How to troubleshoot Windows crashes

Question: Occasionally, when I shut down my computer, I get the dreaded blue screen of death: a fatal exception has occurred. All applications have been shut down prior to this error.

I’ve replaced the printer driver, updated the sound driver, disabled McAfee virus scan program, all to no avail.

I cannot attribute it to specific application or device, and I have almost concluded it’s a hardware problem.

I have read that, among other things, Windows shuts down drivers when the computer shuts down, so this still may be the issue. Others have recommended re-installing Windows 95, which seems drastic. Others said rename autoexec.bat and config.sys so Windows doesn’t use them, but then I get no sound. I’ve looked on the Web for help. There are no similar problems that I can find. —WMS

Answer: This is the dreaded answer that you don’t want to hear. I give this advice over and over again and people get fed up with hearing it, but… Reinstall your operating system.

People give me this sideways look and usually curse, but it’s worth repeating. I know the look because I recently started training for a marathon and it’s the look I give my massage therapist when he tells me that stretching will help a nagging muscle ache.

Of course, I’m looking for a magic pill.

There’s no magic pill here, but before you resort to reinstalling, you might consider scrubbing your registry with a registry cleaner such as CleanMyPC and you might also look at a system optimizer such as SpeedUpMyPC. These can drastically improve the performance of a Windows computer.

That said, I still recommend reinstalling Windows once a year. This does clear up 95% of the problems people encounter.

Before you do anything drastic, though, let me suggest that the problem may be hardware-related. I’ll get to that in a paragraph or two, but first some explanation.

General Protection Faults (GPFs) happen when a program tries to access a resource, or attempts a process, that the system will not allow. Most commonly, it happens when a process attempts to read or write to a protected memory address.

Remember, Windows is a resource-sharing operating system. Tasks share processor time, memory, and system files. When a program runs, it is allocated a corner of memory to do its business. If it reads or writes data to a part of the system that it has not been given access to, or if it overwrites memory space it doesn’t own, the whole system can come to a nasty standstill.

That’s why GPFs only occur in Windows 95, NT, and 3.x in standard mode. They don’t occur in DOS or in Windows 3.x’s real mode, because memory space is not protected.

When tracking GPFs, David Peterson, vice-president of marketing at Open Concept International in Edmonton, likes “to follow a ’fault tree.’ It begins with a basic question: Is it hardware or software?”

That’s the critical fork in the road. “If the machine can boot, and can run within the existing operating system without exhibiting any errors, then we must conclude that it is not a hardware problem,” he explained.

Check the Device Manager tab under the System icon in Windows 95’s Control Panel. If there are hardware problems, they will be indicated by yellow exclamation marks or red Xs next to the offending hardware device.

“The author indicated that the machine exhibited different errors from the ’get-go’ after he used an Iomega drive to load files from an old machine,” he explained.

The questions to ask yourself are: What files were loaded from the old system? What operating system was on the previous machine? Were the files that were copied to the new machine system, program or data files?

Reinstall the operating system over your existing system.

“That makes sure that the necessary DLL and registry files are in place and that, as much as possible, the system has a good install of the OS,” said Peterson.

This is a fact of life with Windows 95. Windows 98, however, does a lot of this verification for you.

While an operating system reinstall is sometimes the rabbit in the hat, it’s not a perfect solution.

“One problem with re-installing the OS is that, sometimes, the re-install will not fix a problem,” suggested Peterson. “If, after the re-install, the system continues to act abnormally, it is time to make sure that data files are backed up.”

That includes text files, word processing files, spreadsheets, and anything that you want to preserve that can’t be replaced. Back up everything that can’t be reinstalled from a floppy disk, a CD-ROM, or that can’t be downloaded from the Internet.

Then wipe out the hard drive and start from scratch.

Peterson’s next piece of advice is to re-install the user programs from their original CD or diskette sources.

Reinstall these programs at a time and test the operating system after each one. Shut down and re-start to make sure that the problem doesn’t reoccur after you add each program. This way, if the problem comes back, it’s easier to trace the problem back to a particular program and make necessary corrections.

The final step is to restore the data files from the backup, and again check the system to ensure proper operation.

“Remember that computer hardware is either on or off, it is a 1 or a 0, the gate is open or it is closed. Hardware should either work or it shouldn’t,” said Peterson. “Software, on the other hand, is affected by many different things. Some programs can cause incompatibility with other programs. One program can install a DLL file over an existing DLL causing a previously installed program to run improperly.”

Microsoft also provides quite a good troubleshooting guide about errors on shutdown for Windows 95 at: