen is garbled or the driver is balking at a resolution or color depth setting that’s too high.

  • You can’t load the Windows XP GUI.

After Windows XP has loaded, you can either reinstall or roll back the driver, or you can adjust the display settings to values that the driver can handle.

Use the Last Known Good Configuration option under the following circumstances:

  • You suspect the problem is hardware-related, but you can’t figure out the driver that’s causing the problem.

  • You don’t have time to try out the other more detailed inspections.

The Directory Services Restore Mode option is only for domain controllers, so you should never need to use it.

Use the Debugging Mode option if you receive a stop error during startup and a remote technical support professional has asked you to send debugging data.

Troubleshooting Startup Using the System Configuration Utility

If Windows XP won’t start, troubleshooting the problem usually involves trying various advanced startup options. It’s almost always a time-consuming and tedious business.

However, what if Windows XP will start, but you encounter problems along the way? Or what if you want to try a few different configurations to see whether you can eliminate startup items or improve Windows XP’s overall performance? For these scenarios, don’t bother trying out different startup configurations by hand. Instead, take advantage of Windows XP’s System Configuration Utility which, gives you a graphical front-end that offers precise control over how Windows XP starts.

Launch the System Configuration Utility (select Start, Run, type msconfig, and click OK) and display the General tab, which has three startup options:

Note

Remember that the System Configuration Utility requires Administrator-level permissions.


Normal StartupThis option loads Windows XP normally.
Diagnostic StartupThis option loads only those device drivers and system services that are necessary for XP to boot. This is equivalent to deactivating all the check boxes associated with the Selective Startup option, discussed next.
Selective StartupWhen you activate this option, the check boxes below become available, as shown in Figure 1. Use these check boxes to select which portions of the startup should be processed.

Figure 1. Use the System Configuration Utility to select different startup configurations.

For a selective startup, you control how Windows XP processes items using four categories:

Process SYSTEM.INI FileThis file contains system-specific information about your computer’s hardware and device drivers. Most hardware data is stored in the Registry, but SYSTEM.INI retains a few settings that are needed for backward compatibility with older (16-bit) programs. The specific items loaded by SYSTEM.INI are listed in the SYSTEM.INI tab.
Process WIN.INI FileThis file contains configuration settings relating to Windows XP and to installed Windows applications. Again, the bulk of this data is stored in the Registry, but WIN.INI is kept around for compatibility. The specific items loaded by WIN.INI are listed in the WIN.INI tab.
Load System ServicesThis category refers to the system services that Windows XP loads at startup. The specific services loaded by Windows XP are listed in the Services tab.

Note

If you’re coming to Windows XP from the consumer Windows world (Windows 9x or Me), this might be the first you’ve heard of services. Put simply, a service is a program or process that performs a specific, low-level support function for the operating system or for an installed program. For example, Windows XP’s Automatic Updates feature is a service.


Note

The Services tab has an Essential column. Only those services that have Yes in this column are loaded when you choose the Selective Startup option.


Load Startup ItemsThis category refers to the items in your Windows XP Startup group and to the startup items listed in the Registry. For the latter, the settings are stored in one of the following keys:
HKEY_CURRENT_USER\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\
Windows\CurrentVersion\Run
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\
Windows\CurrentVersion\Run

The specific items loaded from the Startup group or the Registry are listed in the Startup tab.

To control these startup items, the System Configuration utility gives you two choices:

  • To prevent Windows XP from loading every item in a particular category, activate Selective Startup in the General tab and then deactivate the check box for the category you want. For example, to disable all items in WIN.INI, deactivate the Process WIN.INI File check box.

  • To prevent Windows XP from loading only specific items in a category, display the category’s tab and then deactivate the check box beside the item or items you want to bypass at startup.

Here’s a basic procedure you can follow to use the System Configuration Utility to troubleshoot a startup problem (assuming that you can start Windows XP by using some kind of safe mode boot, as described earlier):

1.
In the System Configuration Utility, activate the Diagnostic Startup option and then reboot the computer. If the problem did not occur during the restart, you know the cause lies in SYSTEM.INI, WIN.INI, the system services, or the startup items.

2.
Activate the Selective Startup option.

3.
Activate one of the four check boxes and then reboot the computer.

4.
Repeat step 3 for each of the other check boxes until the problem reoccurs. When this happens, then you know that whatever item you activated just before rebooting is the source of the problem.

5.
Display the tab of the item that is causing the problem. For example, if the problem reoccurred after you activated the Load Startup Items check box, display the Startup tab.

6.
Click Disable All to clear all the check boxes.

7.
Activate one of the check boxes to enable an item and then reboot the computer.

8.
Repeat step 7 for each of the other check boxes until the problem reoccurs. When this happens, you know that whatever item you activated just before rebooting is the source of the problem.

Troubleshooting by Halves

If you have a large number of check boxes to test (such as in the Services tab), activating one check box at a time and rebooting can become very tedious very fast. A faster method is to begin by activating the first half of the check boxes and reboot. One of two things will happen:

  • The problem doesn’t reoccur— This means that one of the items represented by the deactivated check boxes is the culprit. Clear all the check boxes, activate half of the other check boxes, and then reboot.

  • The problem reoccurs— This means that one of the activated check boxes is the problem. Activate only half of those check boxes and reboot.

Keep halving the number of activated check boxes until you isolate the offending item.


9.
In the System Configuration Utility’s General tab, activate the Normal Startup option.

10.
Fix or work around the problem:

  • If the problem is an item in SYSTEM.INI or WIN.INI, display the appropriate tab, highlight the problem item, and then click Disable.

    Tip

    Another way to edit SYSTEM.INI or WIN.INI is by using the System Configuration Editor. To load this program, select Start, Run, type sysedit in the Run dialog box, and then click OK.


  • If the problem is a system service, you can disable the service. In Control Panel, open Administrative Tools and then Services. Double-click the problematic service to open its property sheet. In the Startup Type list, select Disabled and then click OK.

  • If the problem is a Startup item, either delete the item from the Startup group or delete the item from the appropriate Run key in the Registry. If the item is a program, consider uninstalling or reinstalling the program.


What to Do If Windows XP Won’t Start in Safe Mode

If Windows XP is so intractable that it won’t even start in Safe mode, your system is likely afflicted with one of the following problems:

  • Your system is infected with a virus. You need to run an anti-virus program to cleanse your system.

  • Your system has incorrect CMOS settings. Run the machine’s CMOS setup program to see whether any of these settings needs to be changed or whether the CMOS battery needs to be replaced.

  • Your system has a hardware conflict.

  • There is a problem with a SCSI device. In this case, your system may hang during the SCSI BIOS initialization process. Try removing devices from the SCSI chain until your system starts normally.

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