Tech – for Everyone

Tech Tips and Tricks & Advice – written in plain English.

Troubleshooting the Blue Screen Of Death

BSOD’s, spontaneous reboots, freezing, and “incorrect password” lockouts. Bad computer. Bad.

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Ah yes, the Blue Screen of Death. I sincerely hope you never see this rascal. The BSOD, or more properly, the Windows Stop Message, occurs when Windows detects a problem from which it cannot recover. The operating system halts and ‘diagnostic information’ is displayed on a blue screen as a series of hexadecimal numbers (there actually are a few humans capable of understanding, and using this information to effect repairs…but as far as I know, they all live in Seattle) which, frankly, will be of little use to the average user. Usually, a simple reboot resolves the issue. But sometimes it doesn’t–you reboot, Windows loads, you get the Welcome screen, and bingo! BSOD. Wash/rinse/repeat. Aargh!!!

If this happens to you, the odds are pretty good that you have (quite recently) added a new device (or card) or memory module to your machine, or installed a program that your machine just doesn’t like.
If it was a module, device, or card, try removing it and restoring your machine to the way it was before the install. If you run for a day or so with no BSOD’s, then you can be fairly sure you’ve found the culprit. It may be that the device is defective. It may be that you didn’t install it exactly correctly [maybe it didn’t “seat” all the way into its slot?], or maybe your machine was being fussy the day you installed? Don’t give up on your new card/device/module just yet. Go to the manufacturer’s Website and download the latest device driver for your version of Windows, and “unzip” and install it (by double-clicking on the downloaded file). Then reinstall your card/device/module–taking extra care to fully seat it, and double check your wires and cables–and reboot. If it is a defective unit, it will not be long before our friend the BSOD revisits…return the unit to the seller (or manufacturer) for exchange or refund.

If you suspect a recently installed application (or…Microsoft Update) is the cause, then use the Add/Remove Programs tool to uninstall it. (XP+older: Start> Control Panel> Add/Remove Programs, Vista: Start> Control Panel> Uninstall a program.) [Note: in Vista, uninstalling Updates is done through Windows Update itself, not Add/Remove.]
If you are unable to get into Windows, reboot and start hitting the F8 key to get into Safe Mode. [For more info, click here] Again, run for a day or two, and if you do not experience any BSOD’s, you’ve (most likely) found the perp. Again, you need not despair and abandon the program. It may have simply been an incomplete or corrupted install that was causing the stop errors. Try reinstalling it, but first make sure that there are no other applications running–turn off your AV, your IM, and close IE. You will soon know whether it is simply an incompatible or poorly written application.

I am going to stop here, but I want to acknowledge that this is far from a complete discussion on all the possible causes (nor cures) for BSOD’s and the other woes mentioned at the top of this post. I will return to this topic again, and I invite your comments and critiques, and suggestions. I close by suggesting you also read my article on the Windows System Restore tool (click here) and reminding you that — should all your efforts fail, my services are available at http://aplusca.com.

Today’s free link: Sandra Lite from SiSoft. This is a benchmarking and system analysis tool that shows you a wealth of information about the workings of your computer, and detects areas that aren’t working as well as they should.

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.jaanix post to jaanix

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May 3, 2008 Posted by | advice, BSOD, computers, device drivers, hardware, how to, PC, performance, Plug and Play, removing Updates, Safe Mode, System Restore, tech, troubleshooting, Vista, Windows, XP | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Back in the saddle

Whew! What a day yesterday was. It certainly proved to be one of those days.
You know the ones: they start off with something going wrong.. (like, the alarm doesn’t go off) and then they go downhill from there.
Yup. Those days.

Let’s count how many ways my day smelled up the joint:
1)An older system of mine decided that it would not boot into Windows (XP), and then — with a determination that would make a Missouri mule proud — resisted all resuscitation efforts. No problem (I said to myself.. it was still early in the day). I’ll just re-mount a “ghost image” backup from the DVD’s I made last week.

2)One of the 4 DVD’s was “corrupted”. As in “unreadable”.
As in.. that backup is totally useless to me. Four wasted discs. Caught me a little off guard, too… I pay extra to buy the best blanks, and the company to which I am alluding has never given me a “bad burn” before.

3)By reinstalling XP (which only takes an hour or so) I was able to to pull a full, system state Windows Backup Utility backup off of my external hard-drive. Yay!
3a) only to discover that I had been lazy and and forgetful on this secondary backup (method) of this secondary machine, and the “system state” it was restored to was (as it was in) mid-January. Two and-a-half months in Computer Years is like.. over a year to you and me; way out of date.
At least I didn’t have to reinstall all my programs, and drivers, and updates, and files.. and stuff. Only some of them.

