Here's a quick fix that actually works:

1: When your computer is working, boot into windows, and make a copy of the windows directory. Make sure to put it on the same drive letter, and give it a name 8 or less characters long. Bold print is a dos command (sorry).
XCOPY32 /E windows winold, or drag and drop in explorer

2: When something breaks, boot into 'safe mode command prompt only'
Win95: press F8 when it says 'Starting windows'. Win98: Hold CTRL when it beeps, but before it boots. Select from the menu.

3: Rename the windows directories so that the computer boots off the copy:
rename windows win000
rename winold windows

4: Reboot, and if the problem has gone away, repeat step 1.

If the problem remains, it's either a hardware fault, or damage to the root or program files directory. Remember to back up the windows directory often (assuming it's working).

As you techies may have gathered, doing this makes a known-good backup of the current windows install, ready to swap back in if realplayer, Internet explorer, etc. hose the current one. Why copy it in windows, and then rename in dos? Files copied in DOS lose their long file names...

Tips in this writeup are for the amateur computer hobbyist.
I assume no responsibility for problems that may occur with application of this knowledge.

That being said, Windows can be very frustrating to work with. In my current line of work, I run into a fair amount of "stuff's broken" situations when dealing with a customer's computer. A re-installation of Windows is like re-sealing your basement; if the wrong thing is leaking, then you're not going to fix it. The information herein applies mostly to Windows 95,98, and ME. Windows 2000 and XP are by far much more stable, and are less prone to these issues. It helps to know what causes a PC to break down, and what common steps to repair actually do.

What does a reinstallation of Windows actually do?: A good number of things. First off, it does a minor amount of repair in the registry. This is limited to Windows-specific keys and objects. If the damage is not in a Windows installed driver (i.e.: that video card driver that you installed, or other third-party piece of software), then you're really going to accomplish nothing by a reinstall. A reinstallation of Windows will not stop a rogue piece of code that is already executing on your system, such as spyware or an unwanted dialer. It will only fix integral parts of the OS that may or may not be broken, either through a messed up setting, or a damaged binary component. The advantage of a reinstall is that it always should leave your machine in a state where it can boot. This is important in times of desperation.

What are the dangers of re-installing Windows?: If you have applied any sort of fix or upgrade or other code that is not out of the box, you can further descend into DLL Hell: a series of conflicts and non-tested interactions with system components. For purposes of this general idea, consider upgrades of Internet Explorer (which upgrades controls libraries, the HTML rendering library used in Help and other objects, and all IE COM objects), and any particular (even small) hotfix, an upgrade. You will either need to reinstall them, or uninstall them completely ahead of time. For instance, the Winsock2 upgrade comes with an uninstall, for just this purpose.

Be sure to always use the CD that came with your computer, and not a friend's CD to install components with. Mixing versions of Windows is very dubious and may not work well. This holds true with any piece of software, not just operating systems, however it is easy to mix up a boxed consumer Win98 SE SKU with an OEM Win98 first edition SKU, and so on. If you do not have that CD, the check your system for cab files (possibly in your Windows directory). Also note that some recovery CDs shipped by computer manufacturers may wipe out your entire system and start anew. On the outside they may look the same, but the parts are not entirely interchangable.

What is a blue screen?: The "Blue Screen of Death" is a Windows kernel panic (or any MacsBug error). It means that some piece of code has entered into kernel space and crashed. It has "solid" room left in the Kernel to display the message giving you a hint as to what went wrong. If the machine just locks up, you are in far worse shape than a Blue Screen. Read below for suggestions as to how to handle that.

All things considered, a bluescreen isn't bad. You can also get a non-fatal bluescreen if there is a unrecoverable media error, such as the CD is not in a device or something equally as cute. Most bluescreens give some sort of information as to what is wrong (as does any crash). If you get an error in module "", that will tip you off really well as to where to start looking. Read on, for suggestions as to where to go depending on that error reads.

