Written and copyright © 2008-2013 by Thomas N. Bulkowski. All rights reserved.
This article discusses precautions you can take now, before your computer crashes, and what you can do after the crash to get it up and running.
When I powered up my Internet computer, it kept rebooting, unable to finish loading the operating system for some mysterious reason. How did I get it working and what
steps can you take now to prepare for a computer crash? This page answers those questions. The following tips pertain to Windows XP and not Vista, but maybe
they will work there, too, and with other versions of the Windows operating system.
Steps to Take Before the Crash
First, let's discuss the various things you should do now, before the crash.
- Have a system backup available.
I know, you have heard this a million times before. Backing up your system (I do it weekly) is easy. Go to Wal-Mart and buy yourself an external
hard drive. For newer computers, it plugs into the USB port and the drive costs about $1 a gigabyte. Make sure that the drive is at least as large as the drive in your computer, otherwise,
the information won't fit onto the new drive. The drive should have a firewire or USB cable to connect to your computer, and make sure your computer has one of those ports
(firewire or USB) available.
The drive should come with some type of backup software to run the thing. Both of my Seagate drives (80 GB and 120 GB) came with Bounceback Express.
The Bounceback software will store your information onto the backup drive but you won't be able to boot up from it. Think of Bounceback Express as the amateur's variety of backup software.
For the real stuff, you need to upgrade to Bounceback Pro or another version and buy their Rescue CD.
The Rescue CD is suppose to copy the hard drive image
from the external drive onto the internal drive. I say supposed to because when I needed it about a year ago, the $%^* thing did not work. I spent a week on the phone with
the Bounceback people trying to figure out my problem, without luck. I finally just reformatted the hard drive and reinstalled the software. That process took a day, including the numerous
patches applied to the Windows software.
What I like about weekly backups and an external drive, is you disconnect them from the system and put them somewhere else in your house.
Thus, if your computer catches fire, you still have a backup with your data ready to go. And the software will remind you to perform the weekly backup. If you need to look at a file
you deleted or changed, then you can just plug in your backup drive, access the old version, and away you go. I've needed to do that many times. It is worth having even if you
cannot boot from it or even if you cannot restore a dead drive from it.
- Google Docs
Google.com has a free service (called Google Docs or Documents) where you can upload many different file types for sharing with others or not. In a pinch, it can serve as storage
for your files. I have not used the service, but one who did said the only flaw is you can upload just one file at a time. Since the service is meant as a file sharing medium,
it will not handle all file types, and I question the security of placing your documents on the web in such a manner.
- Norton Ghost
A few readers of this information wrote and said that they use Norton Ghost as their backup software. According to the Symantec website that makes Norton products, it does everything
that you would expect from backup software.
- Scan your hard drive for errors or a corrupt operating system.
Depending on the size and number of hard drives, this could take a long time (1/2 hour or longer for my 40gb drive).
- Click the Start button
- Click My Computer
- When you see "Local Disk C:" appear, right mouse click on it
- Click Properties
- Click the Tools tab
- Click the Check now button
- Check both boxes, automatically fix file system errors and scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors.
You will see an message appear that says this will need to be run at boot time. Answer yes, that you want to schedule it to run. When it returns to the tools menu...
- Click the Defragment Now box.
- Click Analyze.
The system will check to see if your drive needs to be defragmented or not. Defrag it if necessary. Fragmentation occurs when the file you are saving is larger than the space available. The
operating system splits the file into smaller pieces and saves the information where it can on your drive. Defragmenting the file glues the pieces back together and lays them down in
space large enough to contain the entire file without splitting it up. After defragmenting, you may notice a quicker response time.
After you reboot your computer, the system will begin scanning your drive. This is the same as running chkdsk /f in the old MSDOS days. Pay attention and look for errors. If you see
back sectors appear as a warning message, then consider buying a new drive. You need not have to install it, but when errors appear, it has been my experience that the drive is about to
stop working. You may have another 6 months before it dies completely
- Put down a system restore point.
