Advanced problem solving on Windows XP

For professional users


Create a bootable CD with anti-virus, file recovery and all other kinds of tools. Use it to bypass the PC's own hard disk and repair any funny stuff.


Try these steps:

  • See if you can Force Quit the OS. In the PC world, this is achieved by pressing Ctrl + Alt + Del (Delete) key combination.
  • To force a restart of your PC, press Ctrl + Alt + Del (Delete) key combination and click the Shut Down button on the Close Program dialogue box. (1)

    If, for any reason, you can't reboot and reach the Windows desktop after a PC crash, press F8 on Windows XP systems while your PC boots. The Windows Advanced Options menu will appear. Use the arrow keys to navigate to the option that says, "Last Known Good Configuration (your most recent settings that worked)". Continue your boot sequence until you reach the desktop.

    Still having trouble launching Windows XP normally? Restart the PC, press F8 and begin in safe mode. Click the Start button, select Run, type "msconfig" and press the Enter key. The System Configuration Utility will be launched. Choose the Startup tab and remove the item causing you the most grief.

    When restarting or shutting down a PC, you may notice one or more applications are not properly quitting. Try clicking the Start button, select Run, type "regedit", go to HKEY_USERS\.DEFAULT\Control Panel\Desktop, and edit/create the registry string "AutoEndTasks" and give it a value of 1.

  • If you are not sure what needs to be done in the event of a system crash, boot your PC from the Windows XP CD and at the Windows Setup menu choose [R]. Type "Help" at the prompt to view a list of all available tools to analyse and repair your system.


  • Before doing any repairs or tune-up to your OS software, you should always perform a backup of the data. We cannot recommend this more strongly. Backing up your data is the single most critical thing you can do (and you don't need to be an IT expert to know this). Because if you stuff around with your OS software, you may not be able to boot up the next time you turn on your computer or, much worse, you could lose everything. Always be safe and backup at least your most critical data.

    If your PC happens to have a hard disk capacity of say around 20GB or thereabouts, three or four DVD-RW or DVD-R disks should be enough to backup everything. If you have one of those 80GB-120GB hard disks, this may be impractical except for storing your most critical files (usually your personal stuff). The applications themselves can always be reinstalled from the original installation disks.

    However, like most experts, reinstalling applications is time-consuming, messy to reorganise again, and takes up unnecessary hard disk space with tutorials, movies, help files, manuals and the works. You are best to purchase a backup disk of at least the same capacity as your own hard disk and backup the whole lot for pure speed and convenience. For example, if you have a 40GB hard disk, purchase a quality 40GB external backup disk for it. If its 120GB, get a backup disk of 120GB or more.

    Generally if you can afford to buy a backup disk with greater capacity than your current hard disk size, then purchase it. Or better still, get the same capacity but pay extra for quality features and manufacturing (e.g. dust-proof, shock-proof, great portability, security features etc). If you value the data on your hard disk, it is actually better to go for a higher quality and well-built backup unit of the same capacity as your hard disk than a mediocre unit having ridiculously high capacity rates.

    Backup in Windows XP can cost you nothing. Windows XP Professional comes with its own backup software for external drives (but not DVD or CD for some strange reason). Windows XP Home Edition requires you to place the Windows XP installation CD into the CD drive to run it as opposed to already being installed first time by the Professional edition on the hard disk (why?).

    To access this backup software from Microsoft from the CD, open Windows Explorer and navigate to the \VALUEADD\MSFT\NTBACKUP folder on the CD, and double click the file called "Ntbackup.msi" to run the program. The program will be installed. Afterwards, click the Start button, go into All Programs>Accessories>System ToolsBackup and follow the prompts including selecting "Back up files and settings" and choosing the option to back up "Everyone's documents and settings).