What to do if your computer locks up?: If it keeps locking up when you do something, then, um don't do that. If it keeps locking up under periods of stress only, check for heat problems, or other hardware-related issues (certain hard drives can cause problems when put under specific stress, video cards may mess with your bus, etc). Also, try removing extraneous hardware (keep away from legacy ISA/EISA cards if possible in ISA/PCI configurations). See if it is being caused by something that your computer can live without. Switch around cards, check your core operating temperature, clean dust off your board, etc. Take the case off, and see if it runs longer. There are a lot of ways to try and finagle around lockups.

What do bluescreen errors mean?: Ninety-eight percent of all bluescreens are caused by third party drivers. The remaining two percent are split between stray cases inside your computer (stuff Windows has that is just going wrong), and heat problems where Kernel32 knows just enough to toss an error before it dies. There are several types of errors that you could see Illegal Instruction, Segmentation Fault, Bus Error, etc. Of all of these, knowing what they are and what the registers say is nearly useless. The most useful information for the layman is the name of the module that is dying.

If you see error in *.vxd, look no further than the extension. VXD's are Virtual Device Drivers, or interfaces that the Windows Kernel uses to pull up devices. These are definitely hardware related, and oftentimes they are non-Microsoft related. If you see a *.dll crash, then it is some sort of non-specific device driver. Normal crashes in non-memory space can usually be handled by a standard crash dialog.

The best bet with this module, is to load your system back up (in safe mode or otherwise), and find that module. Renaming it or removing it may cause your system to whine a little bit on bootup (a component that the registry wants to load as part of Windows isn't there), but a replacement of the specific component (and not just a magical reinstall of Windows) will most often repair what is actually damaged (and possibly move it to a non-damaged part of the drive).

What do I do if I'm not sure of what a component is? The component information is almost always available as a property of the item. They will give a version, and a company name (if it is available). This will help you to locate and replace the proper small component inside a system. If you are still unsure as to the component, rename it and see what whines about it's loss.

What if it is a Microsoft component? If it's a binary component, replace the feature that has it on a CD (or pull the specific item out of a cab file to replace it). Removing the device from device manager, or the networking component from the Network Control panel often helps to repair it. Removing a Microsoft device will make Plug N Play refresh it's registry settings on startup next time, and that will solve many crashes.

How about other (non-OS) components on my system? Contact the vendor or visit their website. The good part about buying a Compaq or a Dell or a Gateway or a Mac is that they have tested all of their configurations heavily. You can be guaranteed that these people have good quality setups, and that their device drivers have been tested more rigorously than a company's out the door testing. They have received a second round of integration and setup tests (as these computers are often deployed in a "no room for error" environment in many corporations as workstations). I personally advocate giving these computer companies your patronage, if you need a completely reliable computer, or are choosing one for which your assistance may not always be on hand.

What if I have a Macintosh? Apple makes a high quality product. In the old Mac era (systems pre-X), there was no protected memory, so my general recommendation would be to restart after any crash. If there was anything going wrong with your system at all, it could ding any component currently in memory, and send your machine spiraling towards instability. If you are experiencing frequent crashes on a Macintosh, boot without extensions or rebuild the desktop. This does in fact fix 95% of all problems on a Mac. This will allow you to remove the conflicting extensions (Conflict catcher is a good program for this), and it rebuilds all of the settings database, respectively. Contrary to popular belief, there is in fact a registry on a Mac, but so few vendors actually take advantage of this, that it is a moot point.

Are there programs to avoid, to make my system more stable? Generally, yes, I would recommend many different programs to avoid:
  • Norton * (except Antivirus). Windows has it's own maintenance agenda, and so does Norton Utilities and their ilk. Rarely do they coincide with each other. This goes with the exception of Norton DiskDoctor, see below.
  • Quarterdeck Utilities. Windows has well moved past the troubles that Quarterdeck's suite of applications would solve.
  • Any out of date system maintenance utility. Any upgrade can reduce the effectiveness of any out of date system utility, so try to stay away from things that don't look like they've been tested for Windows ME or even Windows 98 Second Edition. Software has a logical expiration date as well.
  • Avoid Fat16 like the plague, unless you have a specific reason not to do so (such as you need to interact with NT4 on the same machine, or your OS is an early Windows 95 and doesn't yet support it). Fat16 is less solid, stuck to smaller drive amounts, and is more prone to drive errors than Fat32.
  • Do not use early versions of Partition Magic or System Commander. There's not much to be said here, except that they were mostly dark magic, in my experience. Leave the booting to the MS utilities such as the standard bootloader or ntloader.
  • Norton Utilities. I stand by my claim that the fewer cooks in the pot the better. You'll do better keeping an eye on things than would Symantec.
  • Ram Doubler. Ram Doubler is a memory compression hack. It is known not to work with many, many programs. If you are experiencing any trouble, shut off Ram Doubler immediately. This also holds true for Space Doubler (a disk compression utility) and Speed Doubler (a better 68K emulator).
  • Kaleidoscope. Kaleidoscope can largely mess with the memory of open windows and running programs. If a program is not kind enough to let Kaleidoscope have it's way with window coloring, then crashes can and will occur. Disable it first when you are seeing weird crashes, as it is also largely unnecessary in later Mac OS systems (9.0+).