- Click Start
- Click Help and Support
- Click Undo changes to your computer with System Restore
- Click Create a restore point and follow the instructions.
When you install new software, a restore point is automatically created. However, if your computer is working fine today, then you might want to note that with a restore point.
If your computer runs into problems, you can restore your computer by selecting an earlier restore point. If you don't have a point to restore to, you're out of luck. So check to see if
you have a recent restore point. This will be especially true if you use services.msc or msconfig.exe to turn off drivers. You may inadvertently turn off system restore.
- Msconfig.exe and Services.msc
These two programs do the same thing: they allow you to turn off software that you don't use. For example, if you have a computer without a printer, then why should you run
the print spooler that controls printing? Turn it off. I don't use audio on my system, so I turned off Windows audio and only enable it when needed. About half the drivers that could
be loaded on my system are turned off.
How do you use the software tools? They are self explanatory but knowing which driver to turn off is complicated. Fortunately, there is a wonderful website that explains each driver:
http://www.blackviper.com/. Click on the operating system and service configurations for your setup. He will tell you what
services are needed and which are not.
Make sure you write down your original settings before changing them. Otherwise, when you break something, you know what to turn back on. He
also recommends that you do not use msconfig.exe because it can turn off all sorts of things. Use services.msc instead. I use msconfig.exe to check the startup sequence and to
find out who is loading what. Adobe will put a driver that runs so it can check for updates. I don't care about their updates, so I turned it off using the Startup tab on
msconfig. Want Java to run each time you power your computer even though it checks the website monthly? Kill it using msconfig. I only use msconfig to tweak the startup menu and
not for services (another tab).
I leave the other tabs alone, too. For services, I use services.msc. Before you turn off something, do an Internet search to find out what it is you're turning off (if it is not
adequately covered by black viper or the unfriendly help message that appears when using the program and clicking on the service). Turning off
DHCP Client on my machine takes down the Internet, for example. You can spend a day playing with services.msc, as I did, but it allows you to tune your system for performance. If you suspect that
a program is running that should not be (like a virus), then use msconfig and look at the programs that load at startup. And DO be careful about what you turn off because you can really hose
your system, according to black viper.
Having said that, when my computer crashed, the help instructions said to use msconfig.exe to turn every service off. That surprised me. It made me wonder whether black viper
really means services.msc instead of msconfig.exe. Services,msc has more services listed than does msconfig. You do not want to turn off all of the services using services.msc.
Read and follow the help instructions for your computer.
- Build your own rescue toolkit
There is a free Linux based operating system that runs from CDROM. It can read and write to the Windows operating system, do a virus check, and get to the Internet as well as
other utilities. When my Windows machine would not boot, I used it to get to the internet and check email. I downloaded the latest version today (Tuesday) and tried it. It works.
The program is called Insert and you can find it at http://www.inside-security.de/insert_en.html but you will have
to poke around for it. If you use this link, select the English
files and download them. Those are INSERT-1.3.9b_en.iso and INSERT-1.3.9b_en.iso.md5. The en stands for English, so make sure you grab the right files. The files are about 60 mb total,
so it can take a few minutes to download. Once you have them downloaded, double click on the INSERT-1.3.9b_en.iso file. When I did that, it started my CDROM burner program and burned the
boot image onto the CDROM. Make sure you have a blank in the burner, ready to go...
After burning the CDROM, if you want to use it, you need to change the boot sequence of your computer. On my Dell computer, I press F12 when instructed to. Then I
select the CDROM drive. After that, the program loads with a "boot:" prompt. I just press enter and it starts configuring itself for your hardware. A page of instructions displays, giving
you a brief overview.
When you're done playing, you can right click on the background and you should be able to locate a stop/exit thingy somewhere (I am not sure about the sequence but you should be
able to locate it easily enough. I found it in about 30 seconds). Select that and the system will unload, ask you to remove
the CDROM and it will then turn the computer off. Be sure to change the boot sequence back to Normal or hard drive instead of the CDROM if you want to run Windows.
