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Get Started with the Updated Windows 10 Troubleshooting Tools

Windows 10 comes with familiar troubleshooting wizards and utilities you know from previous versions, along with some powerful new features. Which tools you need immediately depends on the trouble you're having. Alan Wright, author of Windows 10 Absolute Beginner's Guide and a computer support professional with over a decade assisting home and business users, points out the most useful Windows 10 troubleshooting tools.
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Windows 10 is brand new. Do you need to worry about troubleshooting already?

Think about the numbers: Windows 10 is already being used on millions of different desktops, tablets, and laptops that were built, assembled, and upgraded by many people in multiple countries. It's actually pretty amazing to consider how well Windows 10 works with all of these different form factors and configurations.

So, yes, troubleshooting is important. Problems are to be expected, and Microsoft has included some powerful tools in Windows 10 to help individuals with varying skillsets to troubleshoot and successfully resolve problems with its latest operating system. This article examines the most common and useful of the Windows 10 troubleshooting tools you should know.

Tools for Restarting Windows After a Problem

Microsoft built Windows to handle many problems, but there is always a chance that something will go wrong. Some software programs might interfere with others; hardware you add to your computer might not get along with Windows; applications you download from the Internet can cause issues, and so on. As a result, Windows can freeze, become sluggish, or shut down unexpectedly; sometimes you might even need to force your computer to power down.

If Windows shuts down unexpectedly, you might see the screen shown in Figure 1 when your computer restarts.

Figure 1

Figure 1 The infamous "blue screen of death" can still occur in Windows 10, but now you have many more tools at your disposal for recovery.

This situation can certainly be alarming, but even when you see error messages like this, Windows often can reboot automatically and roll back changes that might have contributed to the error. The cause of the error is listed, and an Internet search might lead you to an explanation that indicates a resolution.

Startup problems typically are caused by either software or hardware issues. The tools included with Windows 10 will resolve most software problems, though some solutions could cause you to lose data. Hardware failures, on the other hand, usually can't be solved by Windows. You might need to contact the manufacturer or a computer technician to repair your device.

When Windows is unable to boot correctly, it begins a series of reboots, automatically working through steps to recover from the error. This automated process often will fix boot problems. If Windows is unable to repair the issue even after several reboots, it will boot into the Windows Recovery Environment (often referred to as Windows RE), and display a recovery screen, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Figure 2 The Windows 10 Recovery Environment screen may not be what you had hoped to see, but it can help you to get your device back up and running.

If you find yourself staring at the Windows Recovery Environment screen, follow these steps to determine your best option:

  1. From the Recovery screen, you have two choices:

    • Select Restart My PC if you think something interfered with a normal boot-up but is no longer a factor, such as a power outage.
    • Otherwise, select See Advanced Repair Options.
  2. Next is a Troubleshoot screen; again, you have two options:

    • Select Reset This PC only as a last resort. This option will remove applications and can delete your data. (I'll discuss resetting a bit later.)
    • Select Advanced Options to display the screen shown in Figure 3.
    Figure 3

    Figure 3 The Windows Recovery Environment provides a few powerful tools for resolving boot-up problems.

  3. The first tool you should try is Startup Repair. This utility attempts to repair common problems that prevent the operating system from booting up. Startup Repair uses diagnostics and runs repair tasks.
  4. If Startup Repair failed to resolve the issue, select System Restore to roll back your device to a restore point that you or Windows 10 saved ahead of time. (System files and settings are overwritten, returning to the settings that were good at the time the restore point was saved.) If you select System Restore, the device will reboot, displaying a System Restore screen. To proceed, you will be required to select your account and provide your password. Restore points are then shown (if available); you might have created several, or you might not see any if you've never created one. Select a restore point and follow the directions to revert to the settings from that date. If no restore points have been created, you must select Cancel; then select one of the options to continue booting into Windows, or select Troubleshoot to return to step 2.
  5. Another tool that can save you is System Image Recovery. This feature requires an image prepared ahead of time. An image is more extensive than a system restore point; all files and settings on the computer are recorded into one huge image file. If you select this option, you will lose all data that has changed on your device since the image was created. Think of this feature as a time machine; essentially, your device will step back in time to the moment the image was created. If you have an image available, select System Image Recovery and follow the directions for re-imaging your device.
  6. Another choice you might make in some situations is to boot into the Startup Settings boot menu. An important tool on this menu is Safe Mode. Selecting Safe Mode allows a person who is a bit more knowledgeable about computers to troubleshoot issues related to drivers, as well as run more effective antivirus scans. The boot menu also lets you disable some Windows settings that might inadvertently complicate a problem. Select Startup Settings if you feel comfortable attempting manual troubleshooting in Safe Mode. The Startup Settings screen will appear. Select Restart to display the menu shown in Figure 4.