About the same time #2 was happening…
4) I jammed/stubbed my middle toe on an ajar door. Wait! I mean I really did a good job of it.
I thought I was going to have to go to the ER there for a minute.
(Come on, guys. Feel sorry for me a little. Can’t ya? Pretty Please?)

About the same time I was half-way through getting my restored machine back into it’s modern config:
5) A client called to tell me they were having trouble publishing to the Website I had built for them (several months ago). This revealed a string of adventures we’ll just call 6) through 10). I won’t bore you with that, but I will tell you that it was nobody’s fault, and painstaking reconstruction resolved/eliminated all issues.. and, there was no “downtime”.

It was just a day where things that were supposed to “work” simply.. didn’t.

Some of all this is clearly my fault (I left the door ajar, and Iwalked into it), and some of of it is clearly Bill Gates’s fault.. and some of it it is the fault of mischievous invisible gremlins and/or the alignment of the planets.
Part of my problem was I had failed to fully follow my own advice.

So what lessons can we learn from my less-than-stellar day yesterday?
A: ‘Things’ can go wrong. Things can break, get lost or stolen, or be destroyed by fire, flood, lightning, or rust. If those ‘things’ are important, you need a “spare”. Such as, a spare house key.

In computing, these spares are called “backup” copies.
I was saved a slew of work and a ton of wasted time that problem #1 would have caused me had I not had a functional backup. That is why Industry Best Practice tells us to make two backups, and to store them on two different types of media.. in two different places.
The step I neglected was on my image-to-optical disc backup, I didn’t “verify” the integrity of all four discs as the final step of the backup process.

Both my Tip of the day and Today’s free link are combined today. If you have photographs, and/or a music collection, and/or important documents on your computer, you simply must make backup copies or risk losing them forever.

* Windows users should take advantage of the built-in Windows Backup utility. I have published a detailed How To for using it to automatically make backups and keep them up-to-date here https://techpaul.wordpress.com/2007/07/02/automate-your-backup-and-get-some-peace-of-mind/. (This is what saved my bacon.)
Apple Mac users can make an image backup using the Disk Management applet, which I describe here.

*Make another backup using another backup tool.. of which there are many different types. You might wish to use an “imaging” tool like Norton Ghost, Acronis TrueImage Home, or the free DriveImage XML (Bill Mullins talks about this program in a recent post, to read it, and see the appropriate download links, click here.)

* Verify your backups by testing them. Find out if they’ll work before you need them (Doh!)

The fact is, sooner or later, you will need a spare key to get into your house or car.. and sooner or later Windows or your hard-drive will die and you will need a backup if you want to see those photos or hear that music or work on those important document again.

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

April 1, 2008 Posted by | advice, Backups, computers, file system, how to, PC, security, System Restore, tech, Windows | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Update blue screens/reader question

Sometimes the things we do to help our computer can actually make it unhappy, such as when a Windows Update proves incompatible with our installed software/hardware (or doesn’t install itself properly) and it causes “blue screens”.

Q: An Update is causing BSOD’s, what do I do?
A: From time to time a Microsoft security Update will not be compatible with the software and/or device drivers on your machine and the instability will trigger the Blue Screen Of Death (for more on BSOD’s and what to do, see “When good computers go bad“). First, reboot– twice. This will resolve partial installs. If it’s a problem with the Update, usually, Microsoft will repair this and issue a new Update … eventually. In the meantime, remove the Update (If you’re not sure which Update is the perp, remove the most recent ones) by going to Add/Remove Programs in your Control Panel. (Start >Settings >Control Panel >Add/Remove Programs) Now look to the top area and place a check (select) in the “Show updates” checkbox. Now you will be able to see the list of installed Updates.
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Click on the Update you want to remove, and click on the Remove button.
*If the blue screen won’t let you get to your Desktop, boot into Safe Mode to perform the steps above.

You can also use System Restore to revert back to a point before the Update was installed, and this will resolve the blue screen. However, Windows Update will prompt you download and Install the Update again.. or do it for you automatically at the next cycle. To tell Windows Update to ignore that particular update — and to stop it from trying to install it each cycle — you must “hide” the update.
Microsoft shows the common method here, but generally you visit Windows Update, select “View available updates”, and right-click (on the one you want to stop) and select “Hide this update”.

Updating your machine (no matter the brand) is a vital part of protecting yourself (and your “identity”) and Microsoft (Apple also) is ready to help you get your Updating troubles resolved. All technical support for Update is free: if you need it, use it!