    If you are looking for an alternative tool to backup all your PC data, we recommend Norton Ghost 9 (which comes with Ghost 2003 for older Windows versions). This utility will duplicate your files, folder, partition or entire hard drive and create a drive image (similar to Apple's own disk images created with Disk Copy 6.3.3) containing an exact copy of your original data. It will copy your registry and system files, all your personal files, applications and the works in its exact state. These images can be transferred to another hard drive or a new partition on your current hard drive and an exact replica of your files and their locations are copied to the new media. That's what it means by ghosting.

    No need for reinstalling Windows XP and all your applications. You will be able to reboot from the copied version of Windows XP or launch all your applications on the new hard drive since the registry file and all system files has been copied in its exact state and to the correct locations.

    Backup of an entire 14GB hard drive to another partition or an external hard drive takes 20 minutes with Norton Ghost 9. And you don't have to store the entire image each time you want to backup your files. Norton Ghost 9 can do incremental and scheduled backups to save time.

    For an alternative, try the new Iomega QuikSync 3.0 backup software. This one works with non-Iomega drives and even those drives that can be accessed over a network. It has a clean and simple control panel interface, and setting up the software for automatic backup is now a breeze. A choice of replacing old for new files or create new backup files to help keep track of revisions is also included. Price for this software, as of May 2001, is around A$50.

    For backup direct to CD-RW and DVD-RW on a PC, the built-in Windows Backup Utility on Windows XP does not do a good job if the rewritable disks has information on it. You are better off downloading InCD from, and use the tool to reformat the disks. Once formatted, you'll be able to apply Windows Backup Utility to do the job.


  • Make sure you don't have multiple Windows folders on your PC. Microsoft doesn't like this.
  • Before doing repairs on a PC, we recommend you restart the machine in Safe Mode. In Windows XP, restart your computer and press the F8 key repeatedly until the Windows Advanced Options menu appears, then choose Safe Mode from the menu.

    Once you are in safe mode, you can run utilities such as Virus checkers, Scan Disk and Defragmenters with the least amount of problems.

  • Perform a thorough virus check of all the files on your HD, including the OS software and registry file. You need to do this first before tinckering with anything on your PC. Otherwise a virus could be lurking around on your hard disk and this could corrupt any files you try to fix. To do this job properly, use a CD (or non-writable) Emergency Startup Disk. Then use McAfree's VirusScan, Symantec AntiVirus or other virus detection program, and make sure it is the very latest version and has the very latest virus definition files.

    NOTE: If you have setup BIOS correctly, throwing in your CD startup disk to the PC's CD drive at start up should run from the CD first. Check the BIOS settings if this doesn't happen.

  • A common problem with Windows systems is how easy it is for a multitude of spyware, trojans, worms and other electronic nasties to creep into your OS (usually by downloading them through the Microsoft Internet browser). For example, if you suddenly find you can't open Internet Options from the Tool menu in Microsoft Internet Explorer because the following message appears:

    "This operation has been cancelled due to restrictions on this computer. Please contact your system administrator."

    and you are in administrator mode, this could be a tell-tale sign of spyware. When this happens, we strongly recommend downloading, running, and deleting all known spyware, adware, trojans, worms and other malware on Windows systems using Giant AntiSpyware (now owned by Microsoft). This utility is powerful enough to remove Claria, Gator and GAIN spyware, destroy malicious cookies, and clean up the registry file.

    The utility can be set to scan and remove spyware overnight, so you'll never need to know it is running.

    For other anti-spyware tools, try Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy.

    January 2005

    Because of how easy it is for Microsoft Internet Explorer to download electronic nasties, Microsoft has decided to buy the company called Giant Software, the makers of Giant AntiSpyware. As we speak, you can now download a free version of the excellent Giant AntiSpyware under Microsoft's own name. You can find it at But please be aware, the software will only work if you have a non-pirated version of Windows to run it.

    28 May 2005

    Not all software you download and update resulting in unpredictable behaviours is due to a virus. For example, if you have updated Windows XP with Service Pack 2 and you discover Microsoft Outlook Express automatically starting up every time you boot up your PC, check the Start up folder for an alias to the Outlook Express folder. Also click the Start button, choose Run, and type "msconfig". Have a look at the Startup tab. A box with a tick next to Outlook Express should be removed. Also experiment with other applications in the Startup tab as some applications could be trying to call up Outlook Express.

    Remember, unusual behaviour from an update downloaded from the internet does not necessarily imply you have a virus. But it is worth checking just in case.

  • If you've noticed your PC running sluggishly at start up, you may wish to go to the Start menu, choose Run, and type "msconfig" (without the quotation marks) in the box. Click on the Startup tab and uncheck the boxes against those software you don't need to autoload. This should improve performance.
  • The next useful task to perform is an integrity check of your hard disk and files. This means looking at the volume structures, catalogs, boot blocks, and other critical information. We recommend using either Norton Disk Doctor 4.0.4 or higher (part of the Norton Utilities package) or use Microsoft's ScanDisk that came with your PC. For ScanDisk users, set the scanning level to thorough for a complete disk and file check.
  • To increase stability on a PC, consider converting to a different drive format known as NTFS instead of the old FAT32. By so doing, you can more easily recover from disk errors and reduce the number of crashes on your PC. To make the conversion possible on your computer, click on the Start button, select Run, and type "cmd" and press the Enter key. Inside the box shown type "convert c:/fs:ntfs" (without the quotation marks of course) and press enter. The C: drive (as shown by the letter c in the command you've typed) will be converted.
  • Testing for block errors is easy for PC users. ScanDisk takes the hard work out of testing hard disks for these pesky little errors. It's free so use it!

    NOTE: If ScanDisk finds a block error, it may be able to fix it. But be prepared for the worst. Ensure you have backed up everything you can salvage from your hard drive before attempting to re-initialise the hard disk. In the worst case scenario, you may need to buy a new hard drive.


  • For Windows XP, right-click C: drive in My Computer, choose Properties and click on Disk Cleanup. Select the aspect of your system to clean and click the Clean button.
  • You may wish to investigate some of the files in the Windows folder and determine whether you need to keep them. However, don't remove the Registry file, this is absolutely crucial to the healthy functioning of Windows XP. Look for things like sound, picture (e.g. wallpapers) and movie files you rarely ever use. Send them to the Recycle Bin and empty.
  • PC users may find it interesting to know that a bloated registry file is one of the biggest causes of reduced performance on a Windows operating system. Download a free utility from Microsoft called RegClean for PC users. This is the only utility known to properly clean out the Registry file containing references to many uninstalled programs. Run it and you should see an improvement in the performance of your PC computer.

  • When removing software applications from your PC's hard drive using the Add/Remove Programs control panel, not all traces of the software are removed. Consider running the uninstall application that came with your software first before using the control panel as it may remove more trace files. However, this is not a perfect procedure. So consider purchasing a utility like WinDelete 5.0 to help make a more complete recording of all the files and applications installed on your hard disk. Then use the utility to uninstall software properly.
  • Download a free utility from Microsoft called RegClean. This is the only really good utility known to properly clean out the Registry file containing references to many uninstalled programs. For Windows XP, you can buy for A$45 a tool called Registry Mechanic 3. Run it and you may see an improvement in the performance and stability of your PC computer. If you want to clean your Registry file and do some tweaking and tuning within it, Tweak-XP Pro 4 from Totalidea Software is an excellent tool. A clean and fun interface with plenty of options and excellent backup and restore features makes this the ultimate luxury tool for Windows XP. A little pricey at A$61 but this is a tool even the inexperienced user can handle.

    If, however, you feel confident and masochistic enough to tackle the Registry file on your own using a text editor, click the Start button on the menu and choose Run. Type regedit and click the OK button. Windows starts up its own free Registry editing tool called RegEdit which immediately opens the Registry file ready for you to make your edits.