    Figure 4

    Figure 4 The Startup Settings boot menu can provide valuable tools for manual troubleshooting.

  7. Select option 7 or 8 if you have been directed to disable driver signature enforcement or early-launch malware protection. Disable these features only with good reason and under direction from a trusted source. Select 9 if you're trying to stop an endless boot cycle while troubleshooting startup issues. Select 5 to boot into Safe Mode with a network connection. Figure 5 shows a desktop in Safe Mode. Only essential drivers and services are loaded. Problem drivers can be rolled back, and because only Windows services are running, virus removal can be much more effective.

    Figure 5

    Figure 5 Safe Mode might enable you to take care of drivers or run more effective virus scans.

  8. If none of these methods work and you don't want to take your device to a computer technician, you will have to consider resetting your device using the Reset This PC option (discussed toward the end of this article).

As you can see, Windows 10 offers some powerful recovery tools for repairing or undoing damage that prevents a device from booting up into Windows. However, many of these tools require preventive steps before the disaster, and some features need a bit more knowledge than many people have. Take reasonable steps to create some of these resources, and then refresh them periodically.

Ask the Troubleshooting Wizards for Help

Windows 10 has over 20 different wizards designed for problems you might encounter. Each wizard focuses on a particular aspect of the software, such as sound problems, Windows Update, or connecting to the Internet.

To use a troubleshooting wizard, follow these steps:

  1. Select the search box on the taskbar; then enter troubleshooting.
  2. Select Troubleshooting from the list of results. A screen similar to the one in Figure 6 appears.

    Figure 6

    Figure 6 Windows shows troubleshooting wizards for many common problems.

  3. Select View All. The entire list of troubleshooting wizards appears, as shown in Figure 7. Select the wizard that matches your issue.

    Figure 7

    Figure 7 You can leverage a number of troubleshooting wizards to solve problems you encounter.

Depending on the wizard you select, you'll be prompted to try different solutions and judge the results. The wizard will try different steps until it resolves the issue or has exhausted its options. At that point, you can try something else or use suggested links to look for further information online.

Yell for Microsoft: Using the Contact Support App

The Contact Support app is a new feature in Windows 10. Its success is yet to be determined, but this very ambitious idea could prove to be useful when you're looking for help with a computer problem. The app helps you to set an appointment for a callback from Microsoft, request a callback ASAP, or initiate a chat session.

Follow these steps to use the Contact Support app:

  1. Select the search box on the taskbar; then enter contact.
  2. Select the Contact Support app from the list of results. The app will open, as shown in Figure 8. Select from the list of issues to indicate the nature of your support request. Each selection opens subcategories for general issues. Use the back arrow at the top of the app to return to the previous screen. Some issues may take you to a Microsoft website for support information.

    Figure 8

    Figure 8 Windows 10 includes a Contact Support app designed to get expert help with Windows-related issues.

  3. After identifying your issue, select the type of support you want from the available choices, as shown in Figure 9.

    Figure 9

    Figure 9 Identify your issue and then indicate the form of support you want.

Using the Contact Support app requires a Microsoft account. The potential scope of this service is impressive. The wait time depends on how many people are already using the service before you get in line.

Old Faithful: Call Task Manager

Task Manager is a utility that lets users with administrator access see the programs running in Windows 10 and the impact they have on system resources. You can see how much memory a program is gobbling up, whether one program is dominating use of the CPU or other system resources, how much data is transmitted by certain programs, error and warning entries in system logs, and lots more.

You would need expert knowledge in computer science and technology to understand the meaning and significance of many of the Task Manager reports. However, even inexperienced Windows 10 users might appreciate some of the tools.

For example, sometimes an application stops functioning for no apparent reason. You know when this occurs because the program seems to dim on the screen and the title of the program has "Not Responding" tagged on the end. When a program is unresponsive to mouse clicks or taps for more than a couple of minutes, it's likely that the program is not coming back.

In the past, you might have been forced to shut down your entire computer to bypass an issue with one locked program. In Windows 10, if a program locks up, Task Manager can close it down.

