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Windows 7 Repair and Troubleshooting

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Windows 7 appears to be not just more stable and less resource hungry than Vista, but also better able and equipped to repair itself when the occasional system hiccup happens. In this article Justin Korelc and Ed Tittel explain new features and capabilities in Windows 7 that make it more resilient and capable in dealing with trouble.
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Imagine how easy the average workday would be if Windows PCs ran as reliably and problem-free over the long term as they do right out of the box. That "new PC smell," however, wears off as programs and updates are installed over weeks and months of use.

Eventually, every Windows system encounters errors of minor to major proportions. The good news is that Microsoft Windows 7 is better at repairing and recovering from system faults and failures than previous Windows versions. In addition, Windows Vista introduced the Recovery Environment (RE), a pre-boot diagnostic platform for identifying and resolving numerous fail-to-start issues. Windows RE enables you to perform file and system recovery tasks on unbootable computers. Windows 7 builds upon this foundation but calls it System Recovery Options. Microsoft has also introduced subtle changes to the native backup facility, which is now simply called "Windows Backup."

This article covers Windows 7 repair and troubleshooting utilities, beginning with Advanced Boot Options, which help you troubleshoot and fix startup problems.

Advanced Boot Options

Windows Vista lacks an option to invoke the RE from the Advanced Boot Options menu in standard (non-OEM) installations, but Windows 7 thoughtfully includes one. You access the Advanced Boot Menu by pressing F8 after the BIOS power-on self-test (POST) finishes and makes a hand-off to the operating system boot loader.

Follow these steps to use the Advanced Boot Options menu:

  1. Start (or restart) your computer.
  2. Press F8 to invoke the Advanced Boot Options menu.
  3. Select Repair Your Computer from the list (the first option).
  4. Use the up and down arrows to navigate menu choices.

Advanced Boot Options cover the gamut from a minimalist Windows Safe Mode environment to disabling automatic restarts and signature enforcement. The following are common Advanced Boot Options for Windows 7, although options may vary from one system to the next:

  • Safe Mode: Starts Windows with minimal drivers and services. You can often pinpoint problems by narrowing the potential sources, and Safe Mode helps identify new applications, drivers, and settings as culprits while giving you a clean slate to work from.
  • Safe Mode with Networking: Starts Windows in Safe Mode with network drivers and additional services to access the local network or Internet. Use this feature to provide network connectivity when you need to install software or research problems.
  • Safe Mode with Command Prompt: Starts Windows in Safe Mode and finishes at the command prompt instead of the desktop. Use this option if you know how to navigate the command line and are already familiar with command-line applications.
  • Enable Boot Logging: Creates a file named nbtlog.txt that lists all drivers invoked during startup. You can use nbtlog.txt as an electronic paper trail for troubleshooting. Service technicians typically use this trail to identify and isolate sources of startup failure that aren't readily apparent.
  • Enable Low-Resolution Video: Starts Windows with minimal resolution settings and refresh rates. Use this option to reset corrupt display settings, diagnose a faulty graphics card, or use a television instead of a computer monitor.
  • Last Known Good Configuration (advanced): Returns the system to recent driver and registry configurations. New drivers and software can sometimes cause problems that are easily fixed by returning to a previously functional state.
  • Directory Services Restore Mode: Starts Windows domain controller with Active Directory to restore directory services. (Intended for service professionals and IT administrators.)
  • Debugging Mode: Boots into an advanced troubleshooting mode with debugging functionality. (Intended for service professionals and IT administrators.)
  • Disable Automatic Restart on System Failure: Prevents Windows from automatically restarting upon failure, which can sometimes cause an interminable loop (until you break the cycle manually).
  • Disable Driver Signature Enforcement: Loads installed software that has invalid or missing signatures.
  • Start Windows Normally: Boots straight through to the logon screen or user desktop.

Now let's take a look at the System Recovery Options.

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