    When cleaning up the Registry file, what you are doing is looking for remnants of applications and suspect rogue information you don't want sitting in your registry file. To clean up the remnants, make sure all instances are removed for a faster and more stable OS. Firstly, go to C:\Program Files and delete the folders containing the rogue applications. Secondly, launch the System Configuration Utility and make sure the applications don't appear under the Startup tab. And thirdly, open the Registry Editor, select My Computer, click on Edit->Find, and type the name of the application. Click on the Find Next button. Every instance of the application name in the registry file will appear. Delete these instances and press F3 to find the next instance of the application name.

    A word of warning: if you intend to manually edit the Registry file, make sure you keep a copy of the unedited version of the file somewhere on your hard disk (or preferably on a floppy disk or other external disk) in case something goes wrong and you lose the ability to run some of your software, or worse still, stop the Windows OS from booting up. If you do, you may have to go into DOS and replace the old Registry file with your backup version.

    This is not for the faint-hearted. If you don't like the idea of editing your Registry file on your own, go for a utility designed specifically to automatically clean up your Registry file. It is much easier and safer.

    NOTE: The Registry file is a central database for holding critical information needed to run your Windows OS and other applications. It can hold various kinds of information of which the most common are the registration numbers needed to run almost all your software. In the Macintosh world, registration numbers are normally stored directly in the resource or data forks of the application file. In the PC world, this is centralised in the Registry file (in most cases). You should also remember that the registry file also stores the options and settings for your computer. Thus every time you change a setting in a control panel, the corresponding record in the registry file will be modified and updated. To locate the Registry file, open up the Windows folder of your C: drive.


  • Defragment the HD using Windows' own Disk Defragmenter. You will find it by clicking the Start button, going into Programs>Accessories>System Tools and choosing the utility from the list. On Windows XP, you will find Disk Defragmenter in the Administrative Tools control panel. Or use your mouse to right-click on your hard disk icon in My Computer, choose Properties, and click on Defragment Now under the Tools tab.

    There are other third-party disk defragmenter tools available on the market, but Microsoft's Disk Defragmenter does an excellent job. And since it is free, you would be silly to purchase another.

Deframent your hard disk once every month or so or when your disk is above 3 per cent fragmentation. It will help to prolong the life of your hard disk by reducing the wear-and-tear on the read/write heads moving about inside the hard drive as it gathers information between blocks of data on the disk.

Defragmenting your hard disk can also increase the speed of your system software and applications.


  • Still having trouble with your PC? Maybe the Macintosh computer is starting to look more attractive at this stage? Well, before we get this drastic, let's make sure you have plenty of memory.

    For Windows 95/98, virtual memory should be turned on. In fact, Microsoft never recommends you go without virtual memory. To make sure it is turned on, click the Start button, then Settings>Control Panel. Double-click on the System control panel to open it. In the System Properties window, click the Performance tab, followed by the Virtual Memory button. Ensure the "Let Windows manage my virtual memory settings (recommended)" is selected. You can specify your own virtual memory settings, but leave this to the geeks. Unless you know what you are doing, it is better to let Windows manage your memory.

    For Windows 2000/NT/XP, virtual memory is permanently turned on. Just make sure you have plenty of hard disk space for Windows to do its job. For Windows XP, you should have at least 1GB (preferably 2GB) of hard disk space. Anything less and you are not looking like a pro on your PC.

On a PC, increasing the Virtual Memory is performed in the System control panel. Use no less than 150MB in virtual memory size for running Windows 95/98. For Windows NT or XP, it should be 2GB. You should also remember, virtual memory can never be turned off for Windows XP.

As an added safety feature for Windows users wanting to make the most of the computer's memory, consider downloading and installing a utility called Cacheman. This utility will optimise your RAM management settings and recover memory set aside for applications that are no longer being used.

