Windows has always had a long history of failing to boot correctly, and Microsoft Windows Vista is no exception. Chances are you’re reading this guide as you stare at an error message, or continuous loop of Windows failing to boot – which we know very well, is frustrating. Hence why this document will fix your problem one way or another, but you’ll have to ensure you have full backups as the final steps basically reinstalls Windows.
There’s a lot that can go wrong when Windows boots. Vista adds to the complication by increasing local security and adding many more drivers and protocols which all require time to start. The key to successfully finding out why Vista is not booting is to eliminate all possibilities. Taking a logical approach to the start-up procedure will have you up and running in no time.
Vista EditionsThis guide is aimed at Windows Vista. It was written using Vista Business (x32) and Vista Ultimate (x64) as test boxes – but since all flavours of Vista are the same underneath – this guide should help you regardless of your Vista version. The final steps of this guide assume you have access to a Windows Vista installation DVD.
Step 1: Base Platform: The Hardware
Logically, there are two major causes of failed start-ups: Hardware and software. You first need to determine if the hardware you are using can support a Windows Vista boot (and just because it has done before, doesn’t mean it can right now… things do break remember ;). After all, all the diagnostics, repairs and reinstallations in the world won’t make a difference if the same hard disk used is broken. Before going anywhere, you should check your hardware using the steps below.
The golden rule of hardware is quite simple. If you added something which now causes Windows not to boot – take it out again. Windows (including Vista) has a terrible record of having the carpet shifted under its feet. If you add more memory, change the graphics card or upgrade the BIOS, then Windows will most likely complain and never be quite the same again. Ensure that you restore your hardware configuration to the time Windows first successfully booted.
I’m going to take a leap of faith and start out with the biggest cause of start-up problems; dead hard disks. The hard disk stores Windows, your files, your applications… everything. If it’s broke – nothing is going to work as expected. Since hard disks are the main moving part of a computer, they are generally the first device to fail. If you’re lucky (in a problem determination sense, not ‘oh my god my files! sense’), you’ll know it by the sound your PC starts making (clunking, clicking, repetitive noises).
If your PC is making noises, stop right here. You’ve found the problem. Nothing should be done except a data recovery and replacement. Even if the problem seems totally unrelated (such as a blue screen explaining the graphics drivers are missing), you can be sure the bigger problem is a impeding hard disk crash – which causes extremely random software looking problems.
If however your disk sounds fine, it could be a silent failure, and you’ll need some software to tell you it’s on the way out. The best (and free) hard disk checking software I’ve found is the Drive Fitness Test by Hitachi (don’t worry if your drive isn’t made by Hitachi, they just made the software).
You can download the DFT (Drive Fitness Test) here.
In order to run the DFT, you need to either download the CD image, or floppy image. Because DFT needs to check the entire drive, no software apart from itself can be running, hence why DFT requires you to boot from a device other then the hard disk.
The DFT make take a while, so you’ll have to be patient. It will clearly tell you if the drive passes or fails at the end. If the device fails – you’ll need to begin the grieving process and move on.
Failed doesn’t always mean dead
The DFT is quick to point out when a hard disk is either failed, failing or just plain working fine. Though not all failed disks are completely useless, some can be booted still and the data can be retrieved. Though if you’re reading this, the disk probably isn’t booting and you may need to take it to a data recovery specialist for about £90 - £300 if you really want the data back. So assuming you ran DFT from either the CD of floppy, it took 3 hours while you painting the shed and eventually told you everything are fine, you know the hard disk is not to blame.
Other hardware can be responsible for Windows not booting, but it’s not very common. Nowadays, devices like memory, CPU’s and onboard peripherals such as network cards, sound and video hardly ever break. The designs have got much better and they either work or they don’t. In troubleshooting these other devices, remember the following rules:
CPU’s rarely go wrong – if you have a CPU problem, you’ll generally get no output at all.
