Fix Windows 10 problems with these free Microsoft tools

A handful of free tools can be used to repair most problems on Windows 10 PCs -- and they’re all provided by Microsoft. Here’s how to use them

To Microsoft’s credit, Windows 10 is more stable than previous versions of Windows. As with any operating system, however, things can still go wrong. Fortunately, Microsoft offers several tools that can be used to correct the most common problems: Some are built right into Windows 10, and others you download from the Microsoft site. Here’s a walk-thru explaining when you might need each tool, and how to use it.

Start menu troubleshooter

When to use it: If Cortana or the Start menu stops working correctly.

On rare occasions, the Start menu might fail to open when you click the Start button or when you press the Windows key of your computer’s keyboard. Other things about it might malfunction, such as the ability to drag-and-drop app shortcuts from the app list over to the Start menu panel, or tiles pinned to the Start menu panel might disappear.

Windows 10’s personal digital assistant Cortana, which is built into the Start menu, can act up as well. The Cortana panel might not open when you click its search box (to the right of the Start button), or perhaps it won’t respond when you type into its search box or when you speak a request to it (and you know your computer’s connection to the internet is good).

To fix such issues, Microsoft’s troubleshooting suggestions range from the mundane (restart Windows 10) to the more complicated (create a new user account with administrator privileges and then sign in with it). But the company also provides a Start menu troubleshooter tool that will likely be a more effective solution.

Windows 10 Start menu troubleshooter IDG

The Start menu troubleshooter can detect and fix problems with files and settings related to the Start menu and Cortana.

You download it from Microsoft (on Microsoft’s troubleshooting page, click “Try the troubleshooter” and then “Start menu troubleshooter”), double-click to run it (filename “startmenu.diagcab”), and follow its prompts. It checks to see if files and settings related to the Start menu and Cortana are missing or corrupt, and then makes corrections.

Frequent glitches with the Start menu and Cortana that won’t go away even after you use this tool could be caused by an incompatible or malfunctioning graphics driver. The tools covered in the next two sections of this article can probably help.

Built-in troubleshooters

When to use these: If you experience issues with certain hardware components (e.g., networking, sound, video, etc.) or if a Windows Store app isn’t working correctly on Windows 10.

While some of Microsoft’s “troubleshooter” tools (like the aforementioned Start menu troubleshooter) need to be downloaded, Windows 10 includes a host of built-in troubleshooters that can assist you in trying to assess and repair issues that your computer may be experiencing with the operating system. (These tools appeared in Windows 7 and Windows 8 as well.) To access them quickly in Windows 10, type “trouble” into the Cortana search box and select “Troubleshooting” from the search results.

The main screen of the Troubleshooting panel organizes the troubleshooters under four categories: Programs, Hardware and Sound, Network and Internet, and System and Security. Click “View all” in the upper-left corner to see an alphabetical listing of all the troubleshooters that are available on your computer. To run a troubleshooter, click its name.

Windows 10 troubleshooters IDG

Windows 10 includes dozens of troubleshooters to help you diagnose and repair problems.

Many of these troubleshooters work similarly to the aforementioned Start menu/Cortana repair tool: The troubleshooter runs a diagnostic on the component you’ve picked, and if it finds any issues, attempts to fix them.

The troubleshooters listed below cover the most common problems you’re likely to experience with Windows 10:

Blue Screen: Run this troubleshooter if your computer freezes, restarts or shuts itself down.

Hardware and Devices: This will scan for issues with the hardware components of your computer (e.g., graphics, sound). You can also consult this if the Start menu or Cortana doesn’t work or behaves weirdly—a bad graphics driver could be causing problems.

Incoming Connections, Internet Connections, Network Adapter: Use these three troubleshooters to evaluate problems with connecting to the internet.

Playing Audio, Recording Audio: If the “Hardware and Devices” troubleshooter doesn’t find anything wrong with your sound hardware driver but you’re still having trouble hearing sound or recording audio, run these two tools to see if there might be a software issue or a setting that needs to be corrected.

Windows Store Apps: A problem with an app that you install through the Windows Store, such as frequent crashing, can be examined here. (This isn’t the tool to use if the tile for a Windows Store app disappears from the Start menu or if you can’t drag an app shortcut from the app list to the Start menu panel. These suggest an issue with the Start menu and should be evaluated with the Start menu troubleshooter.)

Windows 10 Windows Store Apps troubleshooter IDG

The Windows Store Apps troubleshooter shows a report of the issues it has found.

Windows Update: Run this if Windows 10 fails at installing an official OS update that is pushed out by Microsoft. Note, however, that this troubleshooter can’t fix an update that was successfully installed but is messing up your computer – for instance, if the update contains a buggy or incompatible hardware driver. For that type of problem, the Hardware and Devices troubleshooter should be run instead.

