Free first aid for a wide range of Windows ills
Did you know that Microsoft offers over 500 automated, online solutions for common problems you might encounter with Windows software and hardware?
And that’s on top of the dozens of always-available troubleshooting tools built into Windows 7 and Windows 8.
I’m sure most Windows users are unaware of the breadth and depth of fix-it apps and troubleshooters available for free from Microsoft. As the LangaList Plus columnist, I thought I was on top of that topic. But even I had no idea that there are now over 500 solutions at our fingertips. Wow!
These extremely useful tools can provide 24/7 self-help fixes for problems with printing, audio, security, and networking along with many other hardware and software issues.
But (there’s always a “but”) not all fix-its and troubleshooters are easily found. In fact, following Microsoft’s system for searching for help can sometimes lead to dead ends, wrong answers, or missed solutions!
The information that follows will help you find the automated repair/diagnostic tools you need. Use it as a quick reference for what’s available, how Microsoft organizes its tools, and the best way to search for the solution to a particular problem. So let’s get started.
Under the covers: Microsoft’s SDP and MATS
Fix-its and troubleshooters are user-friendly implementations of two advanced Microsoft technologies: the Support Diagnostics Platform (SDP) and the Microsoft Automated Troubleshooting Service (MATS).
SDP is a mechanism to collect diagnostic information such as Registry data, configuration files, and application event logs. MATS can analyze SDP data to see whether the conditions fit a known pattern — and if so, suggest or implement automated repairs that are likely to resolve the detected problem. (Want more details? See the MS Support article 2598970, “Information about Microsoft Automated Troubleshooting Services and Support Diagnostic Platform.”)
In their native form, MATS and SDP services are aimed at programmers and IT/PC professionals. They’re offered via Microsoft Diagnostic Services, described in MS Support article 2672837, “Microsoft Diagnostics Services — Self-help diagnostic portal.” You can access the SDP/MATS tools for free on the Support Diagnostics sign-in page; your Microsoft Live ID and password will let you in.
For most individual PC users, those pro-level MATS/SDP offerings are overkill. So instead, I’ll focus on Microsoft’s far-easier-to-use — but still highly effective — automated fix-it and troubleshooter tools.
Start with Microsoft’s fix-it library
Microsoft has collected most of its fix-it solutions in the Fix it Solution Centersite. It’s available to all — no Microsoft sign-in required.
The site’s deceptively simple homepage (see Figure 1) is in fact the portal to some 500 solutions, accessed by simply pointing and clicking.
The page is divided into three sections, which Microsoft clearly wants you to step though in a 1-2-3 order. I actually disagree with this approach, and I’ll explain why later. But for now, here’s what Microsoft has in mind:
- Step 1: Select a problem area.
Choose from the six major application categories the one that’s closest to what’s causing trouble. They include Windows, Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, Entertainment (which includes Xbox, Zune, and — oddly — Windows Phone), and Office (including Project, InfoPath, and Live Meeting). There’s also “Other,” a catch-all category that includes Streets and Trips, Windows Server, SQL Server, Forefront, Dynamics, SharePoint, and other enterprise/server products.
A seventh category — Top Solutions — is a shortcut to the most common fix-its and troubleshooters from the other six categories.
- Step 2: What are you trying to do?
This section attempts to narrow your search by listing specific kinds of trouble. Depending on what you chose in Step 1, you’ll get anywhere from one to eight Step 2 subchoices. In some cases, a second submenu of additional choices will appear, offering up to eight or so more options.
- Step 3: View or run solutions.
After Step 2 has been completed, suggested solutions — such as a click-to-run fix-it or related information — appear in the Step 3 text box. Fix-its are accompanied by a Run Now button, which is a little misleading: Clicking the button doesn’t run the selected fix-it but instead downloads the fix-it file (usually, an .exe) to your PC. You then navigate to the file on your hard drive and click to run it.
Microsoft’s three-step method seems straightforward and might work for inexperienced users — anyone who enters the site with little or no clue as to why their system is malfunctioning or what might need to be fixed.
However, that 1-2-3–step process has led me down blind alleys, causing me to miss the correct solution.
If you already have at least a general idea of what the trouble is, or what the needed repair is, you can often do much better with a more direct approach.
A better way to search for solutions
I use an example to show how different paths don’t necessarily lead to the desired solution.
Let’s say you’re trying to remove an old or malfunctioning program, but it simply won’t uninstall properly. Perhaps you get an error message when you run the program’s normal uninstaller, or maybe data is left behind on the hard drive or in the Registry — data that makes your system think that the software is still present on your system.
You could work this problem three ways — I’ll start with the one-step, direct-search method I recommend:
- Skip Microsoft’s Steps 1 and 2 and go directly to Step 3. Type “uninstall” into the Filter Solutions box and then press Enter; the listing “Fix problems that programs cannot be installed or uninstalled” immediately appears along with a “Run Now” fix-it. (See Figure 2.) That’s all it takes: You get the correct solution in one quick step.