The motherboard contains the majority of components, so naturally has more that can go wrong. Like the hard disk, this can range from no output, to random crashes or freezes. Though modern ones are manufactured to high standards and it’s generally a last resort to test the motherboard as many different software packages are require for this. The best test is to eradicate all software and start again – if the problem remains, you know it’s in the hardware.
Memory is the last culprit, and like the motherboard, modern memory hardly ever breaks. But there are always exceptions, and random access memory problems usually produce random access faults (that is faults that happen with no particular pattern). If you suspect memory problems, you can use
Memtest86 to test your memory (it takes ages!). You can find it here.
The rest of this guide focuses on software issues as these are far more common, though if you get through everything below and still suspect the hardware, the best way to rule it out is to run a Live CD operating system. A Live CD is an entire OS on a CD. It boots from CD and does not write to the hard disk at all, only using your hardware as and when it finds it. Should the Live CD not function properly, then you know something isn’t right under the hood. A good Live CD is
Knoppix, based on Linux, which can be found here.
The Advanced Boot Options
Now that we’ve ruled out hardware as the culprit (or at least checked the obvious hard disk and removed anything we added, it’s time to crack out the basic tools Microsoft kindly provided us with to make us smile again. Windows knows it lives on a knife’s edge every time it boots, and has given us troubleshooting tools to help us.
Because Windows can fail at many points during the start up process, we’ll start at the beginning and work our way forwards until were logged in.
Manually created BSOD A manually generated blue screen of death.
Blue screens (pictured left) have a long and hateful history with Windows. Ever since Windows 95 introduced them, they have been the source of headaches all over the world. Fortunately, Windows Vista makes a better attempt to explain what’s happening, and amongst all that data they display, there is generally a line of English which explains the filename that caused the error. This can prove extremely valuable.
However not all computers display the blue screen. Some simply restart. This is even more annoying because you don’t see it coming, and more importantly – you don’t see why. The first step to resolving restarts is to disable automatic restarting.
To disable automatic restarting, restart the computer (pressing and holding the ‘off’ button if you have to), and allow it to start up. Before the progress bar usually displays (usually just after the BIOS is done telling you about the hard disks etc), press F8. If you did it at the right time, you’ll see the following menu titled “Advanced Boot Options”:
The Advanced Boot Options Pressing F8 on start-up gives you the advanced boot options menu for Windows Vista.
If you are suffering from restarts – select the option titled ‘Disable automatic restart on system failures’. Windows will continue to boot as normal, and if you are actually suffering from a blue screen problem, the blue screen will display instead of just rebooting.
The ‘Advanced Boot Options’ screen provides access to the other tools which allow you to resolve your issue.
The first option on the ‘Advanced Boot Options’ menu is safe mode. Highlight this option and Windows will tell you what its intentions are – “Start Windows with only the core drivers and services. Use when you cannot boot after installing a new device or driver”.
The last part isn’t really much of an issue now as Vista does have good support for almost any device out there, it seems you could plug the space station into Vista and it would detect a new USB storage device or something. But safe mode is the first thing you should try. Successfully booting into safe mode means the system isn’t as knackered as you may think, and that the general Windows system files and services needed to boot a basic system are intact.
When safe mode start, Windows will kindly tell you which drivers it’s loading while it does it. This is handy for noticing if\when a blue screen occurs, though there is a much easier way to do this later as we’ll see.
NoteSafe mode isn’t designed to be a short cut into your system; it’s designed to be used as a diagnostic tool. Don’t be tempted to start reading your emails or playing games because you can finally see them as none of it is likely to work. Safe mode allows you to fix problems, not access your applications (although you can).
Windows will load up the Help & Support window which details what safe mode does for you, but ideally now is your chance to undo any changes you made to the system (such as drivers, applications). Once you believe things are back to normal, reboot the PC and see if it starts up normally. If the system automatically boots back into safe mode – it means a problem still remains.
Before moving on, there are a couple of other tools which you can access from Safe mode which may make a difference, the first being
msconfig allows you to granularly control which services and applications start once Windows does. You can access it using the ‘Start Search’ box in the Start menu (type
Msconfig utility msconfig allows you to control which services and applications start.
The only option you generally need to use is ‘Diagnostic startup’,
msconfig will prompt you to reboot.
If Vista starts up as normal once you have selected ‘Diagnostic startup’ then you know either an application or service is causing the problem. Run ‘msconfig’ again and turn on non-essential services and applications using the ‘Services’ and ‘Startup’ tabs. The entries in these tabs will vary from system to system.
Safe mode allows you to do other things as well as tweak the startup services (although in reality, its most likely going to be a startup service). Windows Vista has come with a few extra tools to help find and diagnose problems. Personally I’ve never had much luck with them, but we’ll mention them anyway.
Problem Reports and Solutions
Problem reports and solutions is a new ‘feature’ of Vista which supposedly collects all the information it can about the state of your system. In my opinion, it lists more ‘issues’ then problems, such as out of date drivers, and the odd missing file, I’ve never seen it actually find and solve an issue in one. But if it works for you, it’s worth a try. You can click on the ‘Check for solutions’ button to see if you’ll get lucky.
Problems and Solutions Wizard The Problem Reports and Solutions window offers quick advice for Windows problems.
In Microsoft’s world – everyone would be using System Restore. It’s a pretty straight-forward idea, the computer has ‘restore points’ which you can revert back to, removing a problem. It doesn’t affect your files and data, but only the operating system configuration. When you first enter Safe Mode, Windows gives you some information about it. You can access System Restore by navigating to the start menu, right-clicking ‘Computer’ and selecting ‘Properties’. From there you can click on the ‘System Protection’ tab and click the ‘System Restore’ button.
I’ve seen System Restore work quite well at times, and I’ve also seen it do nothing other then change the look and feel of the PC, so once again it’s hit and miss, though definitely worth a try.
The last thing safe mode is good for is manually uninstalling drivers and hardware. Sometimes Windows gives you clues about problems it’s having, particularly in blue screens, showing file names which can be researched to reveal the package they belong to. Most common are graphics driver related files – in which case you can simply delete the device.
NoteDeleting the device will cause it to stop functioning until next reboot where Windows will attempt to install it again – that’s why it’s important you uninstall any associated software before uninstalling the device.
For example, let’s say the graphics drivers we loaded were incorrect for the actual hardware – Windows will either revert to the defaults, or more likely, crash\freeze. You can use Safe Mode to uninstall any graphics drivers from the control panel’s ‘Programs and Features’, then uninstall the hardware using the Device manager. You can find the device manager by right clicking on ‘Computer’ and clicking ‘Manage’. Then navigate to the ‘Device Manager. Expand ‘Display Adapter and Right click the adapter you have installed and click ‘Uninstall’.
However, if you cannot even get into Safe Mode – then read on.
Advanced Recovery Options
Enable Boot Logging
Enable boot logging does exactly what it says. It creates the file
nbtboot.txt in the ‘Windows’ folder, which details the drivers and DLL’s that Windows is attempting to load. If any of them fail, the output will stop at the failed driver, and you have a file name you can Google. Of course this isn’t much good if Windows won’t even let you login.
Enable low-resolution video (640x480)
This option boots Windows using the most basic video resolution you can get. It’s to aid with issues of failed graphics drivers (the most common cause of Windows not booting). Just like safe mode, if this works then you have a video problem, and you should use this opportunity to uninstall any related applications\hardware.
Last Known Good Configuration
Assuming Safe Mode doesn’t even work, you only have the options available to you in the ‘Advanced Boot Options’ menu. The next one to try is ‘Last Known Good Configuration’.
LKG (Last Known Good) was introduced into Windows 2000 with mixed results. It’s got better in Vista but still doesn’t hit the nail on the head 100% of the time. To use it, simply select the option and let Windows try to boot using the settings it remembers that last successfully worked. You really only get one try with LKG, if you get the same issue as before – it’s not going to work.