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

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February 15, 2008 Posted by | advice, BSOD, computers, how to, PC, removing Updates, System Restore, tech, Windows | , , | Leave a comment

These folks had a very bad day

Here’s why I really, really hate digital evil doers. I received queries from some folks who discovered that some of their files had mysteriously vanished (in one case, all of their files) and they wanted to know what to do to get them back.
What had happened to them was they had visited (or been redirected to, in a type of attack similar to pharming) a malicious website. This website downloaded code that took advantage of an unpatched vulnerability in Windows and executed a script that deleted random files… and then emptied the Recycle bin. Files, gone.

How this profited the owner of the malicious website, or even gave him any joy or satisfaction, I simply cannot fathom. This attack doesn’t steal, nor does it turn your machine into a zombie in his botnet. It is spite, pure and simple. Unmitigated meanness.
There is a certain.. segment of geeks/hackers who feel that many people are too stupid to own computers, who haven’t a clue how to use or protect them, and that these folks deserve whatever bad things happen to their PCs. Vanity and arrogance!
That is why I do this six-days-a-week labor of love, and bring you the tips, advice, and information posted here. So far I have posted 80 how-to’s with 60 topic tags. With God’s help, I will continue to help you combat these bad guys for many, many more days to come.

Tip(s) of the day: Don’t be vulnerable.
1) Make sure your machine has all the latest patches and Updates. Using exploits of known vulnerabilities is the main avenue Evil Doers use to do their mischief. The reason this works is that so many people are using old versions of Windows and/or not patching via Microsoft Update. Fortunately, it is easy to set Windows to automatically download Updates for you.

Click on Start >Control Panel >Security Center.
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Click on Automatic Updates under “Manage security settings for:” (Or, right-click on My Computer (Computer in Vista), select (click) Properties and then the Automatic Updates tab.)
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Make sure the top radio button is selected [advisory: some folks, having had bad experiences with an Update, prefer to only be warned when Updates are available. They then decide which ones to manually install. I have posted an article on how to remove troublesome updates.] and set the times to “everyday” and an hour when you know your machine will be powered on. Finish by clicking on “Apply”.

2) Avoid malicious websites. Since the website warning tool built into IE 7 causes very slow performance, I recommend downloading a tool like McAfee’s SiteAdvisor, or the Netcraft toolbar. (Both work on Firefox, too.) These are primarily anti-phishing tools, and the bad guys are constantly posting new poisoned websites (one reliable sources says “An average of 11,906 total new malicious websites were detected daily in August.” {my italics}), so these warning tools are not foolproof — but are an excellent addition to your security arsenal: if they turn red and advise you not to continue to the website, don’t.

3) Use a firewall and make sure your antivirus and anti-spyware tools are up to date. I have posted many articles on these topics. Click on a word in my Tag Cloud to see just these articles.

4) Windows is not the only software/program that has exploitable vulnerabilities. Make sure you’re using the automatic update setting on every program that offers it to look for newer versions. Also use the online vulnerability assessor at Secunia to scan your system for out of date applications. The results will include links to the newer versions, should it find any, and tell you how to fix the vulnerabilities it finds.

I was able to help these folks recover their deleted files with common undelete programs. If you read my article on why deleted isn’t really deleted, recently reposted as a holiday edition, you are already aware of how to do this should this malicious and dastardly attack befall you. Keep reading for another free undelete tool.

Today’s free link: Pandora Recovery is a program for undeleting files on NTFS partitions. You should download this (or a similar) program before you actually need it, as installing it could very well happen on the area you’re trying to recover.
If you are in a situation such as the folks who triggered this article, and you don’t already have an undelete tool installed, use an online scanner/recovery tool such as Softperfect File Recovery.

Copyright 2007 © Tech Paul, All Rights Reserved.

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September 10, 2007 Posted by | advice, anti-spyware, antivirus, Backups, computers, file system, firewall, how to, IE 7, missing files, PC, Phishing, privacy, security, System Restore, tech, Vista, Windows, XP | Leave a comment

Today: review and questions answered

“System Restore won’t work”, “I’m worried about ID Theft, how do I know if an email is legit?”, “I can’t get this #$*& program out of my Startup folder” — these are examples of some of the questions I have received since posting my articles on these topics. Today I’m going to review, and provide more solutions and answers.

Tip of the day: Since I’m going to cover the questions above, there is not going to be a single “Tip of the day” today. Instead, there will be “Today’s three questions”…
More on System Restore: What to do when System Restore just refuses to work. As I mentioned in my first System Restore post, SR simply is not a failsafe miracle worker. There are troubles that can occur that it simply does not repair — such as a corrupted SAM database. It is however a good place to start. It does undo a lot of the damage you can accidentally do to your machine. This fact is why you should always make a back up of your system — either a “disk image” made with a 3rd-party utility like Acronis True Image, or Norton Ghost, and/or Windows Backup Utility (Start >Programs >Accessories >System tools >Backup).
I stated in the prior article, and will repeat here, that you may have to repeat the System Restore process several times before one “snapshot” finally takes. When you use SR, you will see a calendar with available snapshots in bold dates. You should see several. Start with the most recent date and time, and work your way backwards. If you have done this with no luck, you probably have one of those troubles System Restore is not designed for. Either look elsewhere for solutions, or call for some Tech Support (we Tech Support folks need to make a living too, you know).

Legit vs. Phishing: “how do I know if an email is legit?” In my post about the rocket scientist, I discussed phishing and recommended an anti-phishing site toolbar, which combats a form of phishing called “pharming“.
I suggest you take no chances with emails. Simply do not click on links in emails. Also, realize that your bank will not send you links. They know about phishing, and they figure you already know their url (you should have it bookmarked, so use that…or call them directly). Also be aware that just because an email claims to be from a friend or relative, doesn’t mean that it is. If you are not expecting an “executable” (application) or “you gotta see this!” .jpg from Uncle Fred, by all means don’t open it! Email him and ask him, “did you send me a..?” It is an easy thing for an Evil Doer to spoof an address.
And finally, make sure your antivirus definitions are up to date. If it is not already on by default, open your antivirus’ Options and look in “Update Options” for “Download and install new definitions automatically” (or words to that effect) and make sure it’s selected. If available, have it set to scan email and email attachments as well.

Removing stubborn start up programs: If the methods I described in “My Startup folder is a clown car” proved insufficient for getting rid of a really determined program, there are two more methods you can try. The first is msconfig, and the second is editing the Registry.
Start by opening the msconfig utility. Click Start >Run and type in “msconfig” (no quotes), and then click on the Startup tab. Here you will see a list of the programs scheduled to start when Windows boots. Uncheck the checkbox next to the program you are having the troubles with. You will need to restart your system for the changes to take effect.

The second method, editing the Registry, is for advanced users who are comfortable treading in such risky waters. Changes made to the Registry are immediate, and there’s no “undo” feature. If you feel you are determined to dive in, please create a Restore Point before starting and back up the Registry to a .txt file first. Please read (or re-familiarize yourself with) Microsoft’s detailed how-to here. They Key you’ll be working with is HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\CurrentVersion\Run.
But please: this is not for the inexperienced. Do not try this without reading and understanding what editing the Registry is about, and what damage one mistake can do. First use the aforementioned methods and please consider simply using Add/Remove Programs to “retire” the troublesome program altogether…or try a program like StartUp Cop.

Today’s free link: I would like to ask you, Dear Reader, to suggest today’s free link if you are using a freeware startup manager that you have found to be bug-free and effective. Please submit your suggestions in the comments box.

And so that the rest of you don’t feel cheated — how about the off-topic GIMP Open Source digital image manipulating tool. This completely free application is a bit tricky to install but is well worth it as it offers a full range of tools for adjusting your digital images, and it does that in an interface that’s comfortable to folks with Photoshop experience.

Update 7/1:
I have been trying, and am satisfied with this freeware Startup manager: Ashampoo StartUp Tuner 2

© Tech Paul all rights reserved

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June 29, 2007 Posted by | advice, computers, how to, PC, Phishing, privacy, security, System Restore, tech, Vista, Windows, XP | 1 Comment

A quick System Restore addenda

My previous post, “My favorite Life Savers flavor? System Restore“, has triggered some questions from readers: questions along the line of “SR won’t start” and “it keeps turning itself off.”

These issues stem from the fact that System Restore is a Service and you need to ensure that it is running, and that the “Start up type” is set to “Automatic”. Here’s how you make sure that is the case on your machine:

Start >Run. Type in “services.msc” (no quotes). In the right-hand pane of the window that opens, scroll down the list until you see System Restore Service and double-click it. If it is not already running, hit the Start button. Then use the drop-down arrow in the Start up type box to select Automatic. Close the Services window. That should resolve those issues.

Another person wanted to know how to undo a restore. This is a radio button option on the initial “Welcome to System Restore” page, after you’ve done a restore. It is the bottom one. Select it and hit Next.

I want to remind you, Dear Reader, that I welcome your questions and comments.