If you are not sure whether Windows XP is complaining about limited hard disk space, click the Start button, select Run, type "regedit", go to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\Explorer, and make sure the DWORD NoLowDiskSpaceChecks has a value of 0.

To free up disk space on a PC running Windows XP, select the System Restore tab in System Properties and adjust how much is being used.


  • The next step is to disconnect all Parallel, SCSI and USB device(s) such as Zip drives, CD writers/readers, scanners and external hard drives from your PC. Before disconnecting Parallel and SCSI devices, remember to shutdown your PC and switch off power to all your device(s). Now restart the PC and see what happens. If a device(s) is causing you problems, use the Add Hardware control panel to reinstall drivers for various hardware components on your computer.

    If the driver is obscure or hard-to-find, visit, type "drivers" as the username and "all" as the password, and you will have access to tens of thousands of drivers for every conceivable hardware ever made for a PC. This includes third-party expansion cards.

  • If you notice your PC is not starting up Windows from your preferred hard drive, check the BIOS settings and make sure C: drive is selected as the boot drive. Otherwise check internal connections to the hard drive by looking inside your PC. Click here for further details.


  • Another possible solution to your system software problems is to consider zapping the PRAM. On the surface of things, this may sound like infant cruelty, but zapping the PRAM is quite easy and safe to do. Stored away in every PC is a piece of memory called Parameter RAM (hence the name PRAM). It stores essential information about your computer such as the date and time, speaker volume, cursor flash rate, contrast and colour details of your screen, network details, and so on which is kept constantly "alive" by the motherboard battery. Occasionally, however, corrupt information can creep into the PRAM and cause instability problems to your OS software and hardware-related components. Hence the technique of zapping the PRAM is particularly useful if you are having trouble, say, getting your PC to recognise new hardware devices. To zap the PRAM on a PC, means opening up the computer and finding the reset switch (usually near the CMOS battery) on the motherboard. Click here for further details.

    NOTE: Once the PRAM is zapped, go into BIOS and fix up the settings.


  • And as a final resort (it sounds like things are getting pretty serious at this stage), reinstall Windows from the original CD. For information on how to reinstall various editions of Windows, visit For example, to reinstall Windows XP, try

    After reinstallation of Windows you need to gain access to files stored in the old My Documents folder, you need to log in with administrative privileges and take ownership of the files. Visit

    NOTE: Use ScanDisk first to check for bad sector blocks and other disk problems before reinstalling Windows.

  • If you have a legitimate copy of Windows (i.e. the original CD installation disk) but cannot find the product key, here is one trick you may wish to try:

    1. Do your usual Windows installation from the original CD.
    2. When you reach the stage where Windows ask you to enter your product key, power down the PC (from the wall).
    3. Restart the PC while tapping the F8 key to bring up the startup menu.
    4. Select Safe Mode.
    5. When you reach the desktop, click the Start button, choose Run, and type "regedit" (without the quotes ""). Press the Enter key.
    6. Open up the registry key HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE in the left pane. Keep opening up in the following path: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion.
    7. With your mouse, right-click Product ID (which should appear in the list down the right pane).
    8. Select Modify.
    9. Type any letters and numbers in the form AAAAA-AAAAA-AAAAA-AAAAA-AAAAA. In fact, you may wish to type these letters instead!
    10. Restart the PC and allow Windows setup to finish. No longer will you be pestered with entering a product ID.

    NOTE: Please do not obtain the Product ID from the internet (e.g. keygen etc) for any products you wish to use on a commercial basis. It is illegal (and this is how software manufacturers attempt to track down people using illegal copies of software through the serial number technology). However, for non-network personal use, and certainly where you have the current legitimate software version or you wish to use older software versions of what you own, software manufacturers are not going to be bothered checking up on you.

    Actually, while software manufacturers don't wish to sell older versions of their software with their serial numbers, you would be entitled to use any reasonable serial number for older software you wish to use. But always check with the software manufacturer just in case the company is willing to sell the older stuff at reasonable prices.

