Troubleshooting and repairing Windows 10 problems

The Anniversary Update to Windows 10, version 1607, has been rolling out for the past few weeks, and some early adopters are experiencing issues. Here's Ed Bott's guide to some specific fixes for known issues along with time-tested troubleshooting tools and techniques.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Windows 10: Learn to disconnect OneDrive for good

[This article was originally published in September 2015. It has been extensively revised and updated since then. The most recent revision was August 29, 2016.]

In June 2016, a month before the free Windows 10 upgrade offer ended, Microsoft said that 350 million devices were actively running Windows 10. With new PC sales and last-minute upgrades, that number is probably around 400 million now.

In multiple interviews over the past year, Microsoft executives and managers have told me, on and off the record, that the telemetry, the user data that identifies potential problems, looks very good. They also insist that customer satisfaction, as measured through independent surveys, is high.

Your Windows 10 troubleshooting and repair toolkit

But with a user base that large, even a tiny percentage of problems represents a very large number. Given the diversity of hardware and software in the Windows ecosystem, I would be shocked if the Anniversary Update to Windows 10, version 1607, were truly problem-free. And sure enough, the latest round of updates comes with its own litany of complaints.

I've read reports of the Anniversary Update resulting in systems that freeze after the upgrade completes. Microsoft says it's aware of the issue, which it says affects "a small number" of users. In an official forum thread, a Microsoft spokesperson confirms the issue, which seems to occur most often on systems configured with two drives:

From users posting here and visiting the Microsoft Store, we have been able to collect log files and are looking into why a small set of users with the two drive configuration (SSD as OS with a second data drive) are experiencing this while the majority with the same configuration proceed as normal.

My experience confirms that this issue is sporadic; I have multiple systems configured with system files on an SSD and data on a separate drive and have not experienced any freezing issues.

Other issues with the Anniversary Update can, unfortunately, be traced directly back to Redmond. An issue that causes some webcams to stop working after a minute or so, for example, is the result of a design decision by Microsoft engineers, who apparently didn't talk to customers before disabling some widely used codecs.

Another problem affects the PowerShell Desired State Configuration feature. (Contrary to some headlines, it doesn't "break PowerShell.") That issue was caused by Microsoft shipping an update package that was missing a crucial file. A replacement patch should be available this week.

The good news is that the latter two issues will be fixed in short order. Microsoft says it will ship a patch for the webcam flaw in September. (If you need to use your older USB webcam in the interim, the registry fix suggested in this Stack Overflow thread might help.) The bad news is that similar glitches are nearly certain to occur again, as an inevitable by-product of the "Windows as a service" model that delivers new features alongside bug fixes and security updates.

As part of the research for my book Windows 10 Inside Out (the second edition is coming out this fall), I've spent a lot of time on official and unofficial support forums and talking to fellow support professionals who are in the trenches with businesses. I have also received a fair number of reader emails and have gone through some remote troubleshooting with a handful of readers.

My impression, based on 25 years of Windows troubleshooting experience, is that this release of Windows is above average in terms of reliability. But it's far from perfect, and Microsoft still has some serious work to do to get its update process under control.

If you'd prefer not to deal with update-related issues, you can and probably should wait to install the Anniversary Update. Based on experience with the initial Windows 10 launch (build 10240) and the version 1511 release, most issues that arose after the initial release in the first 60 days were resolved. That's the Windows 10 telemetry feature working as expected.

To delay the installation of the Anniversary Update, follow the instructions in this post. Note that you must be running Windows 10 Pro or Enterprise edition to do so. If you have a system running Windows 10 Home, you can currently upgrade to Pro using a product key from Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate or Windows 8/8.1 Pro. (Note that the option to upgrade using product keys from earlier editions might stop working at some future point, so I recommend that you do so sooner rather than later.)

Go to Settings > Update & Security > Activation, click Change Product Key, and type or paste the key. The upgrade takes only a few minutes

In the remainder of this post, I want to share some other tools, tips, and techniques I use for troubleshooting problems with Windows 10. I've used these tactics with desktop PCs, notebooks, hybrids, and tablets, and in most cases they've allowed me to find and fix the underlying problem.

(I've also put together a visual guide to Windows 10's built-in troubleshooting tools. See "Your Windows 10 troubleshooting and repair toolkit.")

Most of what's in this list is time-tested stuff, using tools that been evolving since the early days of Windows. There are some very cool new tools in Windows 10, though, which are worth finding.