Copyright © 2007 Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

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June 24, 2007 Posted by | advice, computers, how to, PC, System Restore, tech, Vista, Windows, XP | 4 Comments

My favorite Life Saver flavor? System Restore

Have you ever wished you could go back in time…and un-do something you did? A couple of posts ago I promised I would return to the subject of Windows’ (XP and Vista) built-in recovery tool, System Restore, and so I shall. System Restore allows your computer to do what you and I cannot do, jump back in history to a time when everything was working properly, to a time before you did what you did…and messed things up. And that’s a pretty neat trick!

Tip of the day: Now before you get entirely too excited, I should caution you that System Restore is not a panacea: there are some things it copies and restores and some things it doesn’t. It does not recover data once the Recycle bin has been emptied — you need an undelete utility for that. It doesn’t recover lost or corrupted User passwords. It is, however, “user friendly” and easy to use. It does, automatically, take “snapshots” of the Registry and some dynamic system files, and is a good way to get an unstable and/or non-booting system back on its feet again without losing your saved data and user settings.

To get started, you need to make sure that System Restore is turned on, and that it has at least 200 megabytes of free hard-drive space to store snapshots on. Turn on System Restore by clicking Start and right-click My Computer >Properties >System Restore tab and make sure there’s no check in the box next to “Turn off System Restore on all drives.” While you’re there, select the drive, or partition, where you want to store the snapshots and click the Settings button. Now you can use the slider to denote the amount of memory you want to devote to System Restore. I set mine to about 500 MB’s, which gives me a good selection of Restore Points (snapshots) without losing too much storage. And now you are set: Windows will start taking snapshots whenever you make a ‘major’ change, like installing a program or device driver.

There are a couple of different ways to use System Restore to go back in time. In the first scenario, Windows still functions, and boots, but is unstable and crashes a lot [Hey, I heard that…] after you did something, and removing that something hasn’t truly rememedied the situation. Use System Restore by clicking Start >Programs >Accessories >Sytem Tools >System Restore. This will launch the System Restore Wizard. By default, the radio button “Restore my computer to an earlier time” is already selected so hit the Next button. Now you will see a calendar, which has the available snapshots/times in bold. Start with the most recent one first, and click Next, and then OK. Your system will reboot, take a while to load, and then a message saying “Your system has been successfully restored to xyz.” will appear. If this doesn’t happen, retry using the next most recent Restore Point.

The next scenario is when you’re in a bad situation where Windows just BSOD’s, or won’t even boot. Boot your machine and hit, repeatedly, the F8 key as if you were trying to get into Safe Mode. When the white-on-black Advanced Start Up screen appears do not hit any key(s)…just yet. Before too long a dialogue will open asking whether you want to continue on into Safe Mode…Y/N? Type an “n” for no. This will launch the System Restore Wizard and you follow the steps as outlined above.

Should this dialogue not open, after a suitable wait, use your up/down arrow keys to highlight Safe Mode and hit Enter. You will now be in the funny-looking, petite version of Windows called, you guessed it, “safe mode”. It’s easy to know that you are, because it clearly says Safe Mode in all four corners of your desktop. Now you can access System Restore through the Start >Programs menu. Again, follow the steps as outlined above.

Sometimes System Restore cannot undo all the damage and it doesn’t work as we’d hoped. If the damage was done by a virus that also infected your snapshots, or maybe simply the computer gods are angry, it may not work at all. There are more steps you can take if this proves to be the case; steps that are short of reinstalling Windows and starting over. I will discuss some of these later as well. I promise.

[For more answers on System Restore, see my two follow-up posts; “A quick System Restore addenda“, and “questions answered”.]

Today’s free link: I mentioned undelete utilities, and there are many out there for you to try. Try to recover files by starting with a scan using Softperfect File Recovery. “…a free and useful tool to restore accidentally deleted files from hard and floppy disks, USB flash drives, CF and SD cards and other storage media. It supports the popular file systems such as FAT12, FAT16, FAT32, NTFS and NTFS5 with compression and encryption. If your important files disappeared and you can’t find them in the recycle bin, try this software product and get the files back to life. Easy to use, no installation is required.”

***Note Regarding This Blog***

I recently was informed that 6 comments had been blocked by Akismet Spamblocker. I haven’t made any efforts to block reader comments: I have in fact done the opposite, and removed any restrictions to posting comments here. I welcome comments and suggestions and questions.

So if you’ve posted a comment, and it has yet to appear, it was Akismet’s doing and not my own. Please resubmit your comment, and if it’s free from banned language and banned links, it should appear. You can also email it to me.

Copyright © 2007 Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

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June 19, 2007 Posted by | advice, Backups, computers, how to, PC, Safe Mode, System Restore, tech, Vista, Windows, XP | 4 Comments