    Just remember, if you own the original Windows CD installation disk from Microsoft, just follow the above procedure and you should be okay. Should you be asked by Microsoft how you installed the software, just show the representatives your original CD (second-hand or brand new). The alternative solution is to use a product ID from another original CD you own. If you do this, make sure you keep both original CDs as proof.

  • Still can't solve the system software problem? Check your hardware for faulty RAM cards and hard disk. Use ScanDisk to check for block errors (again), and replace the RAM cards with a known workable version.

We hear you don't want to reinstall the entire Windows OS, but just repair corrupted OS files?

For example, when a Windows system file such as setupx.dll is corrupted, launching Microsoft Explorer usually causes a message to appear saying, "EXPLORER caused an invalid page fault in unknown module". This effectively stops you from running the browser. But if you click the Start button, choose Run, type SFC, and let the System File Checker (SFC) find modified system files, it may report that the setupx.dll (in c:\windows\system\) has been modified or corrupted.

If you see this happen, have the original Windows CD installation disk at hand and when SFC asks you to restore the file, click OK, insert the CD, browse for the Win98 or other similar system folder on the CD when asked to browse for the location of a clean system file copy, and let Windows do the rest.

If Microsoft Internet Explorer should again crash, the message displayed this time should be a little more informative. For instance, it might say something along the lines of VPSHELL2.DLL is creating the problem. Again use SFC, type this system file name (i.e. VPSHELL2.DLL), and click the Start button to extract it from the Windows CD installation disk.

If this doesn't solve the problem, check for viruses and trojans and finally do a full reinstallation of Windows.


  • Still having trouble? Check the Microsoft web site for possible updates to your Windows OS. In fact, we recommend you download and install updates for your Windows system from

    For Windows XP users, this is automatically done for you. Just get onto the internet and let Windows automatically check for updates.

  • You may also wish to check for possible conflicts between two devices on a PC and see which one is "unsigned". Click the Start button, select Run, type "msinfo32" and click OK. The System Information tool will be launched. You will see a list of devices, the drivers installed, and their status. Any drivers not signed by the manufacturer as compatible with your Windows system should be removed using the Device Manager control panel.

    To verify driver signatures, click the Start button, select Run, type "sigverif.exe" and click OK. The File Signature Verification tool is launched. Click the Start button in the File Signature Verification window to scan system-related files and check whether they have been signed. Just make sure to look in the folder C:\Windows\system32\drivers, click the "Look for other files that are not digitally signed", and click OK. Later, if you want to add drivers, click the Advanced button in the window.

    Any other problems relating to your Windows system can be handled by the Recovery Console. This is accessible by putting in the Windows XP CD in the drive, open a command prompt window, type "d:\i386\winnt32.exe/cmdcons", restart your PC, and the Recovery Console will appear. If you are not sure what needs to be done in the event of a system crash, boot your PC from the Windows XP CD and at the Windows Setup menu choose [R]. Type "Help" at the prompt to view a list of all available tools to analyse and repair your system.

NOTE 1: Want to hide hard drives from view of your PC users? In Windows XP, click the Start button, select Run, type "regedit", locate HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\Explorer, and create a DWORD value called NoDrives followed by a value of 67108863.

NOTE 2: For full control of the security of your Windows system to prevent users from going places they shouldn't, go for the Windows XP Professional version, boot as the systems administrator, click the Start button, select Run, type "gpedit.msc" and press the Enter key. Now you will have full control of your system policy.

NOTE 3: To hide Control Panel applets, download Microsoft's free TweakUI PowerToy. This will give you extra settings not normally accessible through the interface.

NOTE 4: On a PC, reboot in VGA-only mode (through the BIOS settings). This will enable the machine to operate in the basic 16-colour 640x480 resolution mode, so that you can see the desktop icons to begin carrying out further investigation/repair work.