Is there anything that Windows provides to help? Windows 98 provides you with a utility called SFC that checks and updates the binary files if they get damaged. Neither Windows 95 nor Windows ME (the latter is supposed to do it on it's own) has such a utility. Scandisk is a great utility (de-fragmenting is far less important) for finding issues, as it will tell you if there are files or segments on your disk that are damaged. Look through that to find issues. For damaged drives larger than 8.4 gig, Scandisk cannot properly repair them. You will need to use a third party utility, such as Norton DiskDoctor. This information was verified with Microsoft and released on their website.*

Hey, what about editing the registry? For the moderately well-experienced user, editing the registry seems like a simple and plausible solution. I'd like to advise against it. Please take the standard interfaces for registry setting refreshing, such as reinstallation of components, and removing / restoring devices for registry repair. Singular, manual hacks into a completely unknown system really don't make any sense, as it is tough to describe here what every key in the registry does and what it is about. It is best to leave it as an unknown commodity, and to leave it unmodified.

What about recovering after a virus? A virus is a dangerous and multifaceted issue. If you are stricken with such troubles, then remove the rogue piece of code (and any affected files if they cannot be cleaned). Continue to troubleshoot the problem as if they were damaged components (see above).

So really, what is that quick fix you were getting at for frequent problems? In order, do these things.
  1. Undo what you last did. Uninstall, roll back, or remove what you put in last. Oftentimes it is one step to instability, but this is not always the case
  2. Launch your system, as soon as possible, kill everything that is running (with Alt-Ctrl-Del and End Task) except explorer, GDI (windows 95), user (windows 95), and systray (windows 95). See if that helps. You may lose some functionality, but really, all things considered, it will help you to find items that are causing trouble, esp if you are methodical about it.
  3. Run scandisk, virus scans, and SFC. These will help to isolate any major damage, and you can take actions appropriately from there (oftentimes, backup and fresh install).
  4. Find the crash, and isolate and surgically remove/reinstall the offending components. Rename before you delete, in case you have second thoughts on this process. Removing the entire Windows folder is bad, mainly because you will lose things like your email in Outlook Express, your preferences, any bookmarks you had, etc. All in all, it's an inconvenient change.
  5. Find any offending hardware, and replace/remove it. If I have any network issues, I'd probably pay the $20 for a new network card before I reinstalled Windows.
  6. If that fails, see if the crash reproduces in Safe Mode. If it doesn't, it's a driver issue, and look carefully.
  7. If that also fails, back up your entire system, and reformat / reinstall. I'd recommend that over the myriads of trouble associated with re-installing Windows, but if you cannot get to a point where backup is possible (network just won't cooperate no matter what, you bluescreen on startup, etc), then re-install. Reinstallation will, as I said, at least always get you to a point where you can continue on to recover your data.

A final thought is that taking your computer into a professional is never a bad idea (if he or she is reputable). They have backup resources at their disposal, and can oftentimes help you piece back together those systems that will just not behave. They may charge hefty prices, but in the lives that we lead today, being so computer-centric and all, can we put a price on the stability of our data? If you experience trouble in general, I'd advocate an upgrade to the NT-based systems (NT 4, Windows 2000, Windows XP), which are less prone to these sorts of issues. Good luck!

* Thanks to sakke on the Norton DiskDoctor fix info

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