Getting Your Windows XP PC to Boot When It Doesn’t Want To


Save Time By
Finding out what options you have — before you tear your hair out
Trying Safe Mode to see if you can fix relatively minor problems
Hauling out the Big Guns: Recovery Console
Sooner or later it happens to every system: Windows goes to that big bit bucket in the sky.
You may have trouble starting Windows. Maybe the computer goes through its normal memory check and lists the hard drives and then . . . nothing. Maybe the Windows splash screen appears, with its rolling beads, and then everything goes dark. Maybe your system boots okay and runs for a while, and then it dies mysteriously.
If you can get your system to boot into Windows, but every so often your screen goes blank and Windows is out to lunch, try running the System File Checker. SFC looks at all the system files on your PC and makes sure they’re intact.
Sometimes you need to get into Safe Mode — Windows’ analog to the Twilight Zone, where some things work and others don’t. Sometimes, Safe Mode comes to you. No matter how you get there, you want to get out — quickly.
Those of you who feel adept at the command line may want to get into the Windows Recovery Console some day. That’s where clones of the old, familiar, Windows Me-and-earlier commands live. You can mess up your system with one bad keystroke. Or you can breathe new life into an ailing system. Ya pays yer money, and ya takes yer chances.
If you can’t get anything to work and you need a boot disk, look at Technique 67. If you want to roll back your system to a previous state, try Technique 64. But if you want to fix what’s going on right now, this technique is for you.

Running the System File Checker

If your computer starts normally, but shuts down or hangs unexpectedly, consider running the System File Checker (SFC). An SFC run is particularly valuable if the screen just goes blank from time to time, and you can’t get it back. Running SFC is also a good idea if Windows itself freezes periodically: Your mouse won’t move, the keyboard gets locked up, and even the old standby Ctrl+Alt+Del doesn’t work anymore.
If you’re having problems with an individual program locking up — say, Internet Explorer works for a while and then suddenly freezes, or Outlook tells you that it’s quitting — don’t even bother with SFC. It’s a waste of time. You need to fix the program that’s gone bad, and SFC doesn’t even touch programs — it works with Windows system files only.
Windows XP is quite protective of its crown jewels, but nonetheless, sometimes system-wide files do get clobbered. Hardware problems, particularly a hard drive that’s misbehaving, can corrupt system files. Sometimes installers sneak past Windows XP’s protective layers and replace good system files with dubious versions of their own choosing. System File Checker verifies that you have Microsoft-blessed versions of the system files running.
You must have an Administrator account in order to run System File Checker. To set one up, see Technique 47.
If you want to make sure that your system files are all kosher:
7. Put your Windows XP CD in the CD drive.
This CD contains the full version of Windows XP. If you bought a computer with Windows XP pre-installed, you probably have a backup CD. Use
that CD. If you didn’t get a backup CD with your new computer, call the manufacturer and complain loudly.
2, Close any installation screen(s) that appear automatically.
3, Choose Start All Programs Accessories Command Prompt.
The Windows XP command prompt appears. You are forgiven if you think of this as the old DOS command line. It isn’t, really, but it sure acts like the old graybeard.
4, At the command prompt, type sfc /scannow and press Enter.
See Figure 63-1.
Start System File Checker only from the command line.
• Figure 63-1: Start System File Checker only from the command line.
The System File Checker starts its scan (see Figure 63-2). This process is painstaking and can take 15 minutes or more, particularly if you have more than a few bad files.
SFC keeps you apprised of its progress.
• Figure 63-2: SFC keeps you apprised of its progress.
If System File Checker doesn’t find any corrupt files, it exits without saying anything. If it does find corrupt files, it asks for your permission, and then automatically pulls good copies from the Windows XP CD.
5, Close the command prompt.
I always run SFC with great fear and trepidation, anticipating that it pulls old versions of files from the CD, when Windows XP should be running with the latest files — particularly with the massive changes in Service Pack 2. So far, knock on wood, I haven’t encountered any problems with SFC.
System File Checker has a bunch of command line options that aren’t documented correctly in many places. See Table 63-1 for details.

