How To Troubleshoot Your Windows With The MSconfig Utility

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Most of us take pains over our personal computers almost with the same love as we would have for a pet. Most of us get equally concerned when the computer takes ‘ill’. If the source and the reasons for the problem elude us, concern warps into a head banging frenzy.

It could be a failed device driver, or an application which refused to start up or it could be one of the many background processes which decided to conk out. Thankfully, there’s a bit of self diagnosis we can do before we decide to pick up the phone and dial for the emergency services.

This first aid lies in a Windows System utility called the System Configuration Utility (MSconfig.exe). Advanced users are familiar with this vital application but for the basic users this system tool deserves a look.

The System Configuration Utility (or MSconfig.exe) is used to manage the processes that happen when the Windows operating system boots up.  With its GUI it simplifies control over the various startup processes and the configuration files used. It is also the first tool we turn to if we want to speed up our boot process as it allows us to switch startup programs on and off. It is this property again we will turn to for diagnosing a system crash.

The technique we use is called a clean boot. In a clean boot the operating system loads without launching the background startup processes which might be causing a conflict.

How to clean boot your computer?

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Windows XP

  1. Click on Run (or WinKey+R) – In the Open field of the Run dialogue box enter msconfig. This launches the System Configuration Utility.
  2. On the General tab of the System Configuration Utility, click on the button marked Selective Startup. Uncheck the boxes corresponding to Process SYSTEM.INI File, Process WIN.INI File and Load Startup Items. Keep the Load System Services box checked because this launches essential Microsoft services. The bullet against the Use Original Boot.ini is enabled by default.
  3. Caution: Unchecking Load System Services will temporarily disable Microsoft services (for e.g. Plug and Play, Networking and Error Reporting) as well as permanently deleting all restore points for the System Restore utility. System services are also critical to pinpoint the conflict. So keep it checked.

  4. The Services tab is where we should go next. On the Services tab, select the Hide All Microsoft Services check box and click on Disable All. Then hit OK. A message box pops up warning that you have used the System Configuration Utility to change the way in which Windows starts. Click on OK to reboot the computer.

Windows Vista

The process is almost a mirror to the previous one.

  1. Click Start – enter msconfig in the Start Search box, and then press enter to launch the System Configuration Utility in Vista.
  2. On the General tab, click Selective Startup – uncheck Load startup items.
  3. Next stop is the Services tab. Check Hide All Microsoft Services and press the Disable All button. Click OK to reboot at the prompt. (The screen is similar to that shown for Windows XP)

After the computer has restarted, run the previously conflicting application again. If the problem persists then the cause lies elsewhere. Return the computer to the previous state by selecting Normal Startup from the General tab and rebooting.

If the problem has disappeared then the culprit is one of the startup programs on the Services tab.

Pinpointing the problem program

I have about 25 services which run in the background. So how do I narrow down on that one which is causing the problem? The simple solution lies in selective activation (leaving the rest deactivated) of some of the services and rebooting the computer.

  1. Start with a wider field, for instance leave half of the services activated and half deactivated. Reboot the computer. Run the error prone application to check for the problem.
  2. If the problem persists, then the conflict is with the services enabled. If it vanishes, then it is in the other half. Either way the field is narrowed down by half.
  3. Repeat the process of selective enabling and disabling of services in the suspect half of the services. Through two or three trial and error reboots the one single cause can thus be pinpointed.
  4. It is so far only half the battle won as we now have to deal with the culprit service. Three solutions present themselves ““
    • Disable the service from the Services tab or from the Startup tab. If it’s a non-essential service then this shouldn’t be a problem.
    • Search the net for a possible answer and apply it.
    • If all fails call in the experts.

The above techniques are very basic in nature. It is something which can be done in a relatively safe way. A self cooked solution without yelling out for help is after all a high in itself. Do you think learning about the Msconfig tool is a good way to start off?

Photo Credit : Ben Lawson

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