Occasionally, the return on your troubleshooting investment simply isn't worth it. Rather than spend hours trying to track down some weird bug or software interaction, I use Windows 10's Reset option to perform the equivalent of a clean install. The process is quick and extremely robust, and the results allow you to get back to work much faster than the old-school "clean install from a Windows DVD" option. If you've already installed version 1607, this reset will give you a clean copy of 1607. To go back to the previous version, you'll need to use installation media you created before August 2, 2016.

If you're having problems, I recommend that you stay well clear of what I call "snake oil" solutions: registry cleaners and so-called performance optimizers that promise to work magic but usually cause more problems than they solve.

Also, be skeptical of solutions you read about in support forum threads. On the Reddit thread for the Anniversary Update freezing issue, for example, there are dozens of possible "solutions" available. If you're planning to try one or more of those options, do so one at a time. If a supposed fix doesn't work for you, undo the change, restart, and move on to the next.

Common problems

I'm assuming you've managed to upgrade and activate Windows 10 properly. Having cleared those hurdles, here are the most common problems people are likely to experience.

  • Nonresponsive shell. Windows 10 has a completely different shell than prior versions. The Explorer.exe process is still at its core, but there are a few additional components as well that make the "modern experience" possible. If you click the Start button and nothing happens, or if the entire taskbar refuses to respond to interaction, open Task Manager (press Ctrl+Shift+Escape), find Windows Explorer in the task list, and click the Restart button.
  • Performance issues There's nothing more frustrating than weird, unexplained slowdowns and hangs. For those times, use Task Manager's Performance tab and Resource Monitor to figure out which process is causing problems. In the first few hours or days after a major update, it's normal to see some background activity caused by indexing and backup.
  • Microsoft Edge Microsoft's new browser is greatly improved since the initial release in 2015. The biggest change is support for extensions, although the current list of available extensions is still limited. One change I recommend making is disabling Flash support, which you can do from the Settings menu (click View Advanced Settings, then slide Use Adobe Flash Player to the Off position.) If Edge doesn't work well on the sites you use most often, replace it with a different default browser.
  • OneDrive issues The OneDrive sync utility is also greatly improved from the initial release. The new universal sync client now supports OneDrive for Business, for example, although the promised support for placeholders still hasn't arrived. If you'd prefer to simply disable OneDrive, follow these instructions.
  • Store issues In the first few months after the initial release of Windows 10, I heard multiple complaints from people unable to access apps in the Windows Store. Most of those issues were on Microsoft's end and have been fixed by updates. If you're still experiencing issues, you might be able to fix things with the Wsreset command, which (as you might guess from the name) resets the Windows Store.
  • Issues with individual apps The new Universal Windows apps themselves can occasionally experience problems, such as apps that refuse to open or that crash with no explanation, either in the middle of a task or shortly after opening. I am hearing fewer reports of this type of issue lately, perhaps because of updates that fixed the underlying problem. For third-party apps, uninstalling and reinstalling the app sometimes works.

Some global fixes are worth mentioning here as well.

Even for brand-new hardware, it's worth checking for BIOS and firmware updates. Over the past year, I have seen BIOS updates work miracles on systems that were experiencing frustrating problems after the Windows 10 upgrade. It's worth checking with the manufacturer to see if a firmware update is available for your PC. If your BIOS date is before July 2015 and a newer version is available, this is a must.

Ideally, that's a check you want to make before upgrading.

Another troubleshooting step that's often worth the extra effort is to create a new user account expressly for troubleshooting purposes. If a Windows feature or an app is acting up under your existing account and it runs properly under the new account, you know that the problem is in that account profile, which means a full reset isn't necessary.

If basic troubleshooting doesn't work, I strongly recommend the Reset option, which does the equivalent of a clean install without the hassles associated with that option in earlier Windows versions. I've seen this option turn troublesome systems into well-behaved PCs, and the process of restoring apps and data is relatively quick, especially if your primary storage is in the cloud.

And there's always the option to roll back to your previous OS and wait for a few months. Troubleshooting is all well and good, but sometimes being productive means allowing someone else to be the pioneer.

A word of warning: The Anniversary Edition allows you to roll back for 10 days after the upgrade. That's a change from the previous release, which kept the earlier build around for 30 days. After the upgrade is complete, be sure to test all your hardware and third-party software before that deadline expires.

Questions? Send me a quick note: edbott@realworldwindows.com. I read every message and will address the most interesting ones in updates here.

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