I strongly recommend that you have this CDROM available. It allows you to access the Internet where maybe you can find answers to your boot problems. Since it allows you to
burn CDROMS, you can save your data without loading Windows, too. How do you do that? I have no idea, so you will have to search for it.
- Keep your CDs in a fire safe.
You can buy a fire safe at Wal-Mart for about $50 or so. Make sure it is rated to protect CDROMs. It probably will NOT
protect your floppies, so consider burning any important floppy information onto a CD. Then put your safe in a safe place, away from your computers. And keep in mind that during a fire,
the contents will get hot. If you have anything that will melt covering the CDs, that could damage them. For example, I had my CDs in plastic bags so I could keep the disks from my
computers separate. I removed the plastic bags and now have paper covering the CDs along with rubber bands. If the rubber bands melt, it should not damage the disks...I hope.
After the Crash
When my computer crashed, I felt as if I was stranded alone on some road somewhere without a cell phone. I felt not panic, but helplessness.
You have to push past the feeling and try to rescue your machine. Here are some things to try.
- Turn the power off to the computer.
Let the machine sit for 30 seconds before you power it up again. Sometimes just cycling power in this manner will fix the problem.
- Check the cables
My dog likes to park her fanny at my feet. Once she jostled the internet line so I lost the connection. Unplugging and reinserting the phone cord into the house outlet fixed the problem.
Thus, check to be sure that all cables fit snuggly in their sockets. That includes the power cord. You may want to unplug and plug them in again because sometimes with age, the connection
- Power strip
I had the switch to a power strip cause problems once. When you buy a power strip, be sure it has a surge protector built in. That won't help
if lightening hits your house (your house is going to burn down, anyway), but it will attenuate the smaller spikes and perhaps save your system from harm. They are not expensive, about $5,
but get one with a switch and plug everything into it. After your computer turns itself off, you switch off the power, protecting your equipment by two switches.
- Check the lights.
On my Dell machine are four lights on the back of the computer. If any of them are red, you probably have a hardware problem. Green is good. Check your manual for a discussion
of what the lights mean. Dell also has a toll-free number to help you fix software problems. Mine computer with lifetime software (not hardware) support. Hardware support is extra.
If they ask you to pay for support, say no. They tried to do that last time when it was a software/firmware problem. I said no to paying and they fixed the problem anyway at no charge.
- Remove temporary files
The last time my computer crashed, I was sweating bullets. Why? Because system/restore could not find any restore points (even though I put a known good one in months ago). Everything
I tried did not help. So I called Dell for help. A man from India answered, but that was fine with me. I could understand him. He took control of my computer and erased temporary files.
After that, everything worked just fine. It was the first thing the man did, so it is important and should be the first thing you do.
Here is what he did.
- Click Start then Run. In the dialog box that appears type the following (one command per line).
- temp then Enter and delete everything you find.
- %temp% then Enter and delete everything you find.
- prefetch then Enter and delete everything you find.
- reboot and pray.
Each of the "temp," "%temp%," and "prefetch" commands will take you to temporary folders. Remove everything that the computer allows you to delete (some files may remain if they are in use.
If it happens, skip the file and try to delete the remainder). And yes, you should include the percent (%) signs. Since this is deleting files, you will want to have a backup in
case you kill something important. His commands worked on my Dell Windows XP home edition machine.
Run a full virus scan
My anti-virus and anti-spyware software has stopped viruses from entering my machine several times, but not all of them. This latest crash is the second example. With the first one, my
anti-spyware software kept complaining that some program was trying to contact various websites. I could not find the source of the problem and my trying to fix it
took me offline for a week. I had to format the drive and reload the software. I discovered that the less web surfing I did, the less my system got infected. Go figure.
