How-to: Diagnose a Windows Blue-Screen-of-Death

Traditional Windows Blue Screen of DeathBe around Windows computers long enough and you will come to know the Blue Screen of Death (BSoD). It’s what you’re left with on screen when your computer comes to that sudden and irrecoverable stop. Amongst the white hieroglyphs on the blue screen, various statements of abject failure (never an adequate apology) and various strings of numbers, usually in hexadecimal notation. You’re suddenly on the same level as a NASA rocket scientist – they don’t understand the BSoD either – left wondering what it all means and whether its of any use at all.

You can find articles explaining the BSoD in depth on the Microsoft website, mostly technical, without ever describing how to troubleshoot a problem once occurred. The BSoD’s main output, the crash dump file, contains an inventory of the computer’s memory at the time of the crash, including every driver, service and running instance of software.

BSoD’s are caused by two things; a hardware change (including failures) and software changes; usually a driver update, although Windows Update can introduce new and different bugs.

Windows Blue Screen of DeathFrankly, I’m surprised that Windows ever works at all. There is an almost infinite number of combinations of hardware and software that it is asked to support. There is no way that Microsoft can test them all and as new hardware comes to market, stacks of old hardware get reused and the driver software for all of it goes through frequent revisions, the possibilities for a clash within and without the Windows operating system are almost limitless.

What you need to focus on are

  • the BSoD error name,
  • the stop error code and
  • the name of the driver or service that has failed (if you get one!)
  • the string of additional codes after the stop error can provide extra information.

The best course of action is to take these three (or four) things into an Internet search to discover first what it is, second, the known causes and third, possible fixes. With error conditions like this, the wisdom of the crowd that goes before you can be invaluable.

First Line
If you have a stable system; well done to you! When it “BSoD’s” (see, it’s a verb now), you have to ask ourself: what changed?

  • have I changed hardware – physically adding and/or removing and item?
  • have I changed drivers for any my devices?
  • have I applied Windows Updates? Don’t think Microsoft can’t ship a software patch that then breaks something else.
  • have I patched or updated any applications?
  • have I changed settings in Windows or in a particular application?
  • have I updated or changed the BIOS settings?
  • has the BIOS battery died causing machine amnesia? This can happens from a cold boot.
  • have I had a sudden power outage or irregular shutdown that could have corrupted software files on disk?
  • is the machine or a single component like the graphics card overheating (fans fail, case vents get blocked with dust, crumbs, cat-hair…)?

Second Line

  • does the BSoD message tell you anything identifiable that you recognise? Something that will narrow it down?
  • shut the machine down.
  • let it cool.
  • try a re-start.
  • if it blue-screens again, is it a consistent error?
  • try another restart; check the BIOS settings (assuming you knew and understood them to start with).
  • try to boot normally.
  • if it won’t, re-start, only hit the F8 key to bring up a boot options menu. Work through the start-up modes, from Safe, through Safe with Networking, to bare boot without additional hardware.
  • still no start? I’d also suggest opening up the machine (shut down and mains electricity off – safety first) if it’s a desktop case and visually inspecting all cables and connectors. Things can come loose with repeated heating and cooling. Don’t laugh.
    Also, while the case is open, check all components are properly seated and anchored inside. Like memory chips.
  • if you can get any kind of start, have you a System Restore point to which to roll back to a software state that starts?

If it starts, then you have a shot at fault fixing. You may be able to look for solutions via the many Windows forums and blogs, or Microsoft’s websites. You can also check Windows Update to see what it last added to the machine, then either remove it or search for workarounds to the problem.

If it still BSoD’s, you’re going to need another computer to look up the BSoD and possible solutions.

In all likelihood, someone has found your same problem already; someone will have written up some instructions. You are not alone. Your problem is not unique.

If you’re not inspired to instant fixes, post the problem to a Windows forum for your version and ask what others make of it; you will almost certainly get suggested answers (of varying quality, it is true).

When it comes to the BSoD, Windows 7 is better than the previous versions, but not immune. The Windows 7 BSoD now has a sad face. And is less blue. You still need to be your own private detective, but you can do it. There is life after death. AJS

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