And if the Hardware and Devices troubleshooter fails to fix the problem too, consider using the following tool.

Show or hide updates troubleshooter

When to use it: If a driver update downloaded and installed through Windows Update causes problems with your computer’s hardware (for example, if the sound no longer works).

The Windows Update troubleshooter mentioned above may find that nothing is wrong with the Windows Update function of Windows 10, but this doesn’t address a situation when an update is successfully installed but messes up your computer – say, if a new hardware driver doesn’t work correctly. Worse, even if you uninstall the problematic update, Windows Update will usually install it again.

Windows 10 show or hide updates troubleshooter IDG

The Show or hide updates troubleshooter lets you prevent Windows Update from installing problematic updates.

Microsoft released a tool that lets you stop a specific update from installing (or at least delays it until the company issues a better update). Download the file “wushowhide.diagcab” from Microsoft’s support site and double-click to run it. It works similarly to the troubleshooters discussed earlier in the article. This tool scans your computer for driver updates that run your computer’s hardware, and lists them. You can select which of these you want to “hide,” and Windows Update will stop trying to install them.

Task Manager

When to use it: If you’re experiencing slow startup or sluggish system performance.

An old standby application that’s been available in the last several generations of Windows, the Task Manager remains a good tool to consult when you’re doing a maintenance check or tune-up of Windows 10. If it seems to take an unusually long amount of time to get to the desktop environment when you turn on your computer or reboot, there could be too many programs set to automatically load during the startup process. Task Manager lets you prevent any such programs from launching during startup. It also lets you shut down running programs that are frozen, eating up system resources or causing other problems.

To launch the Task Manager, right-click the Start button and click Task Manager in the pop-up menu. Or if you’re old-school, press the Ctrl + Alt + Delete keys together and select Task Manager from the blue screen.

The Task Manager will show a list of applications (a.k.a. “processes”) that are actively running on your computer. Let’s say one of these programs has locked up and you’re unable to close it. You can shut it down here by right-clicking its name and selecting “End task” from the resulting pop-up menu, or you can click the frozen program’s name and then click the “End task” button at the lower-right of the Task Manager application window.

Windows 10 Task Manager IDG

With Task Manager, you can stop programs from automatically launching when you start up Windows 10.

Click “More details” on the lower-left corner of the Task Manager application window; this will expand the user interface to reveal tabbed sections. Click the “Startup” tab and you’ll see a list of programs that are set to load in the background whenever you turn on your computer or restart Windows 10. You can prevent most programs on this list from pre-loading by right-clicking a program’s name and clicking “Disable” listed in the resulting pop-up menu. (Or click to highlight the program’s name and then click the “Disable” button at the lower-right of the window.)

Clean installation of Windows 10 tool

When to use it: When you want to wipe out all the bloatware on a new PC.

One of the best features of Windows 10 is that it has a built-in tool that resets the OS into a like-new state. Listed under the Settings app as “Reset this PC” (type this into the Cortana search box to immediately go to this tool), you can choose to have Windows 10 be reinstalled to its default state, like it was when you bought the computer brand-new and first turned it on. Ah, but there’s the rub. Brand-new Windows PCs tend to be chock full of bloatware (a.k.a. crapware)—trialware, adware and other unnecessary programs pre-installed by the manufacturer. Resetting Windows 10 from within the Settings app will likely install this bloatware again.

With the Anniversary Update of Windows 10, however, Microsoft introduced another choice, which can be described as “nuke everything and start from scratch.” It’s listed in the Settings app at the bottom of the Recovery menu as “Learn how to start fresh with a clean installation of Windows,” but it’s actually a link that goes to a Microsoft site where you download the tool.

This tool installs Windows 10 on your computer without any of the bloatware put there by the computer maker. When you run the tool (filename: “RefreshWindowsTool.exe”), you can keep your personal files on the computer during the clean installation process or allow them to be erased. Either way, your settings and apps will be deleted.

Windows 10 clean installation of Windows 10 tool IDG

Windows 10’s clean installation tool lets you reinstall the OS without the PC manufacturer’s bloatware.

A caveat: If your computer requires a special hardware driver or application for a device that its manufacturer provided, the clean installation of Windows 10 may not be able to provide it or an equivalent. For example, your computer may have a keyboard with special keys that are assigned to perform multimedia tasks, and the clean installation of Windows 10 might not be able to support these keys on this keyboard. If this is the case, you should visit the computer manufacturer’s site to see if it provides Windows 10 drivers that you can download and install separately after you’ve completed a clean installation of Windows 10.

This story, "Fix Windows 10 problems with these free Microsoft tools" was originally published by Computerworld.

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