How many PC issues have you experienced in the last month? A spotty internet connection, apps crashing, and system freezes aren’t foreign experiences to most Windows users. But when these occur, are you quick to blame Windows itself for these problems?
The truth is that the Windows operating system (OS) isn’t really responsible for many of these issues. Oftentimes, a new piece of hardware, buggy software, or even user neglect are the cause — not Windows. If you want to up your Windows knowledge and learn basic troubleshooting, read on to see why these issues occur and what they signal.
1. Blue Screens of Death
Everyone knows what a blue screen of death (BSOD) is. It’s been popularized from years of jokes. But do you know what a blue screen actually signifies?
What we call the BSOD is an OS stop error. This means that Windows ran into a problem that it couldn’t handle and had to shut down to avoid damage to the system. Just from this, it’s clear that blue screens aren’t always Windows’ fault.
Sometimes this is the case, as it was with the core changes in Windows Vista that made it more susceptible to crashing thanks to hardware issues. But usually, you can trace the problem to a new piece of hardware or failing internal component.
Whenever you see a blue screen, don’t immediately restart your computer. Look for the error code: this will give you vital information about what caused the problem. In the below example of a Windows 8 and newer BSOD, we can see the HALINITIALIZATION_FAILED code. After a restart, Googling this will give more information about the specific problem. You can also use the BlueScreenView tool to analyze blue screens after the fact.
In this case, it seems that this particular error happens when Windows is having problems waking up from sleep or runs into an issue with virtual machines. This cuts your troubleshooting down immensely. You can then look into fixing Windows 10 sleep mode issues and/or reinstalling virtual machines that didn’t work correctly the first time.
Another important note is that an isolated blue screen isn’t usually a big deal. Occasionally, Windows will run into a small error that never pops up again. You shouldn’t worry about troubleshooting these errors unless they occur regularly.
See how some thinking can turn a confusing error into actionable intel? That’s troubleshooting theory, and it applies to more than just BSODs. You can also apply these ideas when you encounter…
2. Safe Mode
Have you ever seen Windows boot into Safe Mode on its own, or wondered what the term means? Safe Mode allows Windows to boot into a stripped-down environment so you can better troubleshoot it.
During normal PC startup, Windows loads drivers for your graphics card, sound, and all the fancy effects of the OS. While these are certainly pleasant features to have, they aren’t vital for Windows functioning.
Thus, in Safe Mode, your display resolution reduces to 640 x 480, disables sound, does not run startup programs, and disconnects non-vital devices (your keyboard and mouse still work). This comes in handy for several troubleshooting functions:
- If your graphics card drivers aren’t working and you can’t see anything in a normal boot, you can use Safe Mode’s basic display to remove the drivers and try installing them fresh.
- When you have a rogue program running at startup, Safe Mode lets you uninstall it without it hooking itself into Windows first.
- If you’ve recently added a piece of hardware, like a printer, that is causing Windows to crash, you can uninstall the printer while in Safe Mode without worrying about the crash.
- You may be able to use Safe Mode to recover files from a computer that won’t boot otherwise.
When Windows is stable in Safe Mode but has issues when normally booting, something present is causing an issue. You should try uninstalling recently installed software and removing new hardware to see if they are the source of the crashing.
3. Internet Connection Problems
Everyone hates internet connection issues. Watch someone use a super-slow network connection to get an idea of how they act under pressure.
Like other items discussed so far, network problems are almost never the fault of Windows. Rather, they typically arise from your internet service provider’s (ISP) problems or a router hangup. We’ve covered the complete process for troubleshooting and diagnosing network problems, so we’ll offer a few thoughts on general troubleshooting here.
Troubleshooting theory applies quite well to network issues. Start with the element of the connection closest to what you know is working. It’s a waste of time to try diagnosing your router settings when you haven’t even confirmed that Windows is properly connecting to the router. If you can’t connect to the internet with your smartphone either, it’s not just a problem on your PC.
In this case, you would proceed to check if your router is live. If you confirmed it was working properly, you could then place a call to your ISP to see if they’re experiencing outages in your area. As you can see, working your way up the chain lets you confirm what exactly is failing to connect. It’s not a requirement that you’re a network engineer to diagnose where a connection is getting stuck.