Fatting Back to Safe Mode

Windows XP’s Safe Mode is a minimally functional version of Windows designed to give you enough power to go in and fix a problem — if you can figure out what the problem might be. Safe Mode strips away all the fun stuff: You get a very limited video driver, minimal keyboard and mouse support, and access to most system programs. You don’t get your printer, or your scanner, or your USB ports; there’s no sound support or any other fancy stuff that may be causing problems. You can choose whether you want your network to be available or not.
You can get into Safe Mode in two ways: You can go through the steps in this section and force Windows into Safe Mode; or Windows can put itself into Safe Mode after a particularly traumatic attempt to boot. Usually that happens because Windows encounters a problem that’s big enough to cause your entire system to be unstable. In my experience, it’s very unusual for Windows to go into Safe Mode all by itself, unless you’ve just installed some particularly inhospitable hardware. When you try to boot immediately after installing the unfriendly hardware, the new hardware makes a grab for something Windows won’t give up, the two tussle for a nanosecond, and then Windows blows the whistle and falls back into Safe Mode.
When Windows XP goes into Safe Mode, whether of its own volition or because you pushed it, here’s what happens:
None of your startup programs run.
Only the critical Windows XP services start.
Most of your fancy hardware won’t work. Forget about USB and FireWire. Yes, if you have a USB keyboard and/or mouse, they probably get the axe, too.
Table 63-1: Important System File Check Parameters

This Parameter Does This Use This Command If
/scannow Performs a full scan. You are running SFC for the first time.
/scanonce Performs a full scan the next time you boot your PC. Better be ready with the Windows XP CD, or have a copy of it on your hard drive somewhere. You ran SFC once with /scannow, didn’t find anything, but you still believe that you have a corrupt system file.
/scanboot Sets up the System File Checker so that it does a full scan every time you boot your PC. Again, you better have your CD handy. Rarely used because it’s an intrusive, time-consuming pain in the neck.
/cancel or/revert Cancels the / scanboot setting. If you run sfc /scanboot and then change your mind (some would say “come to your senses”).
/quiet Allows the System File Checker to replace corrupt files without asking permission. Not recommended unless you want to leave SFC alone while it does the work.

Because Windows XP without a keyboard or mouse is about as useless as a car without a steering wheel, you may need to plug an old-fashioned PS/2 keyboard and mouse into your machine to get any work done.
Even your video driver (frequently the source of major problems!) gets shoved aside, replaced by Windows XP’s nice, safe, lowest-common-denominator video driver.
Safe Mode doesn’t solve your problems — that crucial step is up to you. But it gives you a level playing field so that you can track down malfunctioning pieces without the interference of all the high-fallutin’ applications and hardware you might have installed on your machine.
Use the methods in Technique 64 to restore Windows to an earlier point: If you aren’t sure what happened, but you know darn good and well when it happened, this is the easiest, fastest way to get things going again.
Use the Help and Support Center (Start Help and Support): If you have a hunch about what may be wrong with Windows XP, this might be a good place to go to check and see if Microsoft has a tutorial for you, or maybe even a troubleshooter.
Use the methods in Technique 11 to keep auto-starting programs at bay: If you’re having trouble, running as few programs as possible is a smart idea. Each additional program adds one more possible source of problems.
Use the Registry Editor (Start Run, type regedit, and press Enter): If you know exactly how to cure what ails you (perhaps from information in this topic, or in the Microsoft Knowledge Base), regedit is alive and well in Safe Mode.

Using Safe Mode of your own volition

To use Safe Mode, follow these steps:

7. Reboot your computer.
2, Immediately after you see the message that your hard drive is alive, press and hold down the F8 key on your keyboard.
Windows XP shows you the Advanced Boot Options screen, as shown in Figure 63-3. If you have a network card, Safe Mode with Networking is one of the options.
Press and hold F8 during boot-up, and you get these options.
• Figure 63-3: Press and hold F8 during boot-up, and you get these options.
3, If you’re sure that networking on your PC is working fine, push the down arrow to choose Safe Mode with Networking. Otherwise, leave the highlight on Safe Mode. Press Enter.
If you’re using the Windows welcome screen, the welcome screen appears with the Administrator account being the only account available on it. If you aren’t using the Windows welcome screen, you get the old-fashioned Windows logon screen.
4, Log on as Administrator.
If you’re using the Windows welcome screen, click Administrator. If you aren’t using the Windows welcome screen, type Administrator in the User Name box.
5, Give the Administrator password.
If you’re using Windows XP Home Edition, the Administrator account does not have a password. Leave the password box empty and click the right arrow (or press Enter) to log on. If you are using Windows XP Professional Edition, you established the Administrator account’s password when you set up Windows. Type it in the password box and press Enter or click the right arrow (if you’re using the Windows XP welcome screen) or press Enter (if you’re using the old-fashioned Windows logon screen).
Windows XP boots into Safe Mode, as shown in Figure 63-4. It’s a bit, uh, difficult to miss.
Safe Mode has "Safe Mode" written all over it.
• Figure 63-4: Safe Mode has “Safe Mode” written all over it.
6. Click Start.
The Start Menu appears (see Figure 63-5). Windows is starting to look familiar again.
7. If you’re having troubles with video —
Windows XP boots to a completely blank or utterly distorted screen, for example — try right-clicking an empty spot on the desktop and choosing Properties Settings.
You see the video settings, as shown in Figure 63-6. In some cases, merely adjusting the Screen Resolution or Color Quality setting may solve the problem.
8. If you can’t figure out where to start, choose Start Control Panel Performance and Maintenance System.
Windows XP shows you the System Properties dialog box, as shown in Figure 63-7.
A familiar Start menu.
• Figure 63-5: A familiar Start menu.
Adjust video settings here.
• Figure 63-6: Adjust video settings here.
A good place to start your search for other problems.
• Figure 63-7: A good place to start your search for other problems.
9, Click the Device Manager button.
The Device Manager (see Figure 63-8) may have a warning (!) or (?) sign, or other indication of a problem. Double-check any hardware that’s misbehaving.
The next sections give you more Windows-saving ideas for making changes in Safe Mode.
10. When you’re done with Safe Mode and you want to see if your changes made a difference, choose Start Turn Off Computer Restart.
11. If you see the options screen again (refer to Figure 63-3), choose Start Windows Normally.
The mother lode of hardware information.
• Figure 63-8: The mother lode of hardware information.