Should LKG actually boot up OK, then Windows will overwrite all subsequent reboots with the configuration it just used and you should be OK.
The remaining options in the ‘Advanced Boot Options’ menu are for advanced bug tracking and domain controllers only and are beyond the scope of this article.
Repair Your Computer
If Safe Mode, msconfig, or restoring your hardware with either System Restore, Device Manager or by physically removing devices has totally failed to solve your issue – there are two remaining options. The first is to repair the installation using the original Windows CD. You’ll need your Windows Vista disc to perform this.
NoteIf you happen to have a Dell PC or something similar (shop brought computer with Windows pre-installed), then chances are that you never got a Windows CD. Instead, you most likely got a ‘Product Recovery CD’ or something similar. These basically contain images that the manufacturer has issued and rarely contain repair utilities. However they work similarly to Windows repair in the sense you need to boot your computer from the CD\DVD.
Whether it’s a Windows CD you have or a manufacturer ‘recovery’ CD, you need to boot from it. Your PC may already be configured to do this, in which case you simply put the CD in and restart the computer. If the computer seems to ignore the CD – you’ll need to enter your computers BIOS (or setup). This process varies from computer to computer – but usually involves pressing one of the ‘F’ keys or ‘Del’ as soon as the computer turns on, you then need to find the option which control what devices start up first – and select the CD\DVD drive.
Assuming you’ve got your PC to boot from a Windows CD, you’ll get presented with the following screen after selecting your language.
Repair Your Computer Select ‘Repair your Computer’ link to start the repair process.
The ‘Repair your Computer’ link will start the repair process. Select which OS you want to repair (there’s usually only one option). As it states, no changes are made to your personal stuff and the process is automatic, you won’t necessarily be told if a problem was found and repaired.
The Repair tool will also offer to use System Restore if it finds a restore point on the computer – this is a good idea to try since if it fails to correct the problem, you can always try the repair again without System Restore.
If the Repair tool does not detect restore points, or it has already tried System Restore, it will present you with a choice of repair options as shown below:
The Vista Repair Options The repair options Vista has built in.
The first option ‘Startup Repair’ is the most effective – looking for missing\corrupted files and replacing them on the fly from the Vista DVD. System Restore is only good if you have the restore points.
Windows Complete PC Restore uses a previous backup and restores, however the backup must exist for this to work.
The Windows Memory Diagnostic Tool checks the system memory for errors. As stated before this isn’t usually a problem nowadays but generally worth a try as a last resort. Finally, the command prompt allows you to use advanced recovery tools.
The Startup Repair should be used initially as this is likely to repair most OS problems.
Final Option: Reinstall
Remember we said we would fix the problem? At what cost? If Windows is completely screwed because of a software issue, then you can always get things working by binning the lot and starting again. The repairs and upgrades are good, but they can leave the system messy. If you truly want a clean fast working system – you need to format and start again.
To do this, you’ll either need to have a backup of your software, or just plain not care about it. If it’s located on a drive other then your C:\ drive then you’re in luck. As this is the only drive that gets wiped in our Windows install.
Reinstalling Windows from the DVD is straight forward and only takes about half hour on a decent machine. Simply boot of the CD and following the instructions. Formatting the drive (along with all your data and the problem), and enjoy using a new computer.
It’s amazing how many people consider this ‘not an option’. In that case – you shouldn’t be using Windows to store critical data, and if you are – you should have backups which place fewer emphases on the operating systems importance – after all, it’s just an operating system.
Hopefully you found something in this article useful. If you follow it in order, you’ll get a working Windows system, even if you do have to format the entire thing and start again – but unfortunately that is part of the Windows experience, it just cant maintain a system for very long – and eventually it’s best to cut your losses and restart it from scratch, giving you another year at the most of happy, fast computing.