To shut down an unresponsive application, follow these steps:

  1. Press Ctrl-Alt-Delete on your keyboard, right-click the taskbar, or search for task manager in the search box on the taskbar. In any of these cases, select Task Manager from the displayed options.
  2. When Task Manager opens, select the unresponsive application, and then select End Task.
  3. To see more details about your system, select More Details. Task Manager will expand a bit to show multiple tabs and much more detail (see Figure 10).

    Figure 10

    Figure 10 Task Manager can reveal a lot about the performance of your device, by means of many types of detailed reports.

The detailed view on the Processes tab shows which applications and processes are responsible for CPU, memory, disk, and network load. Reviewing these results can help to identify an application that's causing excessive system load. Sometimes you might see multiple instances of the same application, such as several web browser instances that relate to individual open tabs, or multiple documents open in the same desktop application.

Two other tabs can be particularly useful for troubleshooting problems:

  • Startup. The Startup tab lists processes that are queued to start automatically with Windows (see Figure 11). Many processes are set up to start with Windows, especially from desktop applications. The Startup Impact column shows how much extra load each process creates when you start Windows. Low impact has little effect; High impact can contribute to noticeable delays when starting Windows. Select nonessential processes and use the Disable button to prevent those processes from starting automatically in the future.

    Figure 11

    Figure 11 Use Task Manager to control the applications that start with Windows.

  • Services. The Services tab can be used to manage all services used on your device. You can verify which services are running, start and stop some services, and even change whether a service should start automatically—or be disabled. Again, use caution; don't make changes unless instructed by a trustworthy resource.

Many settings in Task Manager could negatively affect the performance of your device if you disable or change the wrong thing. Always research before making changes. Then record what you changed, in case you need to reverse changes that cause unexpected results.

When All Else Fails: Resetting Windows

Once in a while, no matter how much advice you've received or troubleshooting you've tried, you might need to start over, reinstalling Windows 10 or going back to a point before you started customizing Windows and installing applications. Before you back up and delete everything on your computer, reinstalling Windows and all your other programs, you can try two less drastic options, both part of Windows Reset:

  • Partial refresh of the device, retaining your documents
  • Complete, fresh reinstallation of Windows 10

Reset is designed to undo everything that made the computer sluggish, compared to its past performance. You can choose to reset your device without deleting your personal files or any of the settings that affect the appearance of Windows. The settings that control how Windows 10 operates are set back to their original values. This type of reset was first introduced with Windows 8 under the name Refresh, and sometimes it's still referred to as a refresh.

This reset option is a great way to restore Windows to a state where it was running properly, without investing the time to reload all of your files. The drawback is that you need to reinstall any desktop applications. Modern apps you acquired through the Windows Store will need to be reinstalled—not such a big deal. A bigger pain is that any desktop applications will need to be reinstalled, and you'll need the required licenses or keys to reactivate them. If you have purchased and downloaded applications, this step can require some preparation to locate email or to note license information within an application. This tool requires administrator access to the computer.

To refresh your system, follow these steps:

  1. Select Settings from the Start menu to open the Settings app.
  2. Select Update & Security > Recovery to find the Reset tool (see Figure 12).

    Figure 12

    Figure 12 When you need to start over, use the Reset tool to get a clean start.

  3. Select Get Started under Reset This PC. A pop-up will appear, as shown in Figure 13.

    Figure 13

    Figure 13 Choose from two types of reset: with your documents, or without.

  4. Select Keep My Files. Windows will start to prepare for the reset, displaying a summary of what will be reset, as shown in Figure 14. Select Reset to begin the process.

    Figure 14

    Figure 14 Refresh your Windows 10 device to get a fresh start, without losing your files and settings, but returning Windows to its just-installed state.

This type of reset will retain your account information, and you'll be able to sign in with your password as usual. Your documents, photos, and videos will all be in the same place when the refresh is finished.

Reset can also restore the computer to a like-new state. The computer is returned to default settings with a newly installed copy of Windows, removing any trace of your accounts, applications, or files—a useful option when you'll be parting with your device.

Final Thoughts

Troubleshooting can always be a bit nerve-wracking, and it's certain to make anyone frustrated. Take a deep breath and be patient. The tools in Windows 10 are by far the best that Microsoft has made to date. I also encourage you to be proactive in protecting your data by using cloud storage where practical and establishing a good routine for backing up your photos, documents, and other data. My hope is that the next time your device requires troubleshooting, you'll be able to attack and resolve the problem quickly, using the tools outlined in this article.

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