Using System Restore in Safe Mode

The Last Known Good Configuration option in the Advanced Boot Options screen (refer to Figure 63-3) simply runs a System Restore, using the last System Restore point. (Whether that’s a “good” point or not is open to question.)
There are good reasons for avoiding the Last Known Good Configuration option and for working directly with System Restore, even if you have to dig into System Restore while in Safe Mode. The primary stumbling point: If you use the Last Known Good Configuration option, the currently screwed-up state of Windows is set as a System Restore Point, so if you try to use the Last Known Good Configuration option a second time, you return to the current messed-up state.
Sound complicated? It is.
System Restore is a cult unto its own. I talk about it extensively in Technique 64.

Using Help and Support in Safe Mode

Windows Help and Support can be useful in Safe Mode, primarily for the hardware troubleshooters. The troubleshooters aren’t infallible, and they have a nasty way of “going circular” (if you follow a particular course of action long enough, the trouble-shooter returns to the point where it started). But they’re an excellent place to look for Safe Mode solutions.
If you have a second PC running Windows XP, or you have a friend with a portable that uses Windows XP, it’s almost always easier and faster to go into the Help and Support Center on the second PC. Why? Because you can keep the Help article up while you’re trying to make repairs.

To see a list of all the Help and Support Center’s troubleshooters, follow these steps:

7. Choose Start Help and Support.
2. In the Search box, type troubleshooter, and then press Enter.
3. On the left, click Full-Text Search Matches.
4. Click the List of Troubleshooters link.
Using smart techniques to keep the system running at minimal levels
If you’ve just installed a program and suddenly find yourself booting to Safe Mode, chances are good an auto-starting program decided to play “Pin the Tail on Windows.” Windows doesn’t play well with others. If it doesn’t like what another program is doing while it’s trying to boot, it goes into Safe Mode.
See Technique 11 for an extensive list of approaches to knocking out auto-starting programs.

Using the Registry in Safe Mode

Do not dive into the Registry while in Safe Mode unless you know precisely what you want to change and why. Sometimes you’ll bump into a Web page that gives you instructions for solving a problem like yours, and the solution involves editing the Registry. Be wary. Many Registry hacks were written for earlier versions of Windows, and they just don’t work with Windows XP — particularly not Windows XP Service Pack 2.
The best and safest place to look for solutions to Safe Mode-magnitude problems is the Microsoft Knowledge Base, at If a Knowledge Base article that’s specifically written for Windows XP recommends that you edit your Registry, you can be fairly certain that the change works as advertised. Most of the time.
For details on working with your Registry, see Technique 68.

Using Recovery Console

If you can’t get Windows to start, or if the trip through Safe Mode and running the System File Checker leave Windows crashing, you have one last resort before you seriously consider reformatting your hard drive: Windows XP’s Recovery Console.
Do not use the Windows Recovery Console unless you know, in advance, exactly what you want to do. You might want to follow a suggestion in Microsoft’s Knowledge Base to restore a file. You might need to use Recovery Console to dislodge a virus, following the recommendations from one of the major antivirus companies. Recovery Console can even come in handy when you have to forcibly evict a driver, following the recommendations of your hardware manufacturer. But in every case, you should have your course of action planned before you haul out the Recovery Console’s big guns.
The Recovery Console is a powerful (and thus dangerous) tool. If you’ve whiled away a few hours (days, weeks) playing with DOS trying to fix a Windows Me/98/98 SE machine, you’ll feel right at home with Recovery Console. If you blanche at the thought of rewriting your master boot record (or if you don’t know what a master boot record is), it’s better to hire (or bribe) someone who has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous Windows fortune.
The Microsoft Knowledge Base has many discussions of how to put the Windows XP Recovery Console on your boot menu. Don’t bother reading these discussions. If you use the Recovery Console more than a few times, you’re doing something very wrong. It’s easy enough to bring up the Recovery Console from the installation CD on the few occasions when you need it.

To use Windows XP’s Recovery Console

7. Put your Windows XP CD in the CD drive.
You need to boot from the Windows XP CD. This CD contains the full version of Windows XP. If you bought a computer with Windows XP preinstalled, you probably have a backup CD or a “repair” CD. Use that CD, if you can boot from it. If you didn’t get a backup CD with your new computer, or you can’t boot from it, call the manufacturer and get very angry.
2, Restart your computer.
You probably have your PC set up to boot from CD, but if you don’t, you may have to play around with BIOS settings inside the PC to get it to boot. The manual that came with your PC can tell you how. Good luck.
Eventually you see the Windows XP Setup screen, as shown in Figure 63-9.
 The easiest way to the Recovery Console.
• Figure 63-9: The easiest way to the Recovery Console.
3, Press the R key.
The setup routine asks which system you want to run Recovery Console on, as shown in Figure 63-10. If you have a single-boot system (that is, a PC with only one operating system on it), the Windows XP directory is listed as 1. If you have a multiboot system, each operating system has a number.
You must log on with the Administrator account.
• Figure 63-10: You must log on with the Administrator account.
4, Type the number for the operating system you want to run Recovery Console.
This number is almost always 1.
The Recovery Console asks for the Administrator account’s password.
This is the password for the account called “Administrator” (see Technique 47). If you’re using XP Professional, you typed this password when you first installed Windows XP (although you may have changed it since then). If you’re using XP Home, the Administrator account has no password.
5, If you are using XP Professional, type the password for the Administrator account. If you are using XP Home, press Enter.
Windows Recovery Console responds with something that looks just like an old-fashioned DOS command prompt:
6, Use any of the commands listed in Table 63-2.
You should be following instructions — from the Microsoft Knowledge Base, from an antivirus software manufacturer, from a hardware manufacturer, or some other very reputable source. This isn’t a place to experiment with commands and/or concepts you’ve never dealt with before.
If you need help on any command, type help followed by the command. For example, to get help on using the attrib command, type help attrib. You’re presented with a list of all the arguments that you can use with the attrib command, and what those arguments mean. See Figure 63-11.
Get help by typing Help and the command.
• Figure 63-11: Get help by typing Help and the command.
7, When you finish, type exit
Windows XP reboots, and with any luck, you’re back in normal Windows XP momentarily.
You can find a complete list of commands at
Table 63-2: Commands Available in Windows XP’s Recovery Console

This Command Does This Example/Use This Command . . .
attrib Changes file and directory attributes (read-only, archive, system, hidden). If you have to manipulate a hidden or read-only file.
batch Runs a text file. batch C:\myprog.bat runs the commands in myprog.bat. To run a long list of commands that you’d rather not
cd Changes the folder. To move up or down one level in the folder hierarchy.
chdsk Runs chkdsk.exe (see Technique 57). If you absolutely need to run Check Disk with nothing else going.
copy Copies one file (no wildcards). Automatically uncompresses files stored on the Windows XP distribution CD. To copy a file from the Windows XP installation CD into a Windows folder (sometimes used to fix clobbered system files).

Table 63-2 (continued)

This Command Does This Example/Use This Command . . .
del Deletes one file. To delete a bad file, for example, a virus program that can’t be dislodged any other way.
dir Displays a list of files and subfolders. To see what files and folders are available.
disable Disables a Windows system service or driver. To turn off a service that may be causing problems.
diskpart Manages partitions. (Think FDISK.) When you’re reformatting a hard drive.
enable The opposite of disable. To start a system service, presumably after you’ve fixed it.
exit Leaves the Recovery Console and reboots. When you’re done.
expand Decompresses one compressed file (typically from the Windows XP CD). Rarely used, because copy can find the file.
fixboot Creates a new boot sector on the system partition. During the process of reformatting a hard drive.
fixmbr Writes a new master boot record (which is the tiny program located in a reserved area on your hard drive that Windows uses to load itself). To overwrite the master boot record, typically because a virus has infected it, but possibly because you messed up the installation of a multiboot system.
format Formats a disk. To perform the key step in reformatting a hard drive.
help Lists commands and parameters. See Figure 63-11.
listsvc Shows all available system services and drivers. To find out which services are running. Can be used to run down viruses.
md Creates a new folder. When you need a new folder.
rd Deletes a folder. To get rid of a folder.
ren Renames a file. Possibly as part of the process of disabling a virus.
type Displays a text file. To look inside text files.

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