4. Hardware Failures
While you can’t see the components that make up your computer, with a bit of knowledge you can figure out which of them are going bad. Often, RAM failing will cause the blue screens discussed earlier. If you still use a mechanical hard drive (which has moving parts), a clicking sound indicates that it’s likely to fail soon. Of course, hardware problems aren’t the fault of Windows — components in a machine can fail regardless of the OS.
You can apply some wisdom here when your computer won’t boot, too. For example, consider a situation where your computer turns on, but won’t boot into Windows. If your BIOS greets you with a message that no OS is detected, you can remember that the hard drive is where Windows and all of your files live. When the computer can’t access Windows, it’s likely because the hard drive is dead.
My biggest fear is computer components failing before I can replace them
— k (@ffxivkyaa) January 31, 2017
Other symptoms can indicate similar problems with components. If you suddenly can’t see anything on your laptop screen but hooking it up to an external monitor works fine, you may have a loose hinge or dying screen. But if you try to turn your computer on and get a blank screen that won’t recognize an external monitor, you could have a dead motherboard. Think about what you’re seeing and what that proves. If you see the BIOS, your motherboard isn’t dead because nothing would load if that was the case.
Another example: if Windows seems to forget the correct time, this isn’t actually an issue with Windows. There’s a small battery called the CMOS battery on your motherboard that keeps track of the time even when the computer is off. When this battery dies, the time resets to a default value every time you boot. This can lead to website certificate errors if not fixed.
While Windows is more susceptible to malware than other OSes, it shouldn’t get the blame for the effects of malware on your system. After all, Windows 10 is packed with more security features than ever before. Combined with some common sense, most users shouldn’t have to deal with malware again.
If you encounter rogue software, you should still know its behavior and how to remove it. Strange pop-ups, extremely slow performance, and toolbars and other garbage appearing in your browser are all signs of malware infection. Once you have a hunch your computer is infected, you should browse the Programs and Features list for anything you don’t trust and remove it. Then, run a scan with Malwarebytes to weed out the malware and you should hopefully be in the clear.
No matter the type of malware, this is a solid general troubleshooting method. For nastier types, you might need to fight it in Safe Mode or even just reset your PC so you don’t waste time fighting a losing battle.
General Troubleshooting Advice
We’ve discussed five big issues that Windows typically takes the blame for, as well as their actual causes and tips for fixing them. Here are a few extra tips to round out our advice on this topic.
Don’t Forget to Reboot!
You’ve heard it dozens of times, so we won’t belabor this point. But it’s vital to remember that when you start troubleshooting, step one should always be rebooting your PC. Many problems will disappear after a simple reboot. While a lot of troubleshooting is more complicated than just restarting, it’s always worth trying first. Why waste an hour attacking from different angles when a two-minute reboot was all you needed in the first place?
Utilize Quick Fixes and Online Advice
Chances are, you’re not the first person to have a certain issue with your computer. This is good news, because less of the troubleshooting onus is on you! Knowing how to troubleshoot by applying the above advice is important, and will serve you well as a computer user. But you should also know when to turn to a quicker solution.
When you start troubleshooting, search the web to see if you’re suffering from a common issue with known fixes. And remember that Microsoft and third parties provide excellent, free troubleshooting software that can automatically detect and fix problems for you. If you run into a unique issue that nobody has posted about on forums, you’ll have to rely on your troubleshooting process. But many times, someone has already discovered the fix — take advantage of it!
What Else Does Windows Get the Blame For?
Once you know what actually causes common problems in Windows, it’s clear that many of these issues aren’t actually the OS’s fault. While Windows is far from perfect, it’s easy to blame everything on it when your performance goes south. Instead, you should take a step back and think about the problem with a troubleshooting mindset. Not only will this help you fix problems more efficiently, it also helps you learn more about how your computer works!
For further advice, check out our guide to troubleshooting Windows crashes.
Which other common PC problems do people blame on Windows? What troubleshooting advice would you give to people who haven’t done it before? Share your stories and thoughts with us in the comments!
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