The second crash happened this Sunday after I spent a week working on the RSS feed and then searching for aggregators to host my RSS feed. My computer kept rebooting, but
system/restore fixed that problem.
Read the manual
I know. This is a fate worse than death, but read the manual. If the manual is in electronic form and your computer won't boot, then you are out of luck.
That is what I used Sunday to fix my problem. I rolled the machine back to June and it booted fine. The prior two times I used system/restore, it complained that there was nothing
to restore! And I thought the program was useless...until Sunday.
If you own a Dell machine and are at the point of having to reload your software from scratch to get it going, they have a second partition on the hard drive that contains
an image of the system as shipped from the factory. Consult your manual to figure out how to access it. When I looked on my drive for it, it wasn't there. Sigh. If it was, it
would have taken just minutes to reload the image instead of spending 4 hours inserting CDs.
If you have another windows machine, preferably the same model, you can use the drive from the second machine in the first one. If it boots, then you know it is a software problem
and not a hardware one. Be sure to write down which is pin 1 on those cables (there should be 2, one for data and one for power). Mark pin 1 right on the drive so you don't
put the cable on backwards or upside down. And be sure to connect the power cable! Remember two cables per drive.
If you have two drives in the broken machine, perhaps you can boot from the second drive. Consult your manual and the startup sequence when you boot. You may need to swap cables and
change jumpers on the drives. If so, then write down the jumper settings before changing them.
If you recently played with services.msc or msconfig.exe, then maybe you broke something there. Did you turn off the driver that controls access to the Internet? Maybe you turned off
the video driver? If you can run Windows but a part of it is not acting normally (like no internet access or your electronic camera no longer can download images into the machine) then run
services.msc and turn on the service you disabled. Remember, just because you change the setting from automatic to manual does not mean that programs will
turn it on when needed. Many do not. And if you disable them, then they will not run those services. If you play with the two programs, or read the black viper information, you will know
what I am talking about.
In the control panel, under administrative tools, I have an event viewer. This tells me what is right and wrong with the operating system. It is handy when you are tweaking your system
using msconfig or services.msc. When you break something, it will show up in the event viewer as an error. On Sunday when I checked it, the program said it was having difficulty loading
some software. That did not help but it gave me a clue that it was a software problem.
Run in Safe Mode
If the operating system discovers a problem during booting, it should give you the option of running in safe mode. Try that. Safe mode strips the system down to the bare minimum.
You will likely not have antivirus software running or much of anything else. Video will be 640 x 480, so your icons will look HUGE! You should be able to access services.msc to undo any
damage you caused. Maybe you can use msconfig.exe to turn off any virus program running during start-up. You should be able to copy files to a floppy or maybe burn a CD of data, so
you have options.
Run the Insert CD to see if your machine runs.
If the CD will not boot either, then it is likely a hardware problem. That is when you should start sweating and holding onto
your wallet or purse a bit tighter. Maybe you have a friend that knows more about computers that you do? Call them.
Use the backup drive
You might be able to boot from the external hard drive, so try that. Try using the Insert CD to copy files from one drive to the other.
That way, you can restore the c:/Windows folder and try to boot again or perhaps other files as well. I do not know how successful that will be. Windows becomes protective when you try
to overwrite a file in use or even copy an open file, but if Windows is not running, then this should not be a problem (meaning you are using the Insert CD to do the copying).
As a last resort, you may have to reformat the hard drive. Even this is not easy. When my system crashed a year ago, I had to call Dell for help when it asked about partitions. I had two
partitions but Dell told me to build 1 big partition. It worked. Before you reformat your drive, you will want to save as much data as you can, if you can. The Insert CD should help with
that. If you cannot mount the drives, then you may be out of luck, but try. And if you have a backup drive, remember that it could be infected with a virus, too. Sometimes you have to
run multiple virus programs to detect problems. And that may not help either.
-- Thomas Bulkowski
Copyright © 2008-2013 by Thomas N. Bulkowski. All rights reserved. I'm retired. You're not. Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah.