The basics of patching and repairing balky Windows PCs

When your Windows machine starts acting up, there are some simple ways to get things back on track.

Gears emerge from a laptop display [ development / fix / process / update ]
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When you have a Windows computer and have to deal with Microsoft patches, hard drives that die, and hard drives that should be updated to solid-state drives (SSDs), there are a few key tasks you need to know how to do.

This month’s updates turned out be disruptive for business patchers. For domain controllers and Server 2012 R2 virtual servers, in particular, users had to uninstall the January updates to keep their hardware from rebooting. I often see users deal with patching side effects by rolling back hardware to a saved recovery point. Instead, I recommend uninstalling the problematic update until it’s fixed.

To do so, open Settings, then go to Update and Security, then go to Windows Updates. Click on Advanced options and choose “Uninstall updates.” The list of updates will open and you can uninstall the ones you want to get rid of by right-clicking on them. Once they’re uninstalled, go back into the Windows Update section and pause updates until Microsoft fixes the offending update. (It’s useful to keep an eye on the Windows health release dashboard where Microsoft lists known issues and workarounds.)

For the updates released on the second Tuesday of the month (Patch Tuesday) it usually takes Microsoft a week to acknowledge problems and post workarounds. That’s why I recommend pausing updates for at least a week, if not longer, so any major side effects can be identified before you proceed.

Two other tasks you need to know: 1) how to repair Windows, and 2) how to boot Windows from an external device such as a flash drive. Windows can become damaged for a number of reasons. I had one instance run into trouble because of a dying hard drive, another, after the install of third-party software. To fix troublesome Windows, you need the right tools.

First and foremost, always have at least one USB external drive to back-up the computer. Whether you run Windows or macOS, and even if you totally live your life in the cloud, rebuilding a computer takes time. The more you want menus, icons, and shortcuts just so, the more you need to back-up the entire operating system along with your data. I always purchase an external hard drive with enough room for several backups to be stored. And make sure you have a second external hard drive so you always have one that’s offline. If you’re ever hit by ransomware, you’ll need an offline back-up that’s protected from ransomware attackers.

It’s also good to know how to boot into Windows’ “Safe Mode.” Practice being able to hit the F8 key to “catch” the operating system before it fully boots. Or, depending on the back-up software you use, you can modify the boot process to do a slight pause or offer up a boot choice. This does slow the boot process a bit, but it also pre-stages the system to more easily boot into a recovery process.

One of the things I do is disable fast startup. (This can often fix weird issues such as Windows not respecting having the numlock enabled on boot — handy if your password contains numbers.) I disable fast boot on all of my computers because I honestly don’t power down my computer very often. While keeping your PC running 24/7 uses power, it also assures that maintenance routines run and complete in the background.

Microsoft itself has indicated that Windows Update needs about two hours continually connected and up to six hours intermittently connected to install updates. You might not want to leave your PC on all the time, but I advise keeping it on for at least one 24- hour period a month; that’s enough time to do a back-up and install updates. If you regularly turn off your computer, I strongly recommend you check the status of installed updates and feature releases at the end of each month.

If your computer misbehaves, especially with Windows updates, I don’t recommend using commands like  sfc/scannow or Deployment Image Servicing and Management (DISM.exe) to do repairs. I never find that these commands work and, worse yet, they often indicate OS corruption when there is none. Instead, it’s better to use a non-destructive repair that keeps your data intact but fixes the operating system.

To do a repair install “over the top” for Windows 10 (and 11), you’ll need to download a copy of the OS from the Microsoft ISO page and then run setup.exe from the image you download. (I’ve done a video showing how easy the process is.) Anytime you have a computer system that won’t properly install updates and is throwing off a cryptic error code, use this repair process rather than trying to decipher the error message. I guarantee you will wind up with a repaired and working Windows 10 machine.

Last but not least, when dealing with a misbehaving computer, research can be your friend. Jump online and search for errors you see on screen; ask other users for help; and find a good tech forum where you can discuss the issues. Dealing with a balky PC doesn’t require an advanced computer science degree, but you do need some basic tools and know-how to keep everything running smoothly.

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