Microsoft’s recommended three-step process is a lot less straightforward. It involves more clicks and some guesswork — and produces far less certain results. See for yourself!
Microsoft’s three-step method, option 1:
- In Step 1, select Top Solutions.
- In Step 2, look for anything related to uninstalls. (Spoiler alert: Nothing will be listed.)
- Still in Step 2, select the only thing listed that mentions installations at all: “Install or upgrade hardware or software.”
- Start reading the proposed solutions listed in Step 3. The top-recommended fix-it is for Zune — clearly not what you’re looking for.
Keep reading. You’ll find solutions for printers, CD/DVD drives, USB, undetected hardware devices, audio recording problems, audio playback problems, and the rest. Somewhere among the incorrect solutions (it’s the eighth-listed choice on my system), you’ll find the correct “Fix problems that programs cannot be installed or uninstalled.”
Microsoft’s method, option 2:
- In Step 1, Select Windows. (No, the uninstall problem isn’t really with Windows itself, but that’s the closest Step 1 item that might apply.)
- In Step 2, look for anything related to uninstalls. Again, nothing will be listed.
- Still in Step 2, select the only thing listed that mentions installations at all: “Install or upgrade hardware or software.” A new selection box will open.
- In the new selection box, find the closest match to an uninstallation problem: “Install or remove programs.”
- In Step 3, the correct “Fix problems that programs cannot be installed or uninstalled” should appear — at the top of a list of 19 incorrect items.
You can see why I prefer the one-step, direct-search method. If you have a reasonably good idea of what the trouble is, you can likely zero in on the correct fix-it faster and more surely simply by entering one or more good keywords in the “Filter solutions” text box.
Running Windows’ built-in troubleshooters
Some problems are common enough that Microsoft built the relevant fix-it right into Windows itself — there’s no need to go online. Microsoft calls the built-in fix-its “Troubleshooters.”
Built-in troubleshooters aren’t just handy, they could be vital if a problem prevents the PC from going online. (Obviously, a Web-based fix-it is of no use at all if you can’t access it.)
Windows 8 and Windows 7 each have about 30 troubleshooters built in; Vista, alas, has but one.
You can see available troubleshooters by opening Control Panel and typing the word “troubleshoot” into the search box — the category list Troubleshooting will appear. You can then open each subcategory to drill down to the individual troubleshooters.
Figure 3 shows the Win7 Troubleshooter category list. Win8’s is very similar.
When you find an appropriate troubleshooter, just click to run it.
When local and online solutions don’t work
Combined, the local troubleshooters and the online Solution Center offer hundreds of solutions — but, oddly, not all of the automated solutions are offered by Microsoft. Sometimes, you have to search elsewhere.
For example, let’s say you’ve made some networking changes to a Win7 system. Suddenly, all the network connections — including the Home (local) network — are now stuck in the limited “Public” mode, which is preventing you from properly sharing files and devices. Surprisingly, it’s not a rare problem at all, as noted in the May 12, 2011, LangaList Plus item, “The ‘Make all future networks public’ debacle.”
None of the built-in networking troubleshooters addresses this problem. And strangely, the online Solution Center yields a response of “No matching results,” regardless of whether you use Microsoft’s three-step search or go straight to Step 3 and directly enter appropriate keywords — such as “stuck public connection,” “stuck public network,” “change public network,” “change network connection type,” “stuck connection,” and so on.
But there is an excellent, fully automated solution: Microsoft fix-it 50725, described in and accessed by MS Support article 2578723, “Windows 7 Network connections are stuck in Public mode.”
Although the Solution Center can’t find that particular fix-it, a general Web search can. For example, entering the same keywords — e.g., “stuck public network” — into Google or Bing yields a listing for KB 2578723/fix-it 50725 within the first few search results. In fact, Google usually lists the correct Support article and fix-it as the very first result.
(For another example of a fix-it that’s not easily found via the Solution Center, see this issue’s LangaList Plus column. [Paid content])
So don’t give up if your initial searches of Troubleshooters and the Solution Center come up dry. Your favorite search engine might help you find additional automated repair tools that Microsoft didn’t include in those two resources.
Three options can save untold frustration
Putting all the preceding information and methods together suggests an easy, three-step approach to solving common Windows problems.
- First: Check out the Troubleshooters built into your copy of Windows.
- Second: If a local troubleshooter isn’t available or didn’t help, check out the Fix it Solution Center site. Start with my direct-search method for the surest results.
- Third: If you still can’t find a solution, expand your search via Google, Bing, or other preferred search engine.
With hundreds of automated and semi-automated repair tools available, odds are you’ll find one that will give you the kind of fast and almost effortless self-help “first aid” that your malfunctioning Windows needs!