Windows 10 annoyances and solutions

Some troubleshooting basics

If you think back just 10 years or so, we lived in an era where we simply couldn't rely on our PCs to work consistently for long periods of time. Snarl-ups and crashes would come with frustrating regularity. And if a PC were used heavily, reinstalls of Windows would usually need to be performed every year, if not more often.

Since then, the reliability of Microsoft's operating system has improved significantly -- and it needed to. We're used to buying tablets and IoT devices, on which the operating system is embedded on a chip, not a volatile hard disk, and where simply turning the thing off and on again will fix most problems.

Yet, despite our PC's newfound reliability, problems do still occur. And when they do, they're probably more frustrating than they were a decade ago. This is for two reasons. First, because we expect things to work, and second because we are using our PCs and computing devices more often and for more things than we used to.

When you encounter a problem, though, how can you get going again quickly and with as little fuss as possible? Nobody wants to be without his or her PC for days on end while it's professionally repaired, usually at great cost. Fortunately -- and very ironically in the view of this tech professional -- as the reliability of Microsoft Windows has increased, so have the number of bundled tools and utilities you can use to fix problems. I'd like to guide you through some of these, so you can learn about what goes wrong, and what the quick solutions might be.

Recovery Drive / System Repair Disc

I'd like to begin with prevention -- as the saying goes, "it's better than cure." All editions of Windows allow you to create recovery media, and you can look for Recovery in the Control Panel to create it. In Windows 8.1 and Windows 10, you can create a USB Flash Recovery Drive with Windows 10 also allowing you to include a full backup copy of the OS should something go horribly wrong. Windows 7, meanwhile, allows you to create a System Repair Disc on a blank CD or DVD.

You can use this recovery media to perform a variety of tasks, from Windows' automatic Startup Repair, which will fix simple and common faults, to System Restore. System Restore can roll back changes, driver installations or updates that have made the computer unstable. If you have created a full backup image of Windows manually, then the recovery media will allow you to quickly restore it. In Windows 8.1 and Windows 10, the latter of which keeps its own up-to-date backup image on the hard disk, you can reinstall the OS without affecting your files, settings or accounts.

System File Checker

Should there be a corruption with a Windows operating system file, you can run the System File Checker from a Command Prompt (Admin) window. Typing SFC /ScanNow will scan the OS for file corruptions, and if you have an up-to-date installation DVD -- you can't use a USB flash drive for this -- you can reinstall the files. You can download installation media for Windows 7, Windows 8.1 and Windows 10.

Reliability history

If you're not quite sure what's been going wrong with your PC, you can search for Reliability in the Start Menu to View [the PC's] Reliability History. This will use red and yellow warning icons to detail crashes and errors that have occurred. Clicking one will display information about the problem, and include a Check for a solution link. The Reliability History can be useful to look for patterns in crashes and errors. This way, you'll be able to see if a particular Windows service or installed application is causing the issue.

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Reliability History can be useful to look for patterns in crashes and errors.

Event Viewer

If you need more information about a problem, search for the Event Viewer. This will list all errors, warnings and critical events, sorted by the date and time they occurred and by their severity. You can click any event to view detailed information. At its most basic, this can include an error code (in the format 0xA1234567), which you can use to search for a solution online. You can also export information about problems so they can be read and studied by a tech support professional.

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Event Viewer lists all errors, warnings and critical events, sorted by the date and time they occurred and by their severity.

Task Manager, Performance Monitor and Resource Monitor

If you're trying to diagnose a problem as it happens -- perhaps slow performance or a networking issue -- the humble Task Manager can be used (in Windows 8.1 and Windows 10) to view detailed metrics of your processor, memory, disk and network activity. This is done through the Performance tab. In the Details tab in all Windows versions you can right-click on any running application to find out more details about a problem online -- should you suspect a rogue app, piece of crapware or even malware is running on your PC.

The Performance Monitor and Resource Monitor (search for these in the Start Menu) can provide even more fine-grained information about what's going on with your PC at that moment.

Problem Steps Recorder

If you still don't know what's going on, or if you're trying to assist somebody else who can't find the technical language to describe the problem they're facing, the Problem Steps Recorder can be invaluable. Search for PSR in the Start Menu to launch this tool. It records annotated screenshots, detailing exactly what's been clicked or changed whenever an action occurs. This can be used to see exactly what someone is doing on his or her PC, and exactly what the resulting error or problem is.

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Problem Step Recorder shows annotated screenshots, detailing exactly what's been clicked or changed whenever an action occurs.

Remote Assistance and Quick Assist

You can even provide remote help to another person using the Windows Remote Assistance feature. This needs to be activated on both PCs in the System > Remote Settings options of the Control Panel, and it enables easy remote control of another PC.

Windows 10 goes a step further with its Quick Assist feature. If both parties are using a Microsoft Account to sign into their PCs, Quick Assist goes further than Remote Assistance in permitting PC restarts and live annotations on screen. If you're assisting users in a corporate environment, then you can get more control with Remote Desktop, in which you'll have complete control of the PC.

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Quick Assist goes further than Remote Assistance in permitting PC restarts and live annotations on screen.

Identifying unknown hardware

Of the problems that are most annoying on PCs, hardware devices that aren't correctly installed are one of the most frustrating. If a device is listed as "unidentified" you can double-click it, and view the Hardware IDs section of the Details panel to view its VEN_ (Vendor) and DEV_ (Device) codes. A search for these online can reveal what the device is, so you can get the correct driver.

Repairing Windows Startup

By far the most frustrating problem, however, is a PC that simply refuses to start into Windows. Using your Recovery Drive or System Rescue Disc (that you did create, right?), you can open a Command Prompt window. From here, several commands can rebuild the Windows start-up system, and hopefully get you working again.

  • Bootrec /RebuildBCD
  • will rebuild the Boot Configuration Database, in which Windows stores details of installed operating systems, and where it can find them.
  • Bootrec /FixMBR
  • will repair the Master Boot Record on the hard disk.
  • Bootrec /FixBoot
  • will write a new boot sector to your hard disk, if your current boot sector is corrupt.

Resetting Windows Update

If you find that Windows Update won't download or install anything, then you can reset it. To achieve this, restart the PC and delete the contents of the C:\Windows\SoftwareDistribution folder. However, note that any updates you have previously marked as hidden will become available to install again.

For everything else Windows

Diagnosing and troubleshooting problems with PCs is usually a process of elimination and investigation. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Has the problem occurred before?
  • Is anybody else experiencing the problem or a similar problem?
  • Are any more of my devices experiencing a problem?

Sometimes network and internet connection problems come down to the PC not being able to get a good enough signal from the router. This could be because an unshielded network cable is being used close to a strong magnetic field, such as a TV or microwave. It could be that you just live or work in a building with thick brick or stone walls. Or, it could be that the workmen next door have run their gear through the phone line.

Problems with printers can often be caused by a cable being snagged, or by somebody else having filled the print queue and snarled it up. Slow start-up or performance could be caused by something as simple as not uninstalling the crapware that came pre-installed when you purchased the PC, or by having too many applications running at start-up.

For everything else, there's always the good old-fashioned fix of turning it off and on again. And if you're still struggling with Windows and Windows 10 problems after all this, try some of my Windows courses on Pluralsight. They may be just the thing.

Mike Halsey is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) awardee and Pluralsight author. He is the author of many books and courses on Windows troubleshooting, including Windows 10 Troubleshooting. Mike is also the Series Editor for Apress’ Windows and Windows Server troubleshooting books. He is a prolific author, having just released his 14th book, with